After more than five weeks of searching, missing Tennessee teenager Elizabeth Thomas was found safe in Northern California on Thursday. The man accused of abducting her, former teacher Tad Cummins, was arrested.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation first announced the news on Twitter on Thursday. Authorities provided more details about how the two individuals were found at a press conference later that afternoon in Nashville.
They said that on Wednesday night, a caller to the bureau’s tip line had reported a possible sighting of Cummins’ vehicle near a cabin in a “very remote, isolated” area of Siskiyou County, California, which lies along the Oregon border. The Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that the vehicle was registered to Cummins and placed it under surveillance.
On Thursday morning, deputies found Elizabeth and arrested Cummins. It was not made clear at the press conference if the two individuals were inside the cabin or in a driveway when authorities made contact with them.
“Elizabeth Thomas is a beautiful 15-year-old girl,” said Mark Gwyn, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. “She’s loved by her friends and family. This afternoon we couldn’t be happier to tell you she will soon be on her way back home to Tennessee. ... This is yet another example of the value of the public helping us to rescue a kidnapping victim.”
Gwyn said Thomas, 50, is facing charges “that could keep him behind bars for many years.”
In addition to the state charges, which include aggravated kidnap and sexual contact with a minor, the 50-year-old former teacher faces federal prosecution.
“Earlier today my office filed federal charges against the defendant in this case,” said acting U.S. Attorney Jack Smith of the Middle District of Tennessee. “He is charged with transportation of a minor across state lines for the purpose of having criminal sexual intercourse. He will face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years on those charges and possibly quite longer.”
Brent Cooper, the district attorney general for Maury County, Tennessee, said authorities in California have told him that Elizabeth is healthy and unharmed. Authorities are working to reunite the girl with her family, who lives in Columbia, Tennessee.
“Whatever help we can offer, we can make sure that is available,” Cooper said.
Investigators, citing the girl’s age, declined to release additional details in the case.
“It’s now time for the prosecution to get to work,” Cooper said.
Authorities had issued an Amber Alert for Elizabeth after her parents reported her missing on March 13. At that time, authorities said they suspected Cummins, the girl’s former teacher, had abducted her.
Prior to Elizabeth’s disappearance, Cummins had been suspended from his job as a health sciences teacher for allegedly inappropriate contact with her. Another student at Culleoka Unit School reported seeing Cummins kiss the girl on the lips in January. When school officials questioned Elizabeth about the incident, she allegedly denied that it happened.
“The 50-year-old may have been abusing his role as a teacher to groom this vulnerable young girl for some time in an effort to lure and potentially sexually exploit her,” the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said in a March press release.
School officials have been criticized for waiting until February to suspend Cummins. He was only formally dismissed the day after Elizabeth went missing.
Prior to Cummins’ capture, Cooper, the district attorney general, had already filed multiple charges against him. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had also put Cummins on its Top 10 Most Wanted list and offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to his capture.
This story has been updated with information from law enforcement’s Thursday afternoon press conference.
CORRECTION: Siskiyou County, California, lies along the Oregon border, not 120 miles from it.