April 24, 2017 07:28 PM

Authorities say a former Tennessee teacher and his alleged kidnapping victim, a 15-year-old female student, traveled through multiple states after vanishing from Tennessee in March — and one of the stops was at a commune in Northern California.

Jon Lopey, the sheriff in California’s Siskiyou County, told PEOPLE that Elizabeth and the 50-year-old Cummins had stayed in Black Bear Ranch for an unknown amount of time before moving on to a remote cabin in Cecilville, California, approximately 15-20 miles away.

It was in Cecilville that Elizabeth was recovered safe and Cummins was arrested last week, after they had been staying there for several days, authorities have said.

Lopey said Black Bear is a commune that was founded in the 1960s. He explained that Cummins was interested in it because “he was looking for refuge,” somewhere where he would be “less visible, because that’s a very remote location.”

The ranch draws people from across the United States and even overseas, Lopey said.

“A lot of these areas, there’s very little cell phone coverage and the Internet coverage and communications is very sparse,” he said, adding, “Cell phone use is very limited, so a lot of people that live in those areas [live] off the grid.”

“We don’t go out there very often unless we have a law enforcement purpose,” he said.

Black Bear Ranch in Siskiyou County, California
Google Maps

A Decades-Long History

The commune was created in 1968 as a “mountain fortress in the spirit of Che Guevara, where city activists would be able to come up, hide out, practice riflery and pistol shooting, have hand grenade practice, whatever,” according to Robert P. Sutton’s book Modern Day Communes: A Dictionary.

As the New York Times reported in 2006, “Elsa Marley, who established the commune with her husband, Richard, a former union organizer in New York, remembers that a dozen people were expected to live there, but 40 showed up, and the ranks quickly swelled to 100.”

The ranch’s motto was “Free Land for Free People,” according to the Times.

Lopey said Cummins and Elizabeth left the commune because “the chemistry wasn’t right and they didn’t hit it off with residents.”

Ranch officials said on their website that the pair “stayed for a few days until they were asked to leave.”

Because there is no access to news at the remote commune, residents had “no idea who this couple was, their ages or their history in relation to the charges that have now surfaced,” the website states.

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The ranch declined to specify what triggered the departure of Cummins and Elizabeth and said that residents would not give further interviews, but they noted Black Bear “does not condone the acts that Tad Cummins has been charged with nor does it condone these practices by anyone.”

PEOPLE could not reach Black Bear Ranch residents or representatives for comment.

Elizabeth Thomas
Tennessee Bureau of Investigations
Tad Cummins
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation

Cummins and Elizabeth disappeared from Maury County, Tennessee, on March 13 and were the subject of an ongoing AMBER Alert for more than a month.

They were discovered in a remote cabin in Cecilville, after a tipster saw the pair and contacted authorities on Wednesday night, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Cummins — who also faces multiple charges in California and Tennessee — appeared in federal court in Sacramento, California, on Monday afternoon. He faces one federal count of transporting a minor with the intent to engage in sexual activity across state lines.

He was detained as a flight risk and will be transported to Tennessee “as soon as possible,” a U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman said.

A Tennessee warrant was previously taken out for Cummins’ arrest on charges of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor, in connection with Elizabeth’s disappearance, authorities have said.

Prosecutors claim in court documents that Cummins eventually planned to escape to Mexico from California after fleeing from Tennessee with the girl.

He has not entered a plea to his charges. In a statement to PEOPLE, his attorney, federal public defender Benjamin Galloway, said Cummins has “no history of violence and no criminal history whatsoever.”

Galloway claimed his client did not coerce, force or threaten Elizabeth. (Tennessee authorities declined to comment on his statement.)

Cummins “surrendered without incident and has been cooperative with investigators,” Galloway said. “He looks forward to returning to Tennessee as soon as possible to answer the charges against him.”

A ‘Peaceful’ Place

Authorities said Cummins decided to move to Black Bear from Berkeley, which is more than 300 miles further south in California.

“It appears that he was in Berkley and he just felt he might be safe around that type of crowd, but he thought some of the people in Berkley — they scared him,” Sheriff Lopey said. “Some of the things they were doing scared him, and they decided to leave and then they heard about the commune.”

Black Bear adheres to certain guidelines and steers clear of “disruptive addictive habits,” such as drug and alcohol abuse, according to the Record Searchlight.

Important decisions are made by a three-quarters vote of current residents and at least five trustees, the paper reports. Important holidays for the commune are Thanksgiving and Summer Solstice.

As one local author described it to the paper, “It was just a peaceful … fairly well-organized place. These were not cult people.”

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