ROGERSVILLE – “I think one or two people know exactly what has happened to her and they need to come forward,” said Dave Rader of the missing Summer Wells.
Rader’s EquuSearch Midwest unit was in Tennessee this past weekend, contributing its expertise and resources to the search for the five-year-old girl reported missing from her Beech Creek home June 15.
“We got a lot accomplished (Saturday),” the EquuSearch Midwest Chapter Director said in an online interview Sunday.
“We didn’t find the objective that we were looking for, which was little Summer. But I’ll tell you what: we gave it everything we could possibly give and we’re still not done,” Rader said.
Speaking with retired New York Police Department Detectives Ron Duty and Bill Cannon on Duty’s Youtube channel, Rader said he will confer with Tim Miller, who founded EquuSearch in 2020 after his own 16-year-old daughter, Laura Miller, was abducted and murdered in Galveston County, Texas in 1984. Her body wasn’t located until 17 months later.
“There still may be some things that we, me and Tim, can put our heads together and figure something out. But this isn’t the last for me to come down to Tennessee to look for this little girl,” said Rader, who called Sunday a “get-away day,” a travel day for the volunteers to return to their respective homes for their respective work weeks.
“I stayed behind just to kind of think about some things and just kind of go over in my mind what could we possibly have missed and is there anything that we missed. There’s a lot of land down here. The real estate is just unbelievable as we’ve touched on before. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” he said.
“You’re trying to do the best that you can with the information that you have. And again, I think one or two people know exactly what has happened to her and they need to come forward,” Rader said.
“It’s a process of elimination. You take the information, you digest it, you think about it, then you execute. Then you execute the search. We didn’t find anything that was pertinent to Summer or else we would have turned it over to law enforcement. We know where she’s not. We’ll keep the bus rolling,” Rader said.
“It was a hard day (Saturday) for everybody. We were riding on such high hopes we were gonna bring this girl home and then when you don’t bring that individual home, it is such a Debbie Downer and tough for everybody. The morale, you can just see, it’s like a balloon letting the air out,” Rader said.
“It’s tough because I always beat myself up because I’m the leader of this and everybody looks at me for the answers, and when I can’t give the answers, it eats at me tremendously. These guys gave me 150 percent and they try to pick me up, but when at the end of the day and you don’t have what you’re looking for, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” Rader said.
The Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Federal Bureau of Investigation continue the investigation into Summer Wells’ disappearance. The Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office was already familiar with the girl’s family.
According to a warrant filed in General Sessions Court in Hawkins County on Oct. 15, 2020, Candus Bly called authorities to report a domestic assault by her husband Donald Wells.
In an interview with the Review on Sunday, July 18, Candus described events that led to the Oct. 14 arrest of Donald Wells.
“He went to Utah to visit his dad. Him and my older boy, Josey, went out there. He was working while he was out there so he would have some money,” said Candus, who said she had invited her friend from Kingsport, Ally, Ally’s three children, and Ally’s friend, Jose, to stay at her Ben Hill Road home while Don was in Utah.
Candus said eventually her friend grew angry when Jose said he was only interested in the women as platonic friends.
“Me and Ally had a falling out over the stupid Jose guy she brought up here,” Candus said. “And then she got mad at me because he said he only wants (platonic relationships). Donnie was coming home. All I told her was you and Jose and the kids, y’all need to go back to your house. It’s time for you all to go back home, you know what I’m saying?
“She said, ‘I can’t take him back to my house, my grandmother won’t approve.’ I said, ‘Well, you brought him out here.’
‘Well, I’m not taking (him),’ Candus said she responded. “I said, ‘So, you’re going to leave this man on my doorstep, knowing my husband is going to get mad?’
“She got mad about it and left him stranded out here. Then she wants to say I was all over him, but I’ve got all the photos of her being all over him. Not me.”
According to Deputy Kyle Shively of the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Department, when he arrived at the couple’s home at 110 Ben Hill Road on Oct. 14, Wells had already come and left the property, so Shively began to speak with Bly and two witnesses.
When Shively spoke with Bly and the two witnesses, Summer Well’s grandmother, Candus “Candy” Harer, and the man, Jose Roman. Bly said Wells came home drunk, and when he saw Roman in the house, accused Bly of infidelity, Shively reported.
According to Shively's report, Wells allegedly began to struggle with both Roman and Bly, and she was pushed down, injuring her left knee, then Bly and the other witnesses said Wells began punching himself in the face and then left.
When another deputy warned Shively that Wells’ white GMC Sonoma was coming up the drive, Shively said “family members” expressed fear and said there was a firearm in the truck.
Shively detained Wells in the driveway and said he detected a strong odor of alcohol, and apparently had to pick Wells up from the ground. Wells allegedly admitted to a firearm in the truck. The weapon, a black powder pistol, was soon located. Wells also reportedly admitted to having felony charges in Utah.
Wells was arrested and in April of this year pled guilty to possession of a firearm while under the influence.
Charges of unlawful possession of a weapon and domestic assault were dismissed due to failure to prosecute. Wells was given supervised probation for one year and ordered to perform 96 hours of community service. His weapon was forfeited to the sheriff’s department.
According to records, Bly also filed for an order of protection for herself and four children on Oct. 13, 2020, but later withdrew the petition. Wells was also charged with being a fugitive from justice for an out-of-state parole violation in 2001.
Wells told the Kingsport Times-News he and Candus had reconciled and that the blow-up stemmed from a misunderstanding.
Although Candus states there had been a falling out with Ally that led to the incident, she stated in the July 18 interview with the Review that she and Summer had visited Ally’s Kingsport home on the morning of June 15 to await her mother’s call upon the completion of her medical appointment at Holston Valley Medical Center.
Ally’s 15-year-old son reportedly accompanied Candus and Summer when they left to pick up her mother from the hospital, then numerous other stops, including a trip to Warrior’s Path State Park to go swimming. The boy was reportedly taken back to his home before Candus, Candy and Summer returned to their Hawkins County home. Some three hours later, Summer was reported missing to authorities.
The timeline and events leading up to Summer’s disappearance remain a focus of the investigation.
Much conjecture has occurred in social media regarding the final known images taken of Summer: brief videos of Summer swimming at Warrior’s Path and of her lying against two milk jugs in the back seat of Candy’s Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, in which Candus reportedly drove the family to Kingsport and home that day.
“When she fell asleep on the way home, it was like, she was tired,” Candus said. “She just got done playing in the water. That wears you out. She was cold. So, I took her wet swimwear off. And the only outfit that I had was her brand-new one we got for her to go to kindergarten. It was a suit, of course, pants and a sweater. I got it probably about a week before. It was still in Mom’s truck. It was the only change of clothes because we did not plan to go swimming that day.
“So, I just figured we’ll change her out and put her in these. That way she’ll be warm. She won’t freeze to death on the way home. She ended up falling asleep against a gallon of milk and they’re all pointing, saying, ‘See? She did something to her daughter. She’s dead in the back seat,’” Candus said of accusations in social media.
“She was asleep! People make up so much bull. Then they’re pointing because she had a couple of pimples right here on her forehead. They’re like, ‘See? Somebody hit her or something right there.’ People say the stupidest (stuff). It just makes me so mad. It makes my blood boil. They’re accusing me of something that I haven’t even done,” Candus said.
“To me, it seemed like it was a set-up. The only possible conclusion I can come to in my brain is after Summer went missing, Ally and that whole gang like totally turned all the way around and started making up lies about me and everything else. They’re going on Youtube podcasts to get paid just to make up lies. Like, why would you do that?” Candus said.
“First, there was a picture going around. There was a person with a fat gut and a plate with a lighter and a spoon sitting on there at the table. They were like, ‘Look, she’s doing drugs’ and they were pointing at me,” Candus said.
“So, I went in my pictures in my gallery and found the real picture and it was Ally sitting behind that plate. She had just gotten done eating fried green tomatoes and she just set her lighter there. It wasn’t nothing like we were doing drugs because we weren’t. I don’t even do drugs,” Candus said.
“I don’t get it. I don’t understand. It’s like they were all acting like they were my friend and then after they found out Summer was gone, they like totally twisted everything around and made up a bunch of lies,” she said.
Don, who wasn’t home when the July 18 interview was conducted, has been active on social media. On Saturday, he lashed out on Facebook at family members who had appeared on various Youtube “true crime” video interviews.
Wells said (unedited): “Well how did my daughters disappearance suddenly turn to all about my step family? Are they so greedy as to forget all about what this is all about? Did trish even try to pay my dad back any of the 20000 she borrowed? No! And never will. Did Jeanie mention to anyone about 12 year old ronny when they first got together? Hell no! You have successfully managed to ruin my name time after time. Make my dad hate me and get me barred from the family for life! You all can have whats left of my dad that’s fine. You cant ruin me any more than u have. I’m sure you all will keep trying though. You can have whatevers left you’ve been bilking money from my dad for years and didn’t want me in the way well ill never even call my dad ever again you can have it all whatevers left.”
Both parents have brought up the red or maroon, 1998-2000 Toyota Tacoma pickup, whose owner law enforcement was seeking to question as a witness.
“We really need help finding this red pickup truck with ladder rack,” Wells posted on Facebook July 8. “Not sure of make maybe Toyota. Not the one pictured but something like it. I just found out that it was parked at the bottom of our driveway around the time of Summer’s disappearance. Please help us locate this truck..it did have buckets in the back.”
Candus mentioned the truck 10 days later in the interview with the Review.
“A $50,000 reward for any information about that red truck or who drove it or whatever, you’d think that person would have dropped like a drop of a hat and jumped on that,” she said.
“They found one truck over on 81 and 36 or something like that and the license plate was removed. So, they ran the VIN and it come back to 101 Ben Hill. There’s not even a 101 Ben Hill down here. So, they wrote that off as pretty much a lost case because they didn’t run into nothing. They didn’t track down nobody or nothing, I guess,” Candus said.
“And there was another truck that they found alongside the road with ladder racks on it and it wasn’t the truck, they said. Half the time they told me it was a Nissan, half the time they told me Toyota. I don’t know what this truck is. Who witnessed the truck? I don’t know that, either. No clue. I keep telling people I wish I knew what happened,” Candus said.
“They ask me, ‘Do you know where your daughter is?’ I’m like, if I knew where she was, she’d be right here with me. I mean, that’s a dumb question. To me, that’s just plain ignorant,” Candus said.
Anyone with credible information about the truck or anything else related to the case is asked to contact the TBI at (800) TBI-FIND or the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office at (423) 272-4848.
Though the large-scale search efforts have been scaled back in the search for missing 5-year-old Summer Wells, many emergency response representatives told the Commission’s Public Safety Committee that they are “not done yet” with the case.
Wells went missing from the Beech Creek community of Hawkins County on June 15. A large-scale search lasted 13 days, and the investigation has already been underway for nearly six weeks.
Though all representatives noted that the priority is on bringing Wells home safely, this routine monthly committee meeting provided a place for responders to update commissioners on the case and how their agencies will be affected financially.
“If I knew more, I would tell you”
“As far as my agency goes, we know no more than we did on day 13 when we scaled back operations, other than the fact that she is missing,” Captain Tim Coup of the Church Hill Rescue Squad, told the committee on July 21. “We are assisting local, state and federal resources and agencies with whatever they may need.”
He added, “If I had the information and I was at liberty to tell you, I would tell you today. If I knew where she was, she would have been back on June 15.”
He explained that his agency is regularly questioned for updates.
“I have updated the media outlets locally, all the way to Nashville and all the way to New York with everything I know,” he said. “I wish I knew more.”
Hawkins Co. Sheriff’s Department Lt. James Woods told the committee that the HCSO is still fielding calls related to the Wells case and “follows up on every one of them.”
“We’re not done yet,” he said. “Somebody out there knows something. Somebody saw something...we need every little piece of information we can get.”
He noted that the HCSO is still conducting spot-searches as they follow up on leads.
3,000 acres searched
A total of 120 different agencies and 1,194 ground searchers, not including the command post, logistics team, and law enforcement officers, participated in the search. This group covered just over 4.6 square miles and roughly 3,000 acres in the Beech Creek community.
The first night of the search, Coup noted that a representative from Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) was on site within hours.
As of July 21, Coup told the Committee that just the 25 CHRS members involved in the search had logged 2,648 man hours on the search, though this number continues to grow each day the case continues. HCRS members logged 2,185 man hours, and Hawkins Co. Central Dispatch logged an additional 1,000 man hours at the mobile communications trailer.
Coup told the committee that the national average worth of a volunteer man hour is $28.54, so CHRS logged $75,573.92 over the 13 day search, and HCRS logged $62,359.90.
HCRS also logged 1,500 miles on the road to haul personnel and pick up supplies.
Radio issues plague search efforts
Though he praised the efforts of the searchers, Coup told the committee that radio communication issues plagued the search efforts.
“We determined once we arrived on scene (in Beech Creek) that communication was going to be a problem with the phones and the radios,” said Hawkins Co. 911 Director Lynn Campbell.
“If it wasn’t for Hawkins County Rescue Squad having their mobile event repeater that they were able to deploy there at the site, we wouldn’t have had radio communications hardly at all the first night,” Coup added.
Campbell explained that he immediately requested a mobile site from FirstNet, which is an AT&T wireless broadband network for first responders. Though these mobile sites generally require 24 hours to arrive on site, this site arrived within 12 hours.
“Anybody who had AT&T service with FirstNet, this gave them service at the search site,” he said.
He explained that his agency also tried to do some “patching” with the HCRS mobile communications trailer and their event repeater but were unable to do so.
Instead, they requested another mobile site from TACN (Tennessee Advanced Communications Network). Sullivan County EMA and TEMA also provided around 50 radios to the searchers on the scene.
“If it hadn’t been for them providing those radios, we would have been a mess in Beech Creek,” he said. “We would have had no communication with these people.”
Emergency responders have experienced problems with the county’s emergency communications system since portions of it went completely offline in December of 2019. The system has been the topic of many heated conversations between the county commission and Emergency Management Agency Director Jamie Miller since this time.
Though the county was awarded a $250,000 emergency grant to cover a portion of the $425,000 replacement system in October of 2020, parts needed to complete the system have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Later in the July 21 meeting, an angry exchange ensued between a commissioner and Miller over this very topic and will be covered in a separate, in-depth Review article.
Financial impact of 13-day search
Coup said that the 13-day search for Wells didn’t have a “detrimental effect” on his agency’s budget or cause them to go into debt, but it will take away from the money the agency had budgeted for training and repairs.
“The only thing this is going to do is take away money for training, equipment and some of the critical infrastructures that we are having,” he said. “A frontline rescue truck that had catastrophic engine failure is now having to be pushed back a little.”
He noted that HCRS loaned their agency a frontline rescue truck to use during the search.
“These agencies worked flawlessly”
“You guys should be proud of these agencies,” Coup told the committee. “These agencies worked flawlessly. There was never an ill word or an argument. We worked flawlessly for 13 days.”
He also thanked those who volunteered to feed and clothe the searchers.
“For 13 days, these searchers never had to wonder if they were going to have water or food,” he said. “We had everything from socks, ibuprofen, sunscreen, bug spray, additional clothes, additional gear, and everything they could possibly need to make sure these guys stayed safe.”
He singled out the efforts of Hawkins Co. Rescue Squad Lieutenant Corey Young, Logistic Section Officer Sandra Lewis, and her husband Tim Lewis.
“I kept telling Sandra (Lewis) that she was the real MVP,” he said. “She orchestrated every meal, supplies...I actually never had to ask her a question. I walked out of the command post, and it was there and taken care of.”
“When we asked for something, we got 20,30,40 or 50 of them--more than what we had asked for,” Young added. “We had to get enclosed trailers to store the stuff...we basically had a Walmart up there...We had everything that anybody could imagine. Several people who came in from outside (the county), said they had never seen anything like that before in anything they had been to all over the United States.”
Thanks to a $50,000 donation from Hope Church, the town of Surgoinsville will now have a fire tanker that can carry roughly 1,700 gallons of water or more.
The decision to donate this money came after the church was presented with a state-mandated flow requirement for the water sprinklers inside its sanctuary.
The church, which is located on Highway 11-W near the West Main Street intersection in Surgoinsville, is currently connected to the Rogersville water system, but it doesn’t provide enough water pressure at that point in its system to support these sprinklers.
The church was given several options to correct this problem, but they chose to donate money towards the purchase of this new tanker that will benefit the entire community.
The town currently has four operational fire trucks.
Surgoinsville Police Chief James Hammonds explained that the town’s Volunteer Fire Department can pump 150 gallons per minute with their current equipment. With this new tanker, they could pump 300 gallons per minute.
“This new tanker will more or less be a water support truck to make sure we keep enough water on the scene if we have an active fire,” Hammonds told the Review.
At the town’s July 12 Board of Mayor and Alderman meeting, Vice Mayor Bobby Jarnigan proposed that the town put an additional $50,000 from the general fund towards the tanker purchase if needed.
Surgoinsville Fire Chief Shane Southers told the board that he has already been researching tankers and is on the lookout for the best deal possible.
Mayor Merrell Graham told the Review that the chosen tanker must hold a minimum of 1,700 gallons of water to meet the church’s criteria. The town has considered several tanker options. One of the options would hold up to 3,000 gallons of water at a price of roughly $80,000 plus a roughly $5,000 cost to transport the truck to Surgoinsville.
“We will probably go with one that will have 2,000 or possibly 3,000 (gallon capacity),” Graham told the Review. “This will more than meet what they’re asking.”
The board authorized Graham to purchase the tanker that Suthers recommends as long as it doesn’t exceed $100,000.
“If I can get it for $50,000, I will,” Southers said.
Once again, the failing emergency communications equipment in Hawkins County was the topic of a recent heated exchange at the July 21 Public Safety Committee meeting.
As members of local emergency response agencies gave reports to the Committee, Commissioner Dawson Fields became increasingly angry when responders mentioned the radio communication issues they encountered during the 13-day search for missing 5-year-old Summer Wells.
Both Fields and Commissioner Mike Herrell told responders that they were tired of the Commission being blamed for these issues, stating that the commission had already recommended that the current failing system be "band-aided" until a permanent solution could be found.
EMA Director Jamie Miller explained that the replacement analog system has been ordered. Pursuing grant funding and product shipping delays brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have delayed implementation of this replacement system.
Tempers flared at the meeting, but miscommunication seemed to be the biggest issue, as commissioners repeatedly questioned Miller about this delay.
How did we get here?
Back in July of 2020, the Committee voted to choose the quicker to install and less expensive analogue option to replace the emergency communications equipment that has been malfunctioning since November of 2019.
This emergency radio system dispatches police, fire and rescue agencies.
This decision came after months of back-and-forth and consideration of many different replacement systems that ranged in cost.
In September of 2020, the commission approved the $425,000 project cost 20-1, and, the following October, the county received word that their application for the $250,000 emergency Community Development Block Grant was approved in full.
The county officially received state approval for this grant on Jun 10, 2021.Thus, the county will only have to pay $175,000 for the new system.
Numerous first responders have noted that there are currently large dead zones throughout the county, particularly in the Clinch Mountain and Beech Creek areas. Responders on opposite ends of the county also have reported having trouble communicating with one another.
“Why such a delay?”
Miller told the Committee on July 21 that he estimates the replacement analog system will be delivered in approximately 10 weeks, which will be the last week of September.
He noted that the delay in delivery is due to a worldwide semiconductor shortage.
“This (shortage) is an industry-wide issue,” Miller said. “Just like with automobiles (and the current shortage of them), the semiconductor shortage is causing the delays.”
When further questioned, Miller explained that the CDBG grant also caused delays with beginning the project. Although the county had received word in Oct. 2020 that they were approved for the grant, they didn’t “have the go-ahead” to begin the project until June 10.
Miller noted that the Bays Mountain tower will be the first to receive new equipment with Town Knob next and Short Mountain after that. Then, a new tower will be installed on Clinch Mountain.
The analog system to be installed will also have the capacity to be upgraded to digital.
“That will vastly improve coverage,” Miller said of the new analog system. “We did some installs of antennas on Short Mountain just to do some testing without new equipment, and it vastly improved the coverage of those sites. The problem that will linger will be the connectivity between the sites. All that’s required once this (replacement analog system) is installed is a software update into the repeaters and then the end-user devices in the field for the departments that are on DMR in order to connect all those sites together if we decide to go DMR.”
DMR was one of the options the commission considered to replace the failing system that was initially ruled out due to the cost. However, Miller and commissioners have mentioned considering this system in the future.
Communication issues during Summer Wells search
Several emergency response representatives told the committee that they experienced radio communication issues during the 13-day search for Summer Wells in the Beech Creek area.
To aid in communication, mobile sites from both TACN (Tennessee Advanced Communications Network) and FirstNet were brought in, and Sullivan County EMA and TEMA provided around 50 radios to the searchers on the scene.
“When I took my position at Church Hill Rescue Squad as a captain, one of my main responsibilities was the safety of my people,” CHRS Captain Tim Coup told the committee. “(With the TACN system) I had no issue knowing my people, those 1,194 searchers who were there, law enforcement included, I knew where they were and I had accountability for them. The TACN system, that is something this county needs to look into. I understand there’s a dollar sign there, but I do not believe any of you guys standing here can put a dollar sign on one person’s safety.”
TACN is actually an option they had previously considered and ruled out primarily due to the high cost.
County Mayor Jim Lee later released a statement shortly after the meeting noting that TACN only works in the Beech Creek area if this mobile site is brought in.
Commissioner Jason Roach asked Miller what difference it would have made in communication ability if the new analog system had been up and running during the search.
“It would have definitely been improved with analog and vastly improved with digital,” Miller replied.
Commissioner’s temper flares
“I feel like every time something happens, we start getting blamed for radios,” Herrell said. “The way I look at it, we can’t do anything about radios until we see a resolution or something come in front of us to decide what to do on the radios.”
“The county commission was pretty much told to step out of this and that it was not our problem or job to deal with radios,” Fields added.
“That has not been said by me or my agency,” Miller replied.
“I personally don’t give two s---- who gets the blame and who don’t,” Fields said. “This is about the little girl who is missing. But we don’t know radios. We’re waiting on someone to tell us to get this or get that. We were told a long time ago that we don’t have anything to do with this.”
He suggested that the system should have just been put back “the way it was before” it failed in 2019 and then look into potential upgrades. He further suggested that this replacement system should have already been in place, since the commission approved it in July of 2020.
“You don’t leave something broken until you can figure out what to do,” Fields said, consistently raising his voice. “At least a band-aid is better than nothing...we should have done that a long, long time ago. We shouldn’t even be dealing with this right now. We should have already fixed it….that’s not even defendable.”
He added, “We made the motion to do it, and it just stalled out. Nobody did anything even though the motions were made by this body who keep getting blamed. I for one am sick and tired of being blamed for something, and we got told to wait. You guys need to be safe. That is our main priority... But we were told, you guys stay out of it, keep your mouth shut.”
In response, Miller again explained that equipment for said replacement system has been ordered but was delayed due to the CDBG grant and part shortages.
“We don’t have to take abuse from commissioners”
Shortly after the meeting, Lee released a statement saying that his employees “do not have to take abuse at the Commission meetings.”
“They are being instructed to kindly walk out of the meeting if this happens again,” he said.
He further stated that Field’s suggestion that the county “band-aid” the failing system was “ridiculous.”
“When our system went down, it took us several hours to get in contact with our previous radio vendor,” Lee wrote. “They wouldn't even come out that night. They then told us they would have to ship our microwave unit overseas and weren't even sure if that was the problem. We also found where they were billing us for services that they hadn't performed! I then terminated the contract.”
He added, “Stop listening to these people that have no idea what they are talking about! Unfortunately we have a few County Commissioners that try to make everyone else look bad in order to try to make themselves look good.”
Lee also explained that his agency is proposing to use the $509,858 that the county will receive from the Governor’s Local Government Grant to buy public safety personnel portable and mobile radios.