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Missing Tennessee girl found, teacher arrested after month-long search

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 20/04/2017 Natalie Neysa Alund , Dave Boucher and Stacey Barchenger

A former high school teacher wanted in connection with the disappearance of a Tennessee teen has been arrested in northern California and the girl he kidnapped has been found safe, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said Thursday.

The agency tweeted just before noon that Tad Cummins had been arrested and Elizabeth Thomas had been safely recovered.  A press release says the pair was found at a commune. A 4 p.m. ET press conference is scheduled in Nashville, the bureau later tweeted. 

The duo has been sought since March, when an Amber Alert was issued. Cummins was Elizabeth's 50-year-old high-school teacher at Culleoka Unit School in Maury County, Tenn.

Elizabeth Thomas, 15, was last seen March 13, 2017. Authorities believe her teacher Tad Cummins, 50, kidnapped her from Maury County, Tenn. © Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Elizabeth Thomas, 15, was last seen March 13, 2017. Authorities believe her teacher Tad Cummins, 50, kidnapped her from Maury County, Tenn.

“Our intelligence analysts and agents have worked tirelessly since issuing this AMBER Alert to process more than 1,500 leads from all 50 states,” TBI Director Mark Gwyn said in a statement. “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.”

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.

Siskiyou County Sheriff's Offices spokeswoman Kelly Giordano said earlier Thursday that Cummins' vehicle was found in their jurisdiction Wednesday night. The county is in a remote area near the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, about three hours northwest of Redding, Ca.

Authorities issued an Amber Alert for Thomas 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 the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation 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."

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