She says the 52-year-old Sasko, who was very spiritual and often looked out for others, was trying to get McLinn away from drugs and friends in gangs.
"I told him: 'Be sure you know what you're getting into,' " Qualls, who dated Sasko for eight months, tells PEOPLE.
So when she learned earlier this month that her ex-boyfriend had been found murdered in his home, that his car had vanished – but that McLinn's vehicle was still at the house – and that McLinn, 19, had disappeared, Qualls found herself grappling to understand how something so awful could happen to someone who always strived very hard to help others.
"He liked to help people," Qualls said tearfully. "He had said that, rather than die rich, he'd prefer to die broke knowing he helped a lot of people."
What went wrong has yet to be disclosed, but Lawrence, Kan., police revealed Sunday that McLinn was recovered safe and uninjured in Florida the previous evening, along with Sasko's Nissan Altima sedan. There was no word on if or when McLinn might be arrested.
Interviewed late last week, Lawrence, Kan., police Sgt Trent McKinley told PEOPLE that they're not ready to say whether McLinn is a suspect, a witness – or a second victim.
"We’ve not put a label on her," McKinley tells PEOPLE. "We had two individuals who reside at the same home: one a victim of a violent death, and the other is missing."
In an exclusive statement to PEOPLE, McLinn's mother, Michelle Gonzales, says she's convinced that Sarah "is a victim" and says that police told her that the attack seemed too brutal for Sarah to have conducted on her own (McKinley said details about the slaying are not being shared yet with the media).
Teen Could Not Have Acted Alone, Say Police"The police did say that even if Sarah was involved, she could not have acted alone based on the traumatic injuries Mr. Sasko suffered," Gonzales states. "This makes us even more convinced that Sarah is a victim. We do not know what happened, but we want Sarah to know that we love her and we are here for her and we have help for her if she needs it. We want the person or persons who have Sarah to let her call home and come home."
The statement goes on to say that there was "no conflict between Mr. Sasko and Sarah," and urges people to call the Lawrence, Kan., Police Department if they do know anyone "who could have had a motive for killing Mr. Sasko."
McLinn's father, Robert McLinn told FOX4KC that his daughter worked as a cashier at Bed, Bath & Beyond in Lawrence, Kan., and that she formerly worked for Sasko as a bookkeeper and cashier. He told the station that, when he last heard from his daughter on Jan. 12, she had sent a text message and "everything appeared to be fine."
But two days later, both Sasko and McLinn fell out of contact with family, friends and co-workers, McKinley says. McLinn also failed to attend an important family gathering.
After a relative of Sarah's called police the night of Jan. 17, concerned for her well being, officers looked inside the windows of the house and saw Sasko lying dead from "traumatic injuries," McKinley says.
He wouldn't say how Sasko was killed, or whether there was a murder weapon with fingerprints.
A police press conference is scheduled for 1 p.m. Kansas time on Monday.