Missing 15-year-old Tennessee girl Elizabeth Thomas found safe

A middle-Tennessee teen missing since March has been found safe in northern California and her accused abductor is in police custody. (4/20/17 1:45 p.m.)

Former Middle Tennessee teacher Tad Cummins has been arrested in northern California and Elizabeth Thomas, the 15-year-old girl authorities say he kidnapped, is safe, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Just before noon, the TBI confirmed Cummins had been arrested and the girl was safe. Authorities say the pair was found at a cabin in Cecilville, which is about 120 miles south of the Oregon state line. They had been staying in a rural area about a week and a half, authorities said.

At a 3 p.m. press conference in Nashville, District Attorney Brent Cooper said, "There is more work to do to build a case for prosecution." Few details were available during the press conference about the cabin where the two were found and ​TBI agents are flying to the site to investigate and gather evidence.

U.S. Attorney Jack Smith said a federal charge has been filed against Cummins. "He is charged with transportation of a minor across state lines for the purpose of sexual intercourse," Smith said.

Elizabeth was found healthy and unharmed, but officers do not know her mental condition. She will fly back to Tennessee on a TBI aircraft and her family is awaiting her arrival, authorities said.

"Our main concern now is how is she emotionally," Cooper said. "Whether she was 'brainwashed or went willingly'? We don't know what the situation is yet."

The duo has been sought since March, when an Amber Alert was issued. They were found almost six weeks later and nearly 2,500 miles from Tennessee.

Cummins was Elizabeth's 50-year-old high-school teacher at Culleoka Unit School in Maury County, Tenn.

"We mobilized a nation in the last six weeks," said Mark Gwyn, TBI director. "When you do that, something good is going to happen because you can’t hide from millions of people."

The Cecilville cabin is located in Siskiyou County, the fifth-largest by area in California and is 10 times the size of Maury County. It is a remote area more than half covered by national forests and state lands on the California-Oregon state line. About 45,000 people live there, according to the U.S. Census.

The two were found hours after a 11 p.m. tip from a California man who said he spotted the car the two were said to be traveling in, authorities said. When sheriff's deputies arrived, they kept surveillance on the car for several hours.

At daylight they arrested Cummins and rescued Elizabeth.

"It took only one tip," said TBI Director Gwyn.

Officers ran down more than 1,500 leads and put in countless hours during the search for her, he said.

"We mobilized a nation in the last six weeks," Gwyn said. "When you do that, something good is going to happen because you can’t hide from millions of people."

Cummins is in custody in a California jail without bond, awaiting extradition to Tennessee to face charges of sexual contact with a minor and aggravated kidnapping, according to TBI.

Earlier, authorities in California said the pair were found at a commune, but those reports were incorrect.

Authorities issued an Amber Alert for Elizabeth of Columbia, Tenn., after her parents reported her missing March 13.

Rep. Sheila Butt, a Republican state lawmaker who represents Columbia, said Thursday was a great day for her community.

“When something like this happens, a community gets together and feels like this is one of our children,” Butt said.

“This just feels like our prayers have been answered, and the lost sheep is home.”

She said she’s proud of her community, and is confident local officials will find a way to learn from this entire ordeal.

“I have known Tad Cummins over the years, and I think I could honestly tell you that I’m not surprised that she’s safe. I will let the courts deal with the ramifications of what happened here,” Butt said.

A suspected kidnapping like this is a rarity in Columbia, said Mayor Dean Dickey.

"The longer it carries on, you seem to expect the worst," Dickey said. "With the information that I have seen, and that is on Facebook, I’m glad to see that she is unharmed, as far as we know now. What happens to Tad will just have to come later."

A warrant was issued for Cummins' arrest after TBI suggested he "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."

Maury County Public Schools, in a Thursday news statement, thanked law enforcement for the safe conclusion of the case.

“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. Thanks go to all who have kept the message of finding Elizabeth Thomas and working on her safe return as top-of-mind throughout the nation,” the statement said.


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