A Tennessee woman tells PEOPLE that Tad Cummins, the teacher accused of kidnapping a student and sparking an ongoing AMBER Alert, may have exhibited similar “grooming” behaviors with her several years ago.
“I definitely think, on his end, it was a bit more than a friendship — it’s hard not to think that now,” Destany Parrish, 19, tells PEOPLE of her relationship with Cummins several years ago.
Parrish was a student of Cummins’ at Culleoka Unit School in 2011 and 2012, when she was 15 — the same age as Elizabeth Thomas, the teen Cummins is accused of abducting. Thomas and Cummins, 50, have not been seen since March 13.
In 2011— Cummins’ first year teaching at the Tennessee school— Parrish was having difficulties at home, she says. Her parents divorced and both moved out of town, leaving her to live with her grandparents.
“[With Cummins], I had somebody I could trust, and I couldn’t talk to my parents,” Parrish says. “I don’t show emotions with family— I shut them out emotionally. [My mother] was just happy that I had somebody I could trust and I could talk to about the divorce.”
“We’d sit [in his classroom] and talk about everything and anything,” she continues.
Parrish says she didn’t think anything was amiss about their friendship until she heard about Thomas’ alleged abduction last month. “I never saw anything wrong with our friendship. He made me feel safe and he tried to do that with all of his students, so I never saw it as too weird.”
A warrant has been issued for Cummins’ arrest on charges of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor, according to the TBI. The latter claim stems from an incident in which Cummins allegedly kissed Thomas on Jan. 23, after which he was suspended from his job.
He was fired after he and Thomas went missing.
A Love Song?
Parrish says she and Cummins became friends when he taught her health sciences class. She says that like Thomas, she and Cummins would talk extensively before and after class.
“[He didn’t] talk too much about himself at all,” Parrish says. “Whenever we were alone he would talk to me about how I was doing or try to give me advice on what I was going through.”
When she heard about Thomas’ disappearance, Parrish says she remembered something from her friendship with Cummins that, up until three weeks ago, seemed normal: A love song Cummins allegedly performed for her in the school’s music room, which she recorded on her phone.
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“I started recording because it surprised me how well he [played],” she says. “I definitely didn’t focus on the lyrics at the time. I kind of thought about it [later] but I didn’t think about anything bad, I didn’t process them because it was Tad, the person I trusted.”
The song, which Parrish believes was written by Cummins for her, describes a deep love, with the line: “I could swim for a thousand miles in the oceans inside your eyes and never reach the side.”
Like Thomas, Parrish spent time with Cummins in and out of school. She sometimes attended church on Sundays with Cummins and his wife, Jill, and would get lunch with them. She says she never got to know Jill, who last week filed for divorce after more than three decades of marriage.
“He was the one that everybody trusted,” Parrish says of her shock when hearing last month’s news. “[Up until recently] I was in a lot of denial.”
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Cummins is believed to have used his time in school to “groom” Thomas, her family previously told PEOPLE. The father-of-two allegedly presented himself as a confidant for students, Parrish says. In a previous interview with PEOPLE, Thomas’ father Anthony said he believes being approachable was part of Cummins’ plan.
“He built up a system where she was dependent on him,” Thomas’ dad, Anthony, says of Cummins’ alleged efforts to woo the high school freshman.
In addition to homework help, Anthony says Cummins “[gave] her money, bought a microwave so she would heat food up in his room [and] try and get her out of trouble.”
The Search Continues
Last week, Tennessee officials released photos of Cummins and Thomas at a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma, captured two days after they were reported missing. They appeared to have dyed their hair.
It is unclear at this time whether Thomas went with Cummins willingly. The pair allegedly exchanged emails described by Maury County District Attorney Brent Cooper as “romantic” prior to their disappearance.
Authorities believe Cummins is likely keeping Elizabeth “off the grid” and they’ve urged the public to search their properties, local campgrounds, rural areas and parking garages.
Last week, officials announced the pair could potentially be in Mexico or further south.
Elizabeth was last placed in Alabama and was last seen wearing a flannel shirt and black leggings. She is 5 feet 5 inches inches tall and weighs 120 lbs., with blonde hair and hazel eyes.
Cummins, who is described as being “armed and dangerous,” 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.