Tennessee teacher accused of kidnapping girl arrested in California

 cnn.com  4/20/2017 7:00:21 PM   Holly Yan and AnneClaire Stapleton, CNN
Elizabeth Thomas and Tad Cummins
  • "I've been telling people all along she's in a commune," the girl's sister says
  • Tad Cummins and his student Elizabeth Thomas disappeared March 13

(CNN)After five weeks on the run, a Tennessee teacher who kidnapped and fled with his 15-year-old student has been arrested in California, authorities said.

The student, Elizabeth Thomas, was found safe in a commune in Cecilville, near the Oregon border, her sister Kat Thomas said Thursday.

"There aren't words in the English language to describe the level of relief and elation experienced by the Thomas family," said Jason Whatley, the family's attorney. "Now begins another hard chapter, but for now, we celebrate."

Tad Cummins, 50, fled with Elizabeth from their small town of Culleoka, Tennessee, on March 13. They disappeared a few weeks after a student reported seeing Cummins and Elizabeth kissing in a classroom.

Surveillance video showed the pair at a Walmart in Oklahoma City on March 15. But after that, the trail went cold.

The break came when someone spotted Cummins' Nissan Rogue in a remote part of Siskiyou County, California -- more than 2,000 miles from Culleoka, Tennessee.

"Someone called that tip in, and undoubtedly they had seen media reports of this abduction," Whatley said. "So they called this in to the TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) hot line. It worked exactly they way it was supposed to work."

But the area was so remote, "it took law enforcement two hours to drive from their sheriff's department."

A quirk in the law

Cummins faces charges of sexual contact with a minor and aggravated kidnapping, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said last month.

But Tennessee law allows children older than 12 to decide whether to leave their families, unless their removal or confinement "is accomplished by force, threat or fraud."

That means to prove a kidnapping took place, prosecutors will have to show Elizabeth was unlawfully removed or had her freedom restricted.

Estranged wife speaks out

Cummins' estranged wife, Jill Cummins, was "very emotional" when she learned both were found safe, her attorney Michael Cox said.

"She is excited that they were found and nobody was hurt," Cox said. "She has not spoken to Tad."

Jill Cummins had filed for divorce, saying she felt betrayed by her husband. She had no idea why her husband went to Northern California.

"This is not somewhere they had frequently visited," her attorney said. "I'm not aware that they had ever been there."

But the student's sister said she had always suspected Tad Cummins and Elizabeth were staying in a remote commune.

"I've been telling people all along she's in a commune," Kat Thomas said. "No one recognizes them, and they just hide out like normal people."

Journalist Burt Staggs, CNN's Roxanne Garcia and Eliott McLaughlin, and HLN's Mike Galanos contributed to this report.

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