ROGERSVILLE – “If you took her, just bring her back. You don’t even have to tell me that you did it. Just bring her back. Say that you found her walking, I don’t care. Just bring her back. That’s all I care.”
So pleaded Candus Wells late Sunday afternoon in regards to her 5-year-old daughter Summer, who went missing five weeks ago, seemingly vanishing within five minutes of last being seen. “I don’t understand it,” the child’s mother said. “It don’t make no sense.”
Candus recalled June 15, the day Summer disappeared.
Candus’ mother – also named Candus, but who’s nicknamed Candy – needed to see a doctor in Kingsport about her aching knee.
“We went to Gatlinburg and the boys accidentally kept tripping over her sore knee,” Candus said. “She had an artificial knee replaced. And if you twist it the wrong way, it pops out and it hurts really bad. And she couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t stop hurting after a while, so I took her to the ER that morning.”
After taking Candy to Holston Valley, Candus and Summer went to visit some family friends in Kingsport. “They invited me over to sit at their house while I waited for my mom to get done so we weren’t sitting in the hot truck. So, I went over there,” Candus said.
“I was sitting and mom called me to come get her,” said Candus, adding that the 15-year-old son of her friend asked to go along. “I went and picked her up, and then we drove all the way across town and dropped her prescription off. They said it’d be about 30 minutes at the most.
“So, we were like, well instead of sitting here in the car where it’s hot — it was baking hot – we’ll just go to Warrior’s and let Summer swim for a little while. Like I said, we weren’t even planning on going swimming or fishing or anything,” Candus said.
So, they went to Warrior’s Path State Park and let Summer and the boy swim in the cove just south of the park’s horse stables. “I figured 15 or 20 minutes in the water, you know, run a little bit of energy out instead of sitting in the truck,” Candus said.
One of the last videos shot of Summer before her disappearance is of her swimming in that cove. There has been much speculation in social media about what happened next. According to accounts, Summer went under water and the boy dove in to save her. Candus said that didn’t happen. In the video, Summer is seen splashing in the lake, then stands up to reveal it’s only about waist-deep.
“That boy lied on everything that happened,” Candus said. “Because the place I was at, there was no rocks. She didn’t slide on no rocks and fall in the water. She wasn’t under the water for 20 seconds or more like he said. That was just a bunch of lies he made up. I don’t know why he did that.
“There was no incident at all. That don’t even make no sense why he would even say that. And the video that I took is the same, exact time that they were in the water playing,” Candus said. If Summer had fallen, “she’d jump right back up. That’s what don’t make no sense to me, at all. There’s so many rumors and lies going around, none of it even makes sense. Couch Police, that’s what I call them.”
After the swim, it was back across Fort Henry Drive to Walgreen’s, then a quick stop at a grocery store.
“We went back and picked up my mom’s prescription and went to Price Less. I dropped off (the boy) after Price Less and we come home. And then me and my mom – the boys were in watching Youtube like they always do – my mom says, ‘let’s re-arrange and plant the flowers.’ She goes, ‘Well, we know the boys aren’t going to help us. I know Summer will.’ So, I yelled for Summer. She was in the house with the boys. She comes out and she was planting flowers with us,” Candus said.
The flowers were put in planters next to Grandma Candy’s camper, with Summer handling some of the tasks, Candus said.
“She put all the rocks on top, put chaste in there. She did all the rocks herself. We went in to grandmother’s after we were done. She asked Grandma for a piece of candy. Grandma gave her a piece of candy. She told me she wanted to go back over with her brothers, so I literally walked her” halfway between the camper and the house, Candus said.
“I watched her go in the door and I could see her brothers at the kitchen table. When she went in, I walked over and yelled at the boys, I said, ‘Watch Summer. I’ll be right back. I’ve got to fix Mom’s knee brace.’ I was standing right there (at the camper). I was over there fixing it. Literally, you can see my house from the (camper) door. She did not walk back out that front door.”
Candus estimated it took “maybe two to five minutes to fix Mom’s brace.”
“When I got done, I come back in. I asked the boys, ‘Where’s your sister?’ They said, ‘She went downstairs to play with her toys, Mom.’ I said okay and I went and I hollered down the steps. I always holler for them down there. And she didn’t holler back. I said, ‘Are you sure she’s down there?’ They said, ‘Yeah, she just went down there.’
“So, I went down there and I searched. I looked everywhere I could. Then I went through the house and I kept calling for her, yelling for her, everything. I came out here (outside) yelling for her, everything else, and she was nowhere. So, I called Don because I was freaking out,” Candus said.
Don, Summer’s father, was installing drywall at a job site in Jonesborough.
“I said, ‘I can’t find Summer. Get home now,’” Candus recalled. “He was like, ‘Call 9-1-1.’ So, I dropped my phone because I had to run over and get Mom’s phone and dial 9-1-1, because her AT & T phone is the only one that works out here to call 9-1-1. So, I called them, and told them what’s goin’ on.
“Before the cops even came out, I went down and told my neighbors, ‘Summer is missing, will you help me look?’ just in case she did wander off. But I knew in the back of my mind, she’s never wandered off. She never went nowhere without me. She’ll ask me to do something before she even goes and does it. And she’s scared to go in the woods herself because we’ve told her time and time (again) because of the bears and snakes,” Candus said.
“I sent the older boys down through the creek. If they’ve got a walkie-talkie and their buck knife, they can go down through there. I sent all them searching and I went out in my mom’s truck and went all the way down by the church, then went all the way down the (other) way and I didn’t see nobody even out and about,” Candus said.
“Then I went all the way back in the holler as far as the truck can go and I didn’t see nothing back in there, either. When I was coming back up out of the holler, the cops were coming up in my driveway. So, I just followed them up in here. I don’t recall if (Don) was here before the police got here or if he was here at the same time they showed up,” said Candus.
“We searched everywhere we could possibly search. They were out here for three or four days straight searching 5,000 square (acres). They searched all this mountain terrain all the way down through here. They busted into my shed down there and destroyed it,” she said.
“What really gets me is when they were searching for her, why didn’t they make the neighbors let them go in their sheds and buildings and stuff? Why didn’t they make them unlock it? Some people were like, ‘No, you can’t search my property.’ Why would you do that? There’s a missing kid. Why would you not let them search? It just don’t make no sense,” said Candus, who grew frustrated at times with the searchers.
“They looked in every vehicle I had, underneath every vehicle I had. They opened that tote right there and all it’s got in it is a bunch of crafts and stuff. You couldn’t even fit nobody in that if you wanted to. They opened that like seven times. They even went so small to look in my mom’s sewer tank of her camper. That’s hole’s like” an inch-diameter circle, Candus gestured with her thumb and index finger. “How did you get that four-foot baby in that hole?” she said.
Candus said she thought the police canines would have had better success if she had been notified to corral the family’s eight dogs.
“They just done some stupid underhand (stuff). When they brought the cadaver dogs up, why didn’t they warn me ahead of time to find a place for these dogs to go? They just brought them up. ‘Oh, you got dogs?’ ‘You guys already knew I had dogs!’ That didn’t pan out because you’ve got these eight adult dogs wanting to smell all these new dogs you just brought up on my property. So that’s going to mess up the cadaver dogs because it’s not going to know which way to go,” Candus said.
Summer’s mother also expressed frustration with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
“TBI kept questioning me. They asked me the same thing, wanting me to run through my whole timeline of my day. They did that like four or five times. I’m like, you guys still don’t get it. If I was going to lie, I would have to think about it. It just comes out. I don’t have to sit here and think about what I did. I know what I did. I just spit it out to you 20,000 times,” Candus said.
“A liar has to think up something. I passed my polygraph test and everybody is like, ‘Oh, you failed.’ No, I didn’t fail. The first time I did it, they couldn’t really do it with me because they threw me in the back of a squad car like I did something wrong and hauled me up there. I was already distressed over Summer being missing and then they did that to me. So that just made more fuel to the fire and made me more upset, so by the time I got there I was crying and shaking and just couldn’t do it,” Candus said.
“So, they told me they’ll give me a few days to calm down and get some sleep and stay off your phone, because that’s the worst thing you can do is be on your phone. And so I did that. And then I passed. It’s not like I failed anything. People are like, ‘Oh, she failed.’ No, I didn’t fail.
“The only people that had to do it were me, Donnie and Mom. All three of us passed. They took the boys to a different place, someplace over by Greeneville somewhere. A child advocate, or something like that, talked to the boys. The boys pretty much told them exactly what I told them. And I didn’t even talk to the boys,” Candus said.
All the boys had to recall was Summer coming in the house and going downstairs.
“Because they got so hooked on watching Youtube. They watched Mindcraft videos on Youtube. I’m like, ‘Don’t you guys ever get bored with that?’” Candus said.
“They took my TV because it’s hooked up to my Wifi, like they’re going to find something on my TV. It’s like they’re digging for nothing. They’re grasping at straws and not really trying. Everything that they did to me was backwards. They didn’t shut down none of the roads until the next day. I mean, anybody could have been in and out of here, gone by the time they got down here. It takes them a good 40 minutes to get from Rogersville out here,” she said, adding that there had been any recent contact from law enforcement.
“I haven’t even spoke to them in like two weeks. You’d think they’d at least tell me, update me on something, but they don’t even update me on nothing. I asked them to go check all these barns and sheds that have been out here for years that anybody could be in,” Candus said.
“I tried to get them to go check out this guy who was trying to camp out here and try to take over my neighbor’s property. They were like, ‘Oh yeah, we checked him out.’ It’s like they don’t even really care if they find her or not. That’s what it seems to me because we’re poor, I guess. I guess if we had lots of money, they’d do better work, I guess. That’s the way I look at it.
“I don’t know, for some reason, TBI don’t believe that she was abducted,” Candus said. “That’s what don’t make sense to me because she’s not here. She don’t just disappear. I mean, I’ve seen movies where people just start vanishing off earth, but you know them are so fake. But somebody had to have taken her. That’s the only conclusion I could come to.
“She had to have either – either somebody snuck in the basement – or she walked (out the) back. She’ll come out the basement and walk around the house to her swing. She’s always did that. She’s never wandered, ever, away from here. She’s never went out of this yard at all,” Candus said.
Neither the basement door or the lower half of the driveway loop is visible from the area between Candy’s camper and the Wells’ home; the slope of the hill is too great and the house blocks the view.
To compound matters, although there are eight dogs on the property, they don’t bark much. Candus was asked if they were good watch dogs.
“Hell, no,” she replied. “They’re lazy. Anybody that came up here that could have took her could have fed the dogs down there (lower part of the yard). These dogs are so friendly and love everybody, they don’t know strangers.”
Indeed, contrary to expectations, the dogs greeted this reporter like a known friend and hardly barked during the hour-plus on the property.
As the hours tick by and more and more days pass, Candus can only wonder.
“Everything goes through my mind,” she said. “You go about the ‘what ifs’ – what if you did this, what if you did that. There’s just all kinds of crap that goes through your mind. I didn’t even know how close that we even live to these freaking sex offender people. There’s literally one that could walk to my house in eight minutes. I didn’t even know they existed this close to my house.
“I don’t believe anybody anymore. I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t trust nobody because everybody I talk to either twists my words around or they do something, they put out more lies. And it’s making it worse and harder on TBI to even find her,” Candus said, adding that the stress is affecting her three sons, as well.
“I won’t let these boys outside if I’m not out here. I try to take them out of here so they can get their mind off it. In the summer, that’s all that I do with the kids because it’s summertime. They’re not at school, so here’s a chance when they’re not at school they get to enjoy themselves. When we go, I smile for the kids, but I’m not having no fun. I’ll get in the water with them, but that don’t mean I’m having fun,” Candus said of the constant knowledge that Summer is missing.
“If you look at all the pictures, she was always smiling. They’re always happy kids. I mean, they’ll get into fights because that’s what brothers do. But other than that, they’re always happy no matter what they’re doing. Wyatt tells me, ‘Mom, I feel like if I would have went downstairs and played with Summer when she asked, she’d still be here.’ I said, ‘You can’t blame yourself, son.’ I said nobody knows what the next day is going to hold.
“They smile to put on a good show, but other than that, I know they’re really upset. They ask me every day, ‘Is Summer coming home today?’ I can’t answer that. I don’t know. I find myself sitting out her until midnight or one o’clock at night just hoping maybe that whoever took her or whatever happened, she’ll come wandering back up the driveway to us,” Candus said.
The Rogersville City School Board of Education will soon enter into negotiations with Edwin Jarnigan, formerly of Grainger County Schools, to offer him the position of RCS Superintendent.
This came after current Superintendent J.T. Stroder announced that he will soon resign the position to focus on family matters. Stroder has only held the position for 15 months.
The RCS BOE held a special-called meeting on July 16 to discuss the matter. Chairman Reed Matney explained that Stroder has not yet officially resigned from the position, though it is his intention to soon do so.
“(Stroder) has offered to work with us in this transition and going forward,” Matney told the board.
In April of 2020, the BOE unanimously chose Stroder after interviewing six candidates to replace retiring superintendent Rebecca Isaacs. They also selected former Jarnagin as their second choice if they couldn’t come to a contract agreement with Stroder.
Jarnagin was Grainger County director of schools from January 2010 until he retired in January 2020. He then returned to his former position as testing supervisor until June of 2020 when he began work as the safety coordinator for Union County schools.
Prior to 2010, Jarnagin was a high school teacher, assistant principal, principal and supervisor, spending nearly his entire career beginning in 1985 at Grainger County Schools.
All members in favor
At the July 16 meeting, Matney suggested that the board could choose an interim superintendent while they continue to search for a permanent replacement, offer the position to someone permanently.
When he asked for input from the board, it became apparent that each member was in favor of offering the position to Jarnigan on a permanent basis. In fact, each board member openly spoke in his favor.
“I feel that we need someone at RCS who is experienced, has a great fiscal track record, and, most importantly, has a servant’s heart for his staff, students and community,” Board member Scott Trent said. “Not only does Jarnigan meet each of these expectations, but the decision would allow our school system to move forward. Though other options are available, attached to those options are a plethora of ‘if’s, and’s and but’s.’”
He also noted that the staff members with whom he spoke were in favor of Jarnigan.
He further explained that Jarnigan would be available to accept the position on a part-time basis as of July 26 and full-time the following Monday. However, Jarnigan requested that he be considered as a permanent superintendent rather than an interim, and the board agreed.
“When all this started, and I realized we were going to have to look for a new director, that was my very first thought--Mr. Jarnigan--because we all agreed that we really liked him at the time,” Member Barbie Combs said. “I thought he had the personality to bring everyone together...He seemed like the sort of person who would be a peacemaker and do his job well but be considerate of others.”
Member Carol Gibson told the board that Jarnigan was actually her number one pick back in 2020.
“I remember his personality and thinking that he seems like ‘homefolk,’” she said. “He seems caring, and I think we all can say that we need someone to care about the faculty and staff and our children, first and foremost. Without them, there is no school.”
“I wanted somebody calm and experienced that could lead the school forward,” Member Julie Phillips said of the interviews in 2020. “Mr. Jarnigan certainly does fit that bill.”
Principal Rhonda Winstead retires
Additionally, the board announced that Principal Rhonda Winstead will retire before the 2021-2022 school year begins, though they did not yet discuss how they will proceed with hiring a new principal.
Both Matney and Trent had positive things to say about Winstead’s legacy at the school.
“You have been the leader that has allowed RCS to be one of the top systems in the state,” Trent told Winstead. “I appreciate that effort, and I just want to say ‘thank you.’”
“We certainly do appreciate your leadership,” Matney added.
Phillips, however, told the board that she did not feel that the RCS staff had been properly informed about Stroder’s resignation or Winstead’s retirement.
“The staff has not been officially informed yet that Mrs. Winstead is retiring as soon as she is or that Mr. Stroder is resigning, so they are kind of out in left field,” she said. “We need to rectify that right away. The staff is this school, and our success in the state is our staff.”
Though this new change in leadership comes close to the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, Matney told the board that “the staff is ready.”
“I had a meeting with our leadership team, and I was so impressed,” he said. “We’ve got a professional group, and they’re ready to go...We always have our primary focus on the kids. Every child matters, and we want to do what’s best for them.”
At their July 26 meeting, the Hawkins County Commission will be tasked with approving the 2021-2022 fiscal year budget, which includes a $2 million deficit.
So far, the budget committee has met several times to hear funding requests from county department heads.
Some notable expenditures included in this budget are an increase in contributions to all county fire departments and rescue squads, an increase in contribution to the county animal shelter, the addition of a deputy county clerk, completion of the Laurel Run Park erosion project, and an adjustment to the property tax rate.
What is a deficit budget?
The 2021-2022 budget currently is set to include a $2 million deficit, but this does not mean that the county is $2 million in debt.
“You can’t pass a budget that would put [a county] in debt--the state comptroller wouldn’t allow it,” Hawkins Finance Director Eric Buchanan told the Review. “The way we look at every budget is by asking whether your revenues support your expenditures. [Having a deficit budget means that] on paper, they don’t. But, we estimate our revenues low and our expenditures high so that, when the dust settles, we have a positive reaction.”
The budgeted $2 million is the projected deficit if all appropriated county money was spent in its entirety and every revenue came in as low as the budget estimates.
“In reality, often different office holders will turn in some money (at the end of the fiscal year), and a lot of revenues will outperform our projections,” he added.
For example, when the Commission approved the 2020-2021 budget in August of 2021, it included a deficit of $859,567. However, the undesignated fund balance ended up increasing by $1.5 million instead.
If expenditures do end up greater than revenues at the end of a fiscal year, the deficit is closed by moving money from the county’s undesignated fund balance, which is projected to be $9.6 million when the 2020-2021 fiscal year officially ends.
New property tax rate
Hawkins County’s property values are reappraised by the state of Tennessee every five years, with 2021 being a reappraisal year. As a result, property values throughout the county increased.
Thus, both the county and all of its municipalities must adjust their tax rate to reflect the new property values. This new rate will net the county the same amount of revenue from property taxes as last year, as the state also has a law that does not allow municipalities to receive a profit just from these reappraisals.
Hawkins County’s new certified tax rate is $2.16 per $100 of assessed property value. This is opposed to the 2020-2021 tax rate of $2.53.
One commissioner opposed to tax rate
Buchanan explained that the state arrives at the certified tax rate by looking at property throughout the entire county. Because this rate reflects an average, some individual residents may pay a bit more in taxes this year, whereas others may pay a bit less.
Commissioner Danny Alvis told the budget committee on July 7 that, for him, this new rate will be a slight tax increase; therefore, he will not support the tax rate.
“I’ve done my math, and all I have to go on is what I paid last year,” he told the committee. “To get what I paid last year, the tax rate needs to be $2.11...I will not support anything that is over that. For me, it’s a tax increase.”
Should the budget include a $2.11 tax rate as Alvis proposed, this would add an additional $615,000 to the deficit, for a total deficit of roughly $2.6 million. To make up for this, Alvis proposed taking the additional $615,000 from the undesignated fund balance.
“I am not a voting member of the committee, but I could not encourage you to do anything to balance out the savings further than we already are,” Buchanan told the committee.
At the end of the July 7 meeting, however, the committee voted 7-0 in favor of sending the second draft of the budget on to the full commission with the $2.16 tax rate included.
Funding increase to fire departments, rescue squads
The budget committee also increased funding for all eight county volunteer fire departments from $19,110 per department last year to $30,000 this year.
That was in addition to the increase for all four municipal fire departments from $17,150 per department to $20,000.
In May, representatives from many departments came before the budget committee explaining that they were unable to hold many of their regular fundraising events last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Others, such as the Stanley Valley VFD told the budget committee that much of their turnout gear is outdated.
Both the Church Hill and Hawkins Co. Rescue Squads each received an increase from $49,000 to $50,000.
However, as the Review previously reported, Commissioner Hannah Winegar suggested that the budget committee potentially “revisit” the contributions to the rescue squads after Sheriff Ronnie Lawson presented on July 7 the cost each agency took on from the search for missing child Summer Wells.
Laurel Run Park repairs
The budget also includes $135,000 to complete the Laurel Run Park shoreline erosion project, though the budget committee initially went back and forth on whether or not to appropriate funding for this project.
Over the past two years, a portion of the riverbank was repaired after the Tennessee Valley Authority contributed $50,000 worth of rock. However, this was not enough to complete the project and left roughly 1,176 feet of shoreline actively eroding.
Other notable expenditures
The county’s revenue did take a hit in the amount it will receive this year from housing state inmates.
Though the county does not receive money from housing their own inmates, the state pays the county to house any inmates that would normally be housed in a state correctional facility.
“Normally the reason the county houses them is because state facilities are full,” Buchanan told the Review. “Now--mostly due to COVID-19 and the effect it has had on the judicial system--there is a surplus of beds in state facilities.”
In the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the county was budgeted to receive $950,000; whereas they are projected to only receive $200,000 this fiscal year. This is a loss to the tune of $750,000.
The budget also includes $90,000 to repair the runway apron at the Hawkins County Airport, which is currently deemed out of compliance by inspectors. If the airport continues to be out of compliance, it will no longer be eligible for any future state grants.
The county clerk’s office will also soon hire a Deputy County Clerk, and $40,000 is budgeted for this purpose. Buchanan explained that the exact cost of adding this employee could come in slightly higher or lower depending on the healthcare benefit package that is chosen by the employee.
Additionally, the county’s contribution to the Hawkins Co. Animal Shelter increased from $22,540 last year to $30,000 this year.
Though the Surgoinsville Board of Mayor had previously discussed including a property tax increase within their 2021-2022 budget, they passed the budget on second reading on July 12 without it.
However, Mayor Merrell Graham told the Review that the board will revisit the idea of a tax increase next year.
Hawkins County’s property values are reappraised by the state of Tennessee every five years, with 2021 being a reappraisal year. As a result, property values throughout the county increased.
Thus, both the county and all of its municipalities must adjust their tax rate to reflect the new property values. This new rate will net the town the same amount of revenue from property taxes as last year, as the state also has a law that does not allow municipalities to receive a profit just from these reappraisals.
Surgoinsville’s new certified tax rate is $.9663 per $100 of assessed property value. This is opposed to the 2020-2021 tax rate of $1.20.
It was Vice Mayor Bob Jarnigan who had previously spoken in favor of the tax increase. When it came time for him to cast his vote in favor of the budget without the increase, he voted ‘yes,’ but noted that he was “reluctant” to do so.
“We can’t leave it (the property tax) at this forever,” he said. “We’ve not raised the taxes in 12 years.”
“We could have raised [taxes], but we’ve researched it, and... we’ve been advised that the town has a healthy general fund, and we will be fine doing the $.96 for a year,” Graham told the Review. “It looks like we’re probably going to raise it next year, but I don’t know yet what it will go to.”
In June, Graham told the Review that the board had considered raising the taxes from $1.20 to $1.30, but this wouldn’t have taken effect until the 2022-2023 fiscal year.
Employee raise, new garbage truck
The budget includes $926,100 in projected revenue, $948,578 in projected expenditures and a $22,478 proposed deficit. The town is estimated to end the 2020-2021 fiscal year with a fund balance of $459,514.
Other notable expenditures in the budget include a 10% raise for all city employees, which will cost around $32,000.
Jarnigan was also an outspoken supporter of this raise, noting that the employees hadn’t received a raise in six years.
Additionally, the budget proposed that the town borrow $300,000 to purchase a new garbage truck and backhoe and pave several town roads. The board has not yet selected the roads to be paved. The board also authorized Graham to move forward with borrowing this money so they can purchase the truck soon.
Main Street bridge repair
Public Works Director Eddie McNally told the board that he was recently informed by the Tennessee Dept. of Transportation that they will begin the engineering process necessary to replace the bridge at Main Street and Surgoinsville Creek Road in the third quarter of this year.
“When they start the process of engineering, that’s always drawn out but needed,” he said.
He noted that they likely will not close the road for the engineering process, but it will be closed once the replacement begins. No official construction date has been set.
“I’m sure it will be an inconvenience for traffic,” McNally told the board. “There’s not much way to reroute.”
In other news, the BMA voted in favor of a Planning Commission recommendation to rezone a building on Old Stage Road from B-3 business to R-3 residential.
The building was the former dental office of Dr. Ronald James, but it is now a private residence.
Beginning on July 24h, delivery of The Rogersville Review Weekend Edition will be on the date of publication which has always been Saturday. During the height of the pandemic we were pleased to be able to have your Weekend Review delivered a day early on Friday but will now resume with our regular delivery schedule.
Sincerely, Matthew Wolfe
General Manager of The Rogersville Review