On the morning that Tennessee teen Mary Catherine Elizabeth Thomas was allegedly abducted by her 50-year-old teacher, she told her family she was spending the day with a female friend - but to call police if she wasn’t home by 6 p.m, her family’s attorney says.
“She confided in one of her siblings that if she was not back by 6 p.m. that day and she was to disappear, to call the police,” attorney Jason Whatley tells PEOPLE.
Thomas, a high school freshman at at Culleoka Unit School, was picked up from her home the morning of March 13 by a female friend. By 12:41 that afternoon, she was declared missing by the Maury County Sheriff’s Department. The last reported sighting of her was at 7:45 a.m., when someone spotted her at a local Shoney’s restaurant.
After 8 a.m., alleged kidnapper Tad Cummins was seen on surveillance camera at a local gas station adjacent to the Shoney’s. A spokesman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation tells PEOPLE authorities believe Cummins, a health teacher at Culleoka who had recently been suspended by the school, picked the freshman up after putting gas in his car.
AMBER Alerts have since been issued in both Tennessee and Alabama. Cummins is believed to be “armed and dangerous,” Tennessee officials state.
Authorities alleged Cummins had sexual contact with Thomas weeks before kidnapping her. Whatley says Thomas’s family believes the teen was “conflicted” about her relationship with him, and that Cummins “groomed” her.
“She’s 15, he’s 50. He had a lifetime of skills in figuring out how to manipulate a child,” Whatley alleges, calling Cummins a “predator.”
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A warrant has been issued for Cummins’ arrest for alleged aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor, according to the Tennessee Bureau for Investigation. The latter charge stems from an earlier alleged sexual interaction between him and Thomas in January on school property.
Teacher: He and Thomas Were Best Friends’
According to Maury County Public School District documents obtained by PEOPLE, a student reported to school administration on Jan. 24 that she allegedly saw Cummins kissing Thomas in his classroom the day before.
The student described the encounter as a “peck” and when she confronted Cummins about the alleged kiss, Cummins allegedly told the student he and Thomas were “close and best friends,” the report states.
Cummins also told the student he was a “father figure” to Thomas and was trying to help her with issues at home. According to Whatley, Elizabeth has a good relationship with her father, who has had custody of her since 2015.
“It’s horrific. He’s looking for vulnerability,” Whatley says of Cummins.
After the alleged kiss was reported, Thomas was ordered to be taken out of Cummins’s forensics class. Cummins was suspended by school officials on Feb. 6, Whatley tells PEOPLE. Last week, the school district released a statement announcing Cummins’ termination.
(The Maury County Public School District could not be reached for comment by PEOPLE.)
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On Friday, Cummins’ wife, Jill, spoke to the media and pleaded with her husband to bring the teen home.
“Like so many of you, I’m deeply troubled by what has happened in the past few days,” she said with her family pastor by her side. “I certainly can’t begin to explain why I think this occurred. But I do know one thing: I had no idea my husband was involved with anything that could lead to this.”
According to the school district’s documents, Cummins and Thomas said they had attended church together with his family. At the news conference on Friday, Jill said she didn’t see any signs leading up to the alleged abduction.
In her emotional statement, Jill tearfully addressed her husband.
“Tad, this is not you. This is not who you are. We can help you get through this. No matter how far you’ve gone or what’s happening right now, God’s grace is sufficient for you and He wants you to come home. Your family wants their Papi back. Please do the right thing, and turn yourself into the police and bring Beth home.”
Family Very Scared’ for Thomas
Thomas 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 was seen driving a Silver Nissan Rogue with a Tennessee license plate 976ZPT, according to the TBI. He is 6 feet tall and weighs 200 lbs., with brown hair and eyes.
Speaking with PEOPLE last Wednesday, a family source said, “I’m very scared for [Thomas],” adding, “It’s so hard to understand what would bring someone to do these kinds of things.”
“I don’t understand how this is real life,” the source said.
According to Whatley, Thomas’s father is “not doing well physically or emotionally” and has asked for his privacy.
Anyone with information on Cummins or Thomas should call the TBI at 1-800-TBI-FIND.