COLUMBIA, Tenn. – A fugitive former teacher and the teenage student he abducted have been found in northern California after a six-week-long nationwide manhunt, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said Thursday.
Tad Cummins has been arrested and 15-year-old Elizabeth Thomas is safe, the agency said.
Cummins, 50, fled with Thomas from their small town of Culleoka, Tenn., on March 13. Authorities released surveillance video from March 15 that showed the pair at a Walmart in Oklahoma City but after that, then the trail went cold.
The two disappeared a few weeks after a student reported seeing Cummins and Thomas kissing in a classroom.
A break in the case came this week when a resident in northern California recognized the pair and called authorities in that state and in Tennessee, a spokesman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said.
Investigators followed that tip – one of about 1,500 tips reported to law enforcement in this case – to a “very remote, isolated area with no or limited cellphone service” in Siskiyou County, the spokesman said.
Deputies found a Nissan Rogue and using its VIN number, confirmed that vehicle to be the one Cummins was believed to be driving. They surveilled that car for several hours and as daylight broke on Thursday, took Cummins into custody without incident.
Investigators believe, though the information is preliminary, that Cummins and Thomas had been living in a cabin in that rural area for about a week and a half when they were found.
Cummins faces state charges of sexual contact with a minor and aggravated kidnapping, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said. He had been added to the state’s Most Wanted list.
A federal charge of transportation of a minor across state lines for the purpose of having criminal sexual intercourse has been filed against him. If convicted on that federal charge, Cummins faces at least 10 years in prison.
Officials from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the FBI and the Maury County Sheriff’s Department are heading to that small town in California. They will bring Thomas home on board TBI aircraft, though authorities did not say when she would be back with her family.
“She’s apparently healthy and unharmed,” a prosecutor said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “Now, the main concern is: how is she emotionally and mentally?”
The Tennessean reported that Anthony Thomas had filed court papers on behalf of his daughter saying the teen feared her teacher who allegedly threatened her with repercussions at school if she refused to go out with him for a meal.
The document said Thomas was “scared of Cummins and felt in over her head.”
The Associated Press and CNN contributed to this report.