The Siskiyou County sheriff says he encountered an emotional scene indicative of Tad Cummins' alleged "grooming" of Elizabeth Thomas
As California authorities arrested a former Tennessee teacher last week for allegedly kidnapping his teenage female student, they say they witnessed some of the “grooming” behavior to which the girl was allegedly subjected by the accused “sexual predator.”
The pair had vanished from Maury County, Tennessee, on March 13 and been the subject of an ongoing AMBER Alert before Cummins was arrested and Elizabeth was safely recovered. (Cummins was fired from his job after he and the teen went missing.)
Siskiyou County, California, Sheriff Jon Lopey tells PEOPLE that early in authorities’ interactions with the pair, they were mostly kept separate — but at one point, they sat at a picnic table together and talked.
“There were a couple of times she giggled, she giggled and cried, and at times they were serious,” he recalls. “I’m sure the emotions were escalating and deflating with each moment.”
Lopey adds, “They seemed to comfort each other. She got emotional with crying and he attempted to comfort her, and then when we had to take her away, [it] seemed to be somewhat emotionally difficult for her.”
“We recognized that she had been traumatized,” Lopey says.
He says investigators found a single sleeping pad in the remote cabin where Cummins and Elizabeth were found. He echoes other law enforcement officials who have disputed the idea that Elizabeth might have gone willingly with Cummins.
“I don’t think a 15-year-old is in a position to consent with a 50-year-old,” he says. “I think she’s a victim, and no matter what her thought process was, she’s a victim and he’s a sexual predator.”
“Obviously she had opportunities to leave or escape,” he adds. “But he’s a domineering figure, and they appeared to be operating together in an effort to remain undetected.”
According to authorities, Elizabeth’s “emotions kind of fluctuated” while she spoke with them.
“At times she was emotionally crying, sometimes she was stoic, sometimes she would engage in conversation — but most of the time she was silent,” Lopey says.
He says Elizabeth had been collecting rocks from the places where she and Cummins had allegedly traveled (prosecutors claim they moved through nine states) and that she asked authorities if she could keep them — for sentimental reasons.
She was reunited with her family in Tennessee on Friday, after Cummins’ arrest, in a “tearful” return that her older brother James Thomas also described as “amazing.”
Speaking to PEOPLE, James sounded similar concerns as Sheriff Lopey about his sister’s relationship to Cummins.
“She was taken from her family by a 50-year-old man, whether she was coerced or not and everything is … well, I believe the coercion,” James said. “I don’t believe it was her idea. It was more him putting ideas [in her head].”
“The easiest way to manipulate somebody is to make it their choice, make them come up with the plans,” he continued. “You make them [say], ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ You just kind of lure them into doing that. If it’s their plan, they’re more likely behind it than if you went, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ ”
According to Lopey, authorities allegedly found two loaded handguns in the cabin.
He says another law enforcement official told him that Cummins allegedly said, “I’m glad this is over.”
He adds that Cummins told him, “I just want to compliment you on the professionalism of your department.”
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
According to Lopey, Cummins seemed calm after being found and allegedly said, “I don’t care about my stuff. My main concern is taking care of [Elizabeth].”
Elizabeth and Cummins were both wearing “casual clothing,” Lopey says. He confirms the account of Griffin Barry — the man who set the pair up in the cabin and later reported them to authorities after becoming suspicious, and who said they were allegedly using the names “John” and “Joanna.”
According to Lopey, Cummins allegedly “elaborated on some techniques and procedures he was using … to avoid detection,” such as paying with cash instead of credit cards and using license plates from numerous states, including Alabama and Colorado.
Lopey says Cummins and Elizabeth were in the Northern California area for approximately a week and that they had spent nights in other locations before coming to the cabin where they were finally found.
He says the pair spent an unknown amount of time at the Black Bear Ranch, which is about 15-20 miles from their Cecilville cabin. Lopey describes it as a commune dating back to the 1960s that attracts people from across the United States and even overseas.
Lopey says Cummins was allegedly interested in the ranch because “he was looking for refuge and association with that type of crowd, where he would be accepted and less visible, because that’s a very remote location.”
Ranch officials said on their website that Cummins and Elizabeth arrived there “having had no previous contact with Black Bear and stayed for a few days until they were asked to leave.”
They declined to specify what triggered the departure and said they would not give more 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.”
Prior to coming to the commune, Cummins and Elizabeth allegedly spent time in Berkeley, California, about 340 miles south of Cecilville. But according to Lopey, they were surrounded there by “a counter-culture subset of residents and transient people,” and these people made Cummins uncomfortable.
“They scared him,” Lopey says. “Some of the things they were doing scared him and they decided to leave, and then they heard about the commune and thought, ‘Gee, why don’t we go there?’ “
Cummins faces multiple charges in Tennessee and California, including aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor, as well as a federal charge, authorities have said.
He is being held in the Sacramento County Jail in California and will be arraigned on Monday afternoon. It is unclear if he has an attorney.