Missing Tenn. student found, former teacher arrested in California

CECILVILLE, Calif. (WKRN) – The former Tennessee teacher accused of kidnapping a 15-year-old student was arrested Thursday at a northern California commune.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced Tad Cummins, 50, was taken into custody and Elizabeth Thomas was safely rescued in Cecilville, California. Cecilville is located in Siskiyou County, which borders the state of Oregon.

The TBI says they received a tip late Wednesday night and notified authorities in California, who rescued the teenager early Thursday morning.

The Nissan Rogue the two were travelling in was also located Thursday with the license plate removed. It was verified to belong to Cummins through its VIN number, according to the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office.

Cummins surrendered without incident, according to the TBI. Thomas was subsequently recovered by officers, and efforts to reunite her with her family are ongoing.

The two vanished from Columbia, Tennessee, on March 13. An AMBER Alert was issued across the state of Tennessee the following day, and Cummins was added to the TBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted list on March 17.

The former teacher is charged with aggravated kidnapping in the AMBER Alert case and also faces one count of sexual contact with a minor after he allegedly kissed Thomas at school earlier this year in late January.

“Our Intelligence Analysts and Agents have worked tirelessly since issuing this AMBER Alert to process more than 1,500 leads from all 50 states,” said TBI Director Mark Gwyn. “What happened in California this morning, however, proves it only takes one person to lead to a successful end. We are extremely thankful the hard work of all partners in this search has paid off. We’re also grateful for the public’s support and vigilance throughout this search effort.”

As of 1 p.m. Thursday, Cummins remained in the custody of the Siskiyou County jail where he’s being held without bond, awaiting extradition to Tennessee.

A mug shot was not immediately released.

News 2 spoke with one of Thomas’ sisters early Thursday afternoon. Kat Bozeman said the Federal Bureau of Investigation told them Thomas was taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation. The TBI also reportedly said Thomas appears to be healthy and safe.

Bozeman also told News 2 the family is absolutely elated she was found, and federal agents said it would be about a day before they can see the 15-year-old again.

Maury County Schools, where Cummins taught until he was fired the day after he disappeared with Thomas, released a statement on the conclusion of the case.

School officials said 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 statement continued, “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 efforts of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Maury County Sheriff’s Office, nationwide law enforcement community and media outlets promoting awareness of this case have brought us to this safe conclusion, and Maury County Public Schools wants to thank these many professionals for the good news today.”

While the TBI said they were found at a commune, they have not confirmed which one.

According to News 2’s ABC-affiliate KDRV-TV, the pair had stayed at the Black Bear Ranch in Cecilville for at least two days while in northern California. KDRV reports Cummins and Thomas were going by different names and a member of Black Bear asked them to leave. The reason why wasn’t immediately known.

According to their website, Black Bear Ranch was founded in 1968 by people who wanted to “get back to the land, get out of the city, and start a new life together in the mountains.”

The commune outlines “traditional guidelines” they say must be followed by anyone who stays or visits the ranch for longer than one week.

It appears to operate through “Circles,” or meetings, where group decisions are made. Residents are required to have a Circle at least once a week to raise any concerns, money issues, resolve conflicts, share ideas, or “just to check in and see how we feel.”

Each member is required to put in work help maintaining the existence of the commune for at least 3 hours a day, 6 days a week. Everyone is also required to give $3 a day to the ranch at a minimum, which goes into the “Ranch fund.” The use of those funds is then discussed in the weekly Circles.

Click here to read more of the Black Bear Ranch’s guidelines.

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