YREKA, California — Tad Cummins was an intensely sought fugitive, trumpeted from coast to coast as the Tennessee teacher accused of running off with his 15-year-old student.
But before his capture this week, he and the young woman he called his wife slipped into a remote Northern California community unrecognized and Cummins passed himself off for days as a down-on-his luck Colorado man who’d just lost his job and home, according to the man who eventually tipped off police.
Cummins was arrested — and the girl was found safe — Thursday outside a cabin in Cecilville, California, ending a 39-day hunt for the teen who was reported missing some 1,900 miles away in her hometown south of Nashville.
The former teacher is due in a California court Friday, facing federal and state charges stemming from her disappearance. The girl is expected to be returned to relatives in Tennessee Friday, her family says.
The two spent at least one night in the cabin, police say. But they’d been in the heavily wooded area 60 miles south of the Oregon line since at least last week, according to Griffin Barry, the man who says he eventually helped police capture Cummins.
Cummins and the teen arrived at a Cecilville-area gas station last week, apparently on their way to visit a commune, Barry told CNN affiliate KDRV.
Cummins, 50, told Barry he was 44, and that the teen was his 22-year-old wife, Barry told CNN affiliate KRCR.
“He was saying he was from Colorado. He said he had a house fire and he got fired from his job, and he had his last $10 or whatever,” Barry told KRCR. “I gave him $40 and put gas in his tank.”
The pair went to the commune but returned to the gas station Tuesday, apparently having been turned away, Barry told KDRV.
Barry said he offered Cummins work — moving rocks — and a place to stay: a small cabin for which Barry was the caretaker.
But Barry said he eventually became suspicious, noting that Cummins was driving a Nissan Rogue without any license plates, and that Cummins’ companion spoke few words for herself, he told KRCR and CNN affiliate KOBI.
As he discussed and researched the pair with someone, Barry saw Cummins’ picture online in an urgent Amber Alert widely distributed by authorities.
He called police Wednesday night, KRCR reported, and authorities asked the caretaker to help them capture Cummins.
Thursday morning, Barry asked Cummins to come outside and help him build a rock wall on the property. When Cummins left the cabin, investigators were there to arrest him, the cabin’s owner, Monk O’Hare, told CNN.
Siskiyou County sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Gilley confirmed that his team worked with a neighbor to draw Cummins out of the cabin. Cummins was taken into custody. Elizabeth was walking behind him and was detained.
“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 attorney for the girl’s family. “Now begins another hard chapter, but for now, we celebrate.”
‘It only takes one tip’
Cummins and the girl disappeared March 13 as a police investigation into their relationship was heating up.
A high school health sciences teacher in the Tennessee town of Culleoka, Cummins had been suspended in February, less than a month after a student reported seeing him and the 15-year-old kissing in a classroom.
Surveillance video showed the pair at a Walmart in Oklahoma City on March 15. But after that, the trail went cold.
After the capture, Cummins was charged with one federal count of transportation of a minor across state lines for the purpose of criminal sexual intercourse, said Jack Smith, acting US attorney for Middle District of Tennessee. The charge carries a minimum of 10 years.
He also faces state charges of sexual contact with a minor and aggravated kidnapping, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said last month.
The girl is in federal custody and arrangements are being made for her return home.
The main concern is for her emotional well-being, TBI Director Mark Gwyn said.
“As we have said from the start, it only takes one tip,” Gwyn said. “This is yet another example of the value of the public helping us to rescue a kidnapping victim.”
Gilley described her condition as alternating between “stoic” and “emotional,” understandable given the circumstances, he said.
“It was a very traumatic experience for her. Her mood was very alternating,” he said. “The two obviously have a relationship … her response to us and to law enforcement escalated up and down.”
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 already 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.”