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Elizabeth Thomas Had 'Scary' First Meeting with Tad Cummins
When Elizabeth Thomas first met health sciences teacher Tad Cummins at the Culleoka Unit High School in Maury County, Tennessee, she got a creepy impression, one of her sisters told PEOPLE.
Sarah Thomas said she was with Elizabeth, then 15 years old, when they first met Cummins at the start of the school year in 2016. Sarah said 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 recalled.
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Cummins Allegedly Groomed Elizabeth at School
After their inital encounter, Cummins allegedly “groomed” Elizabeth and earned her trust, family members said.
Authorities claim that Cummins abducted her on March 13, and he was fired from his teaching job following accusations about his relationship with Elizabeth while they were both missing.
Her father, Anthony Thomas, told PEOPLE that Elizabeth grew "dependant" on Cummins. In addition to homework help, Anthony said Cummins “[gave] her money, bought a microwave so she would heat food up in his room [and] try and get her out of trouble.”
Prosecutors have also revealed that Elizabeth and Cummins exchanged "troubling" messages through his work email, saying at the time, "Investigators have used to the term ‘grooming’ ... the messages could definitely be considered as part of that.”
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Cummins Allegedly 'Preyed Upon' Elizabeth 'for Months'
A court petition filed by Anthony days before the were found claimed Cummins threatened Elizabeth with "repercussions" if she didn't do what he said.
The filing detailed the family’s allegations that Cummins manipulated Elizabeth before the abduction: “Cummins preyed upon the child for months on end, nudging and molding her until her will to resist was conflicted and ultimately broken.”
The petition alleged that Cummins picked Elizabeth up from her home on more than one occasion to go out for a meal, “threatening her that if she did not go with him she would face repercussions at school.”
Elizabeth told her siblings and friends that “she was scared of Cummins and that she felt ‘in over her head,’ ” according to the court filing.
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Elizabeth Was Mocked Because of Cummins' Attention: Court Records
On Jan. 23, Cummins was allegedly caught kissing Elizabeth on school grounds, after which he was suspended from his job.
In his court petition, her father alleged the teen was ridiculed at school after this incident and called a “whore.” The petition stated that Eliabeth began to feel guilty because Cummins was suspended, and she became afraid he might punish her.
“Cummins played upon this guilt, causing the child to feel compelled to help him by… going with him,” the filing claimed.
According to the petition, Cummins allegedly told Elizabeth that because of the alleged kissing incident, “her future collegiate and work career was ruined, thus causing her to believe that her best option was to leave with him.”
Elizabeth was at a vulnerable point coming into the 2016-2017 school year because she had been bullied the year before, Sarah, her older sister, has said. Last year was Elizabeth’s first in the public school system after being homeschooled until eighth grade.
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On the Run: a Remote Cabin and Wildflowers for Food
Two weeks after they went missing, on March 13, officials announced that Cummins and Elizabeth had been captured on surveillance footage at an Oklahoma City Wal-Mart shopping for food on March 15.
Elizabeth and Cummins’ appeared to have dyed their hair. Authorities later claimed that he told them he and Elizabeth had had sex most nights they were together.
To go "off the grid," Cummins and Elizabeth disposed of their cell phones on the first day and changed the license plate of their car, authorities have alleged.
During their final week and a half together, Cummins and Elizabeth allegedly lived in Northern California, according to authorities and her family's attorney, where Elizabeth ate wildflowers for food and slept with Cummins on a mattress pad in a remote cabin.
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The Pair's Final Days Together Before His Arrest
The tipster who led authorities to Elizabeth and Cummins in Cecilville, California, told PEOPLE that he spotted the former teacher kissing the teen twice — even though Cummins tried to conceal her.
Griffin Barry, 29, said that when he first saw Cummins and the high school freshman, he knew something was off. As he recalled, they told him they were out of gas and down to their last $10 and trying to reach an out-of-the-way commune in the California mountains. Barry said he gave them $40 and directions and sent them on their way.
The pair found Black Bear Ranch, a remote commune, and they "stayed for a few days until they were asked to leave," ranch officials said on their website. Because there is no access to news at the remote commune, residents had “no idea who this couple was," according to the ranch officials.
Cummins and Elizabeth returned to Cecilville about a week later, Barry said, and they asked to stay in the unfinished cabin on the property where he worked as a caretaker.
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Elizabeth Found with Cummins: 'She Had Been Traumatized'
After being tipped off on April 19, local authorities found Cummins and Elizabeth at their Cecilville cabin. He was arrested, and she was recovered safely.
Siskiyou County, California, Sheriff Jon Lopey 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.
“They seemed to comfort each other," he said. "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 said.
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Elizabeth's Mom Was Allegedly Abusive: '100 Percent That Affected Her'
Cummins has been charged with kidnapping and a federal sex crime. He has not entered a plea and remains in custody; his defense attorney has argued he did not coerce, force or threaten Elizabeth.
Meanwhile, she flew back to Tennessee after being found in California, and court documents that surfaced soon after showed her mother, Kimberly Thomas, had been indicted on child abuse charges in January 2016.
When asked if the alleged abuse played a role in Elizabeth’s life, her older sister Kat Bozeman told PEOPLE, “Absolutely, 100 percent that affected her.”
Records show the alleged abuse began in November 2014 and went on for about a year. In late 2015, Kimberly and her husband, Anthony, separated, and he took sole custody of the children. (He filed for divorce last month.)
Kimberly has pleaded not guilty to the abuse charges; PEOPLE has not been able to reach her attorney for comment.
In 2015, she was ordered to stay away from her children and is still barred from having any contact with them.
Dr. Janet Rosenzweig, executive director of the American Professional Society of the Abuse of Child, told PEOPLE, “When you have parents who aren’t parenting their child correctly, whether they’re abusive or not ... they’re incredibly vulnerable.”
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Elizabeth's Road to Recovery: 'She Needs Love'
Despite being back with her family for nearly a month, Elizabeth is still at the beginning of her recovery.
But as her relatives told PEOPLE, she has the help of “some of the best [professionals] in the country” — and, more importantly, she is surrounded by love.
“And she needs love over anything else. Love is what’s going to heal her,” said Bozeman, one of Elizabeth's nine siblings. “We’re going to show her we love her unconditionally.”
“That’s another thing she’s going to have to learn,” Bozeman said, “and I’m trying to teach her this: to be loved unconditionally and not settle for anything less than that.”
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Elizabeth Turned 16 with a Family Celebration
Elizabeth, who is undergoing counseling, turned 16 years old on Wednesday, her family said.
She celebrated her birthday with her family, her brother James Thomas told PEOPLE. The quiet celebration was held privately in an undisclosed location and attended by close family.
“I’m happy we get to see her, that she is with us for her birthday,” James said. “We’re very excited that we were able to get her back in time for her birthday.”
He said she was "looking forward" to it.
The few weeks Elizabeth has been working with counselors have been beneficial, James said.
“We had the time to not only get her home but get her home early enough to start working with her,” he said.
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