Editor’s note: This story was originally published on March 22, 2017. On Thursday, Tennessee investigators announced Tad Cummins and Elizabeth Thomas had been found safe in Northern California. Cummins was arrested.
When missing freshman Elizabeth Thomas first met teacher Tad Cummins at the Culleoka Unit High School in Maury County, Tennessee, she got a creepy impression, her older sister reveals to PEOPLE.
Sarah Thomas says she was with her 15-year-old sister when they first met Cummins at the start of the school year. Sarah says the 50-year-old Cummins allegedly rubbed their shoulders and ran his hands on both of their backs.
“Elizabeth looked at me with her eyes, like, ‘This guy is scary, get this guy off,’ ” Sarah recalls.
Authorities suspect Cummins, a former health teacher who was recently fired over accusations about his relationship to Elizabeth, abducted her.
A warrant has been issued for his arrest on charges of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor. The latter charge stems from an alleged kiss between Cummins and Thomas on Jan. 23, on school property, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
According to Sarah, Elizabeth grew close to Cummins because she was interested in the medical field and looked at her teacher as a mentor.
“It just so happened that she wanted to do the things he was claiming [he did], so she probably idolized [him],” Sarah says. “He took that interest to kind of manipulate, to gain control over her, to gain her favor.”
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Elizabeth was at a vulnerable point coming into the 2016-2017 school year because she had been bullied the year before, Sarah says. Last year was Elizabeth’s first in the public school system after being homeschooled until eighth grade.
“She said months before that she had to get out of here, we have to get out of here, [and] I can’t take this,” Sarah remembers.
Elizabeth’s father, Anthony, told PEOPLE Cummins “built up a system where she was dependent on him.”
According to Anthony, Cummins helped Elizabeth with homework and “[gave] her money, bought a microwave so she would heat food up in his room [and] try and get her out of trouble.”
After the alleged kiss between the teen and Cummins, Anthony says he confronted his daughter, but she denied it had occurred. Worried, he told her not to contact Cummins again.
Family members allege Cummins exerted an ever-increasing psychological control over Thomas — all of which occurred under their noses.
Her brother, 27-year-old James Thomas, tells PEOPLE, “He pretty much controlled every aspect of what she believed she could do and couldn’t do… that to me is terrifying, [that] he had that much control over her without anyone knowing.”
Authorities allege Cummins is likely keeping Elizabeth “off the grid” and they’ve urge the public to search their properties, local campgrounds, rural areas and parking garages.
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The TBI asks anyone who believes they spot Cummins or Elizabeth to not approach them and instead keep an eye on them while calling 911.
The teen was last seen wearing a flannel shirt and black leggings. She is 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 120 lbs., with blonde hair and hazel eyes.
Cummins was seen driving a Silver Nissan Rogue with Tennessee license plate 976ZPT, according to the TBI. He is 6 feet tall and weighs 200 lbs., with brown hair and eyes.
Anyone with information on Cummins or Elizabeth should call the TBI at 1-800-TBI-FIND.