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.
A 2,000-mile escape
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.”
Wife of Tennessee teacher accused in abduction: 'He's totally betrayed me'
Jill Cummins, the wife of the man accused of abducting a 15-year-old student, says she still loves her husband but she can't trust him now.
"It's very selfish of him to have done this to us," she told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Friday. "I do love him, but I don't trust him anymore. He's totally betrayed me."
The comments came a month after police say Cummins absconded with his student Elizabeth Thomas from their small town of Culleoka, Tennessee. Authorities released surveillance video from March 15 that shows the pair at a Walmart in Oklahoma City, but otherwise their trail has gone cold.
The two disappeared March 13, weeks after a student reported seeing Cummins and Elizabeth kissing in a classroom. Cummins faces charges of sexual contact with a minor and aggravated kidnapping, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and he has been added to the state's Most Wanted list.
Jill Cummins filed for divorce several weeks ago, citing irreconcilable differences and alleging that her husband was "guilty of inappropriate marital conduct."
She said Friday that she found out he was leaving when she found a note at home.
"It's kind of like a death because the Tad I knew is gone," she said.
Authorities have said Tad Cummins searched online about teen marriage, and that he and Elizabeth had exchanged romantic messages using the draft folder of his email.
Jill Cummins said she believes her husband left because "he was so ashamed" and didn't want to face the consequences.
"I forgive him and I still love him, but it doesn't mean that I could ever trust him again," she said. "Because he betrayed my trust to the point that it's totally broken."
Journalist Burt Staggs, CNN's Roxanne Garcia and Eliott McLaughlin, and HLN's Mike Galanos contributed to this report.