Now the 40 or so members of the Black Bear Ranch intentional community in Siskiyou County are reeling from the deception and looking at ways to prevent repeat incidents, spokeswoman Karuna Greenberg said in a statement.
Missing teen Elizabeth Thomas, 15, of Culleoka, Tenn., and her one-time health science teacher, Tad Cummins, 50, of Columbia, Tenn., showed up unexpectedly April 6 calling themselves Joanna and John, ages 22 and 44. Greenberg said the ranch welcomed the couple though unexpected visitors are discouraged.
“While at the ranch they spun a convincing story that we now know to be false,” Greenburg said.
The ranch has no newspaper delivery nor Internet service, so residents didn’t know about the manhunt for Cummins nor the Amber alert issued March 13 for Elizabeth, the ranch spokeswoman said. The two disappeared as the Maury County school board were conducting an investigation into their relationship after a student spotted the two kissing at Culleoka Unit School, about 10 miles southeast of Columbia.
By April 17, “these two visitors were told they were not a fit with the ranch and were asked to leave,” Greenburg said.
Siskiyou County sheriff’s deputies found Cummins and Elizabeth three days later after a tip from Cecilville, Calif. The caretaker of a remote cabin and his neighbor thought Cummins, who said he lost everything in a fire in Colorado and needed a place to stay, was acting a bit strange, so they told the sheriff; they had seen an article on the Internet about the search.
Cecilville is less than 10 miles southeast of the ranch as the crow files, but the mountain roads are so winding that it would take more than an hour to get to the community, which has fewer than two dozen residents. Black Bear Ranch is also less than 10 miles east of Forks of Salmon, Calif., its official mailing address and nearest post office, but residents need more than an hour to get to that town of fewer than 200 people.
Cellphone service at both the ranch and the remote cabin where Cummins and Elizabeth were found is spotty at best and generally nonexistent, authorities say.
“We were shocked to learn they were actually a fugitive teacher from Tennessee and his allegedly captive student, on the run from law enforcement,” Greenberg said. “We are extremely glad that Cummins was caught, and hope that Elizabeth Thomas can begin to heal from this terrible incident.”
Black Bear Ranch is evaluating its open-door policy and has decided to stop accepting visitors until it makes a thorough review of its practices, Greenburg said.
“Black Bear is committed to equality, safety, and nonviolence,” Greenberg said. “We stand firmly and explicitly against all forms of exploitation. We do not harbor fugitives, runaways or known criminals.”
The commune was established in 1968 when Richard Marley came from San Francisco with 30 friends and converted a former gold mine into an off-the-grid community.
Investigators have not said how Cummins came to know about Black Bear Ranch, but another longtime commune called The Farm is located less than 30 miles from Columbia near Summertown, Tenn. It was established in 1971.