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Columbia teacher wanted for kidnapping arrested in California

Jake Old • Apr 20, 2017 at 12:16 PM

The six-week search for a missing Columbia girl and her former high school teacher ended Thursday morning when authorities found them both in northern California.

Tad Cummins, a former Columbia teacher who was suspected of kidnapping Elizabeth Thomas, was arrested in a remote rural area in Siskiyou County, Calif., near the city of Cecilville. 

According to Jack Smith, acting U.S. District Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, Cummins will face federal charges for transporting a minor across state lines for the purpose of having sexual intercourse. Cummins previously faced misdemeanor charges for sexual contact with a minor.

Thomas, 15, disappeared March 13, and at the time, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation released an AMBER Alert. Cummins, 50, was announced as the primary suspect, and TBI officials worried they could have fled the country.

Authorities were alerted to the possibility that the two were in that area when a person called in a tip late Wednesday night to both the TBI’s tip line and the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office in California.

­The person who phoned in the tip apparently identified the silver Nissan Rogue that the TBI publicized as possibly being used by Cummins.

Cummins and Thomas were staying in a cabin in what Josh DeVine, public information officer for the TBI, described as a “very remote” area of northern California. According to deputies with the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office, the cabin was part of a community that had no access to electricity. The vehicle was seen near that cabin.

“Some good, honest citizen wanted to do the right thing and did the right thing,” by calling in the tip, said TBI Director Mark Gwyn.

After getting the tip, local law enforcement set up surveillance on the vehicle throughout the night Wednesday. The vehicle was positively matched thanks to the VIN number. Cummins was arrested Thursday morning and law enforcement officers safely recovered Thomas.

Cummins reportedly did not resist when he was arrested. According to Siskiyou County authorities, Cummins said “I’m glad this is over,” after his arrest. Thomas reportedly did not resist authorities either.

Officials with the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office said both Cummins and Thomas thanked the deputies for their professionalism through the ordeal.

The area where Cummins and Thomas were found was in a snowy location that was about a two-hour drive for the sheriff’s deputies who arrived, DeVine said.

“It was apparently a very large county,” DeVine said of the geographic size of the California county where the two people were found. “To give you an idea, it is about nine or 10 times the size of Maury County.”

About eight Siskiyou County sheriff’s deputies took part in the surveillance and takedown operation to recover Thomas and capture Cummins. They planned to lure Cummins out of the cabin using a neighbor who was to meet with Cummins later Thursday morning, then move in and get Thomas through the back of the cabin.

Officials said the goal was the separate the two people because they did not know if either were armed. A loaded handgun was later found in the cabin.

According to TBI officials, Thomas was in good health and had no obvious physical injuries.

Gwyn declined to comment on specifics of the case and the incident, as it is an ongoing investigation. TBI officials were en route to the location of the cabin on Thursday afternoon, Gwyn said during a press conference.

After arriving at the location, TBI agents would then investigate the scene where Cummins and Thomas were found to gather evidence. Gwyn said Thomas would be transported back to Tennessee via a private TBI plane.

The TBI received more than 1,500 tips during the six-week investigation.

“We mobilized a nation during these six weeks, and when you do that, something good most likely is going to happen, because you can’t hide from that many millions of people who are looking for you,” Gwyn said.

According to 22nd District Attorney Brent Cooper, who will be prosecuting the case, officials are happy to discover Thomas was unharmed physically, and she will have access to help for any mental or emotional distress she suffered during the ordeal.

“Not only do we look at her as a potential witness and victim, but also someone who, if she needs help, whatever help we can offer, we will provide it for her,” Cooper said.

Gwyn dismissed the notion that Thomas played a role in the kidnapping, or that she went willingly.

“We don’t want to get into the specifics of the investigation, but at the end of the day, she’s 15 years old,” Gwyn said. “She’s a young girl that’s with a grown man that’s 50 years old. He needs to be held accountable.”

Kay Thomas, older sister of Elizabeth Thomas, said the family was happy that Elizabeth Thomas was found safe.

 “We’re happy — we’re beyond ecstatic,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

Maury County Public Schools, where Elizabeth Thomas attended school and where Cummins formerly worked, released a statement after news broke Thursday morning that the two were found.

“The news of Elizabeth Thomas’ safe return is wonderful news for our community and now, we can begin healing as a community, school district and as families touched by the AMBER Alert,” the school district said in the statement. Further questions about the case were forwarded to the TBI.

Officials said they did not believe there would be charges against the owner of the cabin where Cummins and Thomas were found.

The school district fired Cummins in the wake of an ongoing investigation into alleged inappropriate contact he had with Thomas at the school earlier this year. Another student reported seeing Cummins kiss Thomas a month before the two went missing.

The AMBER Alert warned that Cummins could be armed with two handguns, though Siskiyou County officials later confirmed that a loaded handgun was found in the cabin.

The only other verified sighting during the investigation happened in late March, when a sighting was reported on surveillance video at a Walmart in Oklahoma just two days after Thomas went missing.  The video was discovered March 30, about two weeks after they were in the store.

On March 17, the TBI added Cummins to its list of the 10 most wanted people in the state of Tennessee.

Cooper said the next step will be making a case against Cummins to ensure justice is served for the alleged crimes.

“Now, it’s time to get to work,” Cooper said.

Cummins remains in California. He will be extradited to Tennessee to face charges, however that process could take weeks, according to Smith.

Gwyn said he wished to thank media outlets and citizens around the country for sharing the story and keeping it in the public eye for the duration of the investigation.

“To the public, I can’t say how thankful we are for your tips, your concern and your support in having made the difference in this six-week search,” Gwyn said. “As we have said from the start, it only takes one tip, and this is yet another example of the public helping to rescue a kidnapping victim.” 

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