CECILVILLE, Calif. - A 15-year-old Tennessee girl who disappeared with her teacher more than a month ago was found safe at a commune in California and the teacher was arrested, authorities said Thursday.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said 50-year-old Tad Cummins surrendered without incident in Cecilville, which is in northern California. Authorities said they found Cummins' Nissan Rogue and later located the pair. The agency said it planned a news conference for 4 p.m. EDT to release more details.
NEWS ALERT: Tad Cummins is under arrest and Elizabeth Thomas has been safely recovered in Northern California. More details soon! pic.twitter.com/QezSERDzHV
The pair's disappearance March 13 came after Cummins was investigated by the school system when another student reported seeing the then-married teacher kiss the girl at the Culleoka Unit School. Culleoka is a community about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Nashville near the Alabama state line.
"We're so happy that California police worked quickly and were able to find them and get her safe," one of the girl's sisters told The Tennessean.
"I believe the FBI are going to make sure she's healthy before she comes home," she said. "We'll make sure she'll get what therapy she needs and that she's safe, that she knows she's safe."
Police had previously issued an Amber alert for the girl and said they had warrants charging the health sciences teacher with sexual contact with a minor and aggravated kidnapping. The Associated Press is not naming the girl or her family members because she is an alleged victim of a sex crime.
Court papers filed recently in the girl's disappearance said she was afraid of the teacher and thought she would face repercussions at school if she resisted him.
A lawyer for the girl's family has said the teacher was allowed to continue working at the school for two weeks after he was reported kissing the student. Attorney Jason Whatley has said the school system must have not believed the student's report.
The school's investigative files provided to The Associated Press by the attorney show that both Cummins and the girl denied kissing. The teacher, however, acknowledged that the girl was "a really good friend and she does leave her other classes to come see him when she needs someone to calm her down," according to a school report dated Jan. 30.
The report recommended that the girl be taken out of Cummins' class and that he be reprimanded to uphold his professional responsibility. The report also recommended that the administration monitor Cummins' classroom to make sure students weren't there when they weren't supposed to be.
The teacher would later be reprimanded on Feb. 3 by school principal Penny Love after the girl was seen in Cummins classroom for a little more than half an hour that day. In her letter, Love said the girl being in his classroom was a violation of the principal's order to him.
The school system didn't suspend Cummins until Feb. 6. He was fired about a month later, a day after the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation issued an Amber Alert about the teen.
The agency said it worked tirelessly for the past five weeks, investigating more than 1,500 leads from all 50 states. Two days after the girl disappeared, surveillance images from a Walmart in Oklahoma City showed Cummins and the girl purchasing food items in the store with cash, the agency said. The statement said the images captured showed Cummins had altered his hair to appear darker and the girl's hair may have changed to red.
Last month, the teacher's wife of 31 years filed for divorce. Court records show that Jill Cummins sued her then-missing husband on the grounds of irreconcilable differences and inappropriate marital conduct. The wife, who works for the Maury County school system, said she had not seen her husband since March 13. The couple has two children together.
Siskiyou County Sheriff's spokeswoman Kelly Giordano did not immediately return a call for comment.
Cummins, a 50-year-old married father and grandfather, was wanted on allegations of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor. An Amber Alert had been issued for Thomas.