May 10, 2017 01:24 PM

Tad Cummins, the former high school teacher charged with kidnapping and sex crimes against his 15-year-old student, asked for a public defender during an appearance in a federal court on Tuesday, PEOPLE confirms.

Tuesday’s hearing in Nashville was the 50-year-old‘s first court appearance after being extradited to Tennessee from California, where he and Elizabeth Thomas were found by authorities after a nationwide manhunt that lasted five weeks.

As he walked into the courtroom, Cummins mouthed “I love you” to his sister and two daughters, a court official tells PEOPLE.

Cummins’ estranged wife, Jill Cummins, who filed for divorce and recently put their home up for sale, was not in attendance.

During the hearing, Cummins affirmed he wanted a public defender because he could not afford a private attorney, the official said.

Cummins faces one count of transporting a minor across state lines with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. Cummins also faces state charges in Maury County, Tennessee, where he allegedly abducted Elizabeth after months of “grooming” her.

If convinced, Cummins faces a minimum of 10 years to life in prison.

When asked by the Magistrate judge if he understood the charge, Cummins replied, “Yes m’am.”

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Cummins was arrested on April 20, when he and Elizabeth were found living “off the grid” in Northern California. Elizabeth, who returned to Tennessee the following day, is currently receiving counseling at an undisclosed location.

Prior to his capture, Tennessee authorities issued a warrant for Cummins’ arrest on charges of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor — the latter charge stemming from an incident in which he allegedly kissed Elizabeth at the Culleoka Unit School, where Cummins was Elizabeth’s health sciences teacher.

He also faces charges in California for alleged possession of stolen property and kidnapping.

Cummins’ public defender in California, Benjamin Galloway, issued a statement defending his client, claiming he has “no history of violence and no criminal history whatsoever,” and that he didn’t coerce, force or threaten Elizabeth, Cummins’ former student at the Culleoka Unit School in Maury County, Tennessee.

The Thomas family attorney, Jason Whatley has said any suggestion that Elizabeth might have gone willingly is “amazingly absurd.”

“This is classic grooming and manipulation,” he adds. “And I predict this case will be studied years in the future about how authority figures like Tad Cummins can mess up young children who believe their lies and are manipulated into doing things they would never do.”


Cummins is scheduled to appear in court on Friday afternoon.

Elizabeth’s sister, Kat Bozeman, tells PEOPLE, “We’re doing good,” adding, “Elizabeth receiving treatment and we’re just hoping to get this court stuff behind us quickly so we can get back to a new normal.”

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