The tipster who led police to missing Tennessee teen Elizabeth Thomas and ended a nationwide manhunt for her and Tad Cummins tells PEOPLE he spotted the teacher kissing the 15-year-old girl twice, even though Cummins tried to conceal her from him.
Griffin Barry, 29, says when he first saw the 50-year-old teacher and the high school freshman he knew something was off. 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 mountains of northern California. Barry says he gave them $40 and directions and sent them on their way.
They returned about a week later and asked to stay in the unfinished cabin on the property where he works as a caretaker outside Cecilville, California – thousands of miles from Maury County, Tennessee, from where the Cummins and Thomas had vanished on March 13.
For 36 hours the pair lived in the small cabin, which has no heat and no electricity, while doing odd jobs for Barry to earn their keep.
Barry says he saw Cummins kiss Thomas near the Salmon River when they were helping him collect rocks to build a fire pit.
“Two times down there I saw them kissing on a quick break,” Barry tells PEOPLE.
Barry says he later became suspicious after a couple of more interactions with the pair. “It was like, ‘that girl won’t look at me.'”
Barry says he spoke to a friend about his suspicions and the friend ended up coming over later with a photo of the two from the internet – he realized they were the subjects of a nationwide search.
“I was like, Oh man,'” says Barry. “That is the guy and then the car matched up.”
Michael O’Hare, the owner of the property where Barry works, says Barry called him and was whispering into the phone.
“He called me and said, ‘hey, we have this guy,” O’Hare tells PEOPLE. “I need to call the cops. What do you think? I said, ‘You have to call the cops. He was like his car has no license plates and it is stashed in the back of the property and there is a girl that never gets out. The guy is kind of acting weird and then something clicked. He said I bet my life it is these people. I said, ‘are you 100 percent sure. He said yeah. I said double triple? and he said 100 percent.”
“I believed him right away,” O’Hare says. “It is not very farfetched for us to have people come out there and try to escape society or try to run from something. People think they can go out there and hide out. They try to escape and figure it is a great spot — it is way out there in the middle of nowhere on the map. Since it happens once a year or twice, we get some crazy or someone hiding out, it wasn’t that shocking actually.”
O’Hare credits Barry for turning Cummins in, saying, “We are always watching out for this stuff within our community. He just came to the wrong place. If Griff wasn’t so diligent they would have moved along the way and we wouldn’t have known.”
After Barry alerted authorities last Thursday, they surrounded the cabin and took Cummins into custody. Thomas was safely returned to her family. Barry, who is also from Tennessee, will receive $10,000 in reward money Friday for alerting authorities.
Cummins faces kidnapping and sex crime charges in California and Tennessee as well as a federal charge.
He appeared in federal court in Sacramento, California, on Monday afternoon. He faces one federal count of transporting a minor with the intent to engage in sexual activity across state lines.
He has not entered a plea and was detained as a flight risk.
He will be transported to Tennessee “as soon as possible,” a U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman said.
“It is strange how it all worked out, and it did,” says Barry, who has been working as a caretaker on the property since July 2015. “I definitely helped.”
Authorities allege Cummins “groomed” Thomas for months prior to abducting her. Cummins was suspended from his job after he was allegedly caught kissing Thomas on school grounds, and he was fired after he and Thomas went missing. The two allegedly exchanged emails officials described as “romantic” in nature.
Barry says that Cummins, who said his name was “John,” made an effort to keep Thomas away from him, but Barry did have a couple of brief exchanges with the teen.
“I had given him food and she was like, ‘Thank you,’ ” Barry says. “He still tried to come out of the car and meet me and keep her away but she came out and I was about 20 feet way and she was like, ‘Thank you.’ ”
“She got excited over the food,” he adds. “Someone had handed me a big bag of food they just left so I just passed it on. I think there were a couple of clementines too. There was a bunch of rice, a can of Refried beans. I gave them a little bit of produce, carrots, some ramen.”
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Thomas’ family attorney, Jason Whatley, tells PEOPLE that Elizabeth resorted to eating wildflowers to survive and that she lost a lot of weight during the 38 days she was missing.
Barry says Elizabeth barely spoke but introduced herself as “Joanna.”
“It was almost with an accent,” he says about how she pronounced her name. “It was like he told her to say it like that.”
Cummins ‘Trying to Start a New Life’
Barry says he first encountered the pair outside the Cecilville gas station two weeks earlier. Cummins, he says, told him they were lost, looking for directions to the Black Bear Ranch Commune in Siskiyou County. He says Cummins told him they were out of gas and down to their last $10.
“He gave me his story that he had a house fire in Colorado and was on his last money and trying to start a new life,” he says. “He was basically like, ‘Forget the world.’ The girl was in the car looking away, tinted windows and whatnot.”
Barry says he sensed that Cummins was slightly nervous. “Obviously his brain was grinding, figuring out things,” he says.
Barry gave them directions but warned Cummins that he probably wasn’t a good fit for Black Bear Ranch and told him that if it didn’t work out, he could feed them if he came back. Barry said he then paid for their gas, and gave them $40.
The pair returned a week later and Barry told them he would give them work for a few days. “I was just trying to get him on his feet and help him figure out a plan about where to go,” he says.