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EquuSearch aiding search for Summer this weekend

ROGERSVILLE – A search and recovery team from EquuSearch Midwest will be in the area this weekend aiding in the efforts to find Summer Wells, the five-year-old child who was reported missing from her Beech Creek home on the evening of June 15.

“As this is an ongoing investigation, if you see any of our teams out and about, please do not convey via social media or other outlets where you may have seen our searches taking place,” Equusearch Midwest stated on Facebook.

“It is very important for the integrity of the case.”

As the name indicates, the organization conducts ground searches via horseback. However, their volunteers also search on foot, utilize ATV’s, as well as drones and remote-control boats outfitted with sonar equipment.

“We also have many resources available that help assist us in achieving our goals of locating the missing,” the Equusearch Midwest website states. “We specialize in searches that involve small and large groups of people. We manage searches that involve as few as five ground searchers up to 500 or more.”

Physical searches began immediately on June 15 and continued for two weeks by numerous search-and-rescue teams from across Tennessee, as well as from other states, including Ohio, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina, led by Church Hill Rescue Captain Tim Coup, the incident commander for ground search operations.

“We will continue to work with the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Department, TBI and FBI until we find Summer Wells,” Coup said at the last press briefing one month ago. “We are all one team and we will not quit until we find Summer Wells.”

Summer’s parents, Don and Candus Wells, have maintained they believe the child was abducted. In an interview with the Review Sunday, Candus said the last thing she saw Summer do was enter the family’s house on Ben Hill Road. Candus said she was adjusting the knee brace of her mother, who lives in a camper just 20-30 feet from the house.

“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.”

The only other door is a basement door, which is not clearly visible from area between the camper and the upstairs door of the house. 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.

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.”

Central Dispatch reportedly received the 9-1-1 call at 6:30 p.m. Candus said she and her sons immediately began searching the area.

“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 (not to) because of the bears and snakes,” Candus said.

While the boys looked around in the creek below the house, Candus drove up and down Beech Creek Road, checking for any signs of Summer, Candus said, to no avail.

“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.

The Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation have been on the case from the start. The Federal Bureau of Investigation soon joined the investigative efforts.

“In this situation, despite doing everything within our power and exploring all avenues, the circumstances leading to Summer’s disappearance remain unclear,” TBI spokeswoman Leslie Earhart stated at that same briefing.

Shortly afterward, the TBI announced there would be no more regular press conferences until something significant warranted an update. Investigators are keeping case details close to the vest.

“I haven’t even spoke to them in like two weeks,” Candus said Sunday. “You’d think they’d at least tell me, update me on something, but they don’t even update me on nothing.”

While Candus insisted only between two and five minutes expiring between the time of last seeing Summer and the beginning of the quest to find her, she is uncertain on other aspects of the timing of other events of the day.

It began with a trip with Summer to Kingsport to take her grandmother, Candy, to the hospital to have her knee examined, and included a visit to a family friend’s home near the hospital, a trip to Warrior’s Path State Park with the family friend’s 15-year-old son for a brief swim, a stop at Walgreen’s for the mother’s prescription, another stop at Price Less grocery for milk, dropping off the boy back at his Kingsport home, then the return trip to the Ben Hill Road home.

“I didn’t even look at the time,” Candus said. “I’m not a person who keeps up with time. When morning comes, it comes. When night comes, it comes.”

Candus reported that when they arrived home, she, Candy and Summer planted flowers in planters next to Candy’s camper, then after washing up and getting a piece of candy from her grandmother, Summer went into the house under the watchful eye of her mother.

She has now been missing for nearly six weeks.

Candus reported having a falling out with the friend in Kingsport, with whom she has apparently been feuding with on social media.

“I don’t get it,” she said. “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.

“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, (the friend) 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?” said Candus, then pointing to one of the family’s eight dogs adding, “I gave that dog to the 15-year-old girl when she was a puppy. She wanted it.

“Then I come to find out she dropped it back off when it got bigger. Why would you do that? They didn’t even bother to search (the friend’s) house or (the boy’s grandmother’s) house. (That) house has got a basement. Why won’t they search their houses?” Candus said.

It’s not clear what areas will be searched this weekend by EquuSearch, only that they wish for them not to be disclosed if seen by the general public. The organization is hoping that privacy will aid in the integrity of its search, the likes of which have proved fruitful through the years.

According to its website, “EquuSearch Midwest is a search and recovery team that started in 2012, as a branch of Texas EquuSearch. As the numbers of missing persons drastically increased over the years, a need arose for more coverage in the Midwestern region of the United States.”

A volunteer-based, non-profit (501c3) organization, Equusearch Midwest works closely with law enforcement agencies.

“Through all of our endeavors, we hope to display the conviction behind our beliefs which is to bring closure to as many families as possible. We are here to help in any capacity and believe that, ‘Lost is Not Alone,’” the organization states.

EquuSearch report that more than 20 missing people have been found in more than 30 searches in recent years

“We will continue to dwell on those still missing, and will never give up on them or any future cases,” promises the company, which has been recommended by numerous law enforcement entities, CSI units, and coroners.

Great Ball of Fire

Lylah Combs swims the Girls 12 & Under 100-yard Individual Medley.

Church Hill BMA strikes down ordinance to end strong mayor government in heated meeting

After a contentious meeting and lots of back-and-forth between Mayor Dennis Deal and several Aldermen, the Church Hill BMA voted 5-2 on June 20 to remain governed by a strong mayor rather than hire a city administrator.

Church Hill currently has a strong mayor form of government, which means that Deal handles the day-to-day personnel and business matters of the town. He also has the authority to hire and fire city department heads.

However, Alderman Kathy Christian proposed an ordinance at the town’s June 15 meeting that would have transitioned the town to a weak mayor form of government and hire a City Administrator to handle the day-to-day town business and personnel matters.

Because Christian’s ordinance was not on the June agenda, and the board did not vote to add it to the ‘new business’ section of the agenda, it could not be discussed or voted on at that meeting. It was then the only business on the July 20 agenda and brought with it nearly an hour of heated discussion.

Mayor allegedly threatens to shoot employees, self

Christian told the Review in June that her decision to propose this resolution came after an incident on May 25. According to official reports from both City Recorder Josh Russell and Public Works employee Michael Seal filed with the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Department, Deal asked several employees to sit in on a meeting that day about faulty equipment at the municipal pool.

“Dennis was agitated during the meeting and became belligerent,” Russell wrote. “Dennis said, ‘I’m pissed. I shouldn’t be here. This is becoming a full-time job. I should get a gun, shoot you all, then shoot myself.’”

After Third Judicial District Attorney General Dan Armstrong’s investigation, however, he determined that no prosecutable offense occurred and will not be prosecuting Deal.

Russell had not returned to work since the incident and was on extended sick leave until he officially resigned on July 6.

“A hostile work environment”

Russell’s resignation notes that his decision was made “due to the current hostile work environment that was created by an undeniable act of workplace violence.”

“There is now a breach in the mutual trust and respect that should exist among the employer and employees; and I can no longer continue working for an employer that does not value the life and safety of its employees,” Russell wrote.

Christian told the board that it was this hostile work environment that led her to propose her resolution.

Alderman Keith Gibson made the second to Christian’s motion and explained that he was in favor of hiring a city administrator.

“There’s a lot of responsibility that goes on, and it takes more than one person who works part-time at doing this,” he said. “We’re talking about a multi-million dollar budget. With a city administrator, every alderman sitting here could have more input. I think it could make the city even better than what it is right now.”

Former longtime Mayor Billy Kyle Housewright spoke up from the audience and proposed that the board study the pros and cons of a city administrator rather than hastily dismissing the idea.

However, Alderman James Grigsby spoke in favor of remaining governed by a strong mayor, saying “our mayor was voted in to be the mayor of this city.”

“I got the letter (Russell’s resignation) in the mail, and I can’t help what happened (the incident on May 25), but we’ve got to pull together or we will be hurting,” he said.

Citizens question Christian intensely

Several members of the public also spoke up from the audience and questioned Christian intensely.

“We’ve got one of the best cities in the state, it’s the safest city in the state...we have one of the best police departments, and we want to change that?” asked citizen Joe Boggs from the audience. “This system of management has worked for this city since its inception.”

In response, Christian began to read a portion of Russell’s resignation letter. Deal struck his gavel and said to Christian, “you’re out of order.”

“You are not going to shut me up,” she told Deal in response.

“So we’re going to change the entire history of this city because we’ve got one or two disgruntled employees?” Boggs asked.

He then pointed to the fact that the town has a Personnel Committee to which town employees can speak if they feel they have been treated unfairly.

Christian read a quote from an anonymous employee, who said that Deal told him “I will fire you, and, if the board hires you back, I’ll fire you again.”

“At this point, the Mayor has the ability to fire anyone that he chooses to,” Christian told Boggs. “Yes, we have a personnel committee, but he doesn’t have to go by the committee.”

In response, Alderman Michael Walker, who is a member of the personnel committee, told Christian that, in his experience, Deal always asks for their recommendation and follows it.

Deal makes accusations about former city recorder

When Christian again read from Russell’s resignation letter, Deal claimed that Russell “wasn’t doing his job” before he resigned.

“It’s interesting that you have this evidence now, but, up until he resigned, there were absolutely no problems with his job,” Christian said.

Deal claimed that Russell was supposed to have obtained a CMFO certification when he was hired and had not done so as of the day he resigned. Deal and several other aldermen also accused Russell of “copying and pasting” previous years’ expenditures into each new year’s budget rather than adding in new information.

However, Russell told the Review that he was in the process of completing CMFO courses through MTAS at the time he resigned. He had two years to complete these courses from the time he was hired, but this window of time was extended because the courses were temporarily suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The mayor was well aware of that...and every time I had completed a course, I gave him a copy of the certificate of completion,” Russell told the Review.

In response to the accusations that Russell was “copying and pasting budgets,” Russell told the Review, “ If you look historically at the last several years’ budgets, there are some numbers that stay the same…”

He added, “They (the board) are very aware of these budgets. They go through multiple budget workshops so they see it, and they go through two readings. If they don’t like it, they can change it or they can vote ‘no.’”

The board approved the budget on first reading in May and on second reading in June.

“You would think Jerry Springer is writing this show”

After Christian read several quotes from employees who claimed that Deal had threatened to fire them, Deal denied these claims.

“I have sat up here for a few months and been quiet, but this woman is not telling the truth,” he said.

Deal then asked questions of several city employees who were present in the meeting and asked them to corroborate this statement.

When he asked Police Chief Chad Mosley whether or not he (Deal) told the police officers what to do, Mosley replied, “no.”

“You’ve got to really be a bad employee to get fired from this city, don’t you?” Deal asked Mosley. Mosley agreed.

“You can’t expect to ask an employee in front of you to answer a question because you can fire him if he doesn’t give the correct answer,” Christian said in response.

The discussion in the meeting became much more hostile than is traditionally the case for the Church Hill BMA, and several audience members seemed to catch on.

“I’ve never known an Aldermen meeting in Church Hill like this...this one is getting like Mount Carmel,” he said. “You would think Jerry Springer is writing the show here, and I don’t want to be in a city like that…”

A Comptroller investigation?

Boggs also brought up a social media post written by Christian in which she claimed that Deal was under a criminal investigation by the State Comptroller of the Treasury.

Both Boggs and Deal accused Christian of lying about this criminal investigation.

When the Review reached out to the State Comptroller of the Treasury’s Director of Communications John Dunn about the matter, he replied, “The Comptroller’s office has broad authority to review government entities including the City of Church Hill. It is our policy not to comment further.”

New state Facade grant could cover needed repairs to Hale Springs Inn

Rogersville’s Hale Springs Inn is set to receive much-needed repairs, thanks to a new grant through the Tennessee Main Street and Downtowns Program.

Hawkins Co. Chamber of Commerce Director Nancy Barker recently told the Rogersville Board of Mayor and Alderman on July 13 that this program recently introduced a Facade Grant of up to $150,000 that can be used for brick repair, windows and doors, safety improvements, and improving the visible entrances of downtown buildings. Barker requested permission for the Rogersville Main Street Association to apply for the grant to do repair work on the Hale Springs Inn, which is owned by the Rogersville Heritage Association.

The grant requires that the municipality pay for the chosen project and then the grant reimburses the town. It also requires a 25% match. Barker requested that the town provide this match for the Hale Springs Inn, as they are not able to afford it.

This money would be used to repair the portico on the front of the Inn and replace as many windows as possible.

“I know it’s a lot to ask, but it’s better to go ahead and get it done through the grant as to have to do it later on when we have to pay it all,” Barker told the board.

A portion of the grant would also be awarded to a few other downtown businesses in need of facade improvements, though Barker noted that each business would cover its own 25% match. She also noted that they have estimated using $80,000 to $100,000 of the grant on the Inn repairs and allotting about $50,000 for the other businesses.

“It’s the biggest draw for tourism--we can’t let that go,” Alderman Mark DeWitte said.

“It’s a known fact that, when the Inn was closed, 30 percent of the businesses downtown suffered,” Barker added. “We’re thriving right now, so, if we can keep it up and running, I think it would be in our best interest.”

The board voted unanimously to apply for the grant.

BMA asks fire department to recommend new chief

Mayor Jim Sells also asked municipal fire department members for recommendations in appointing a new fire chief. They will then present these recommendations to the board at the Aug. 10 meeting.

“That takes a lot of the politics out of it,” Mayor Jim Sells said.

When longtime Rogersville Fire Chief David Jackson resigned in 2020, Joey Maddox was appointed. Maddox retired from the Rogersville Police Department and also served as a detective, Hawkins Co. Sheriff’s Office Deputy and a firefighter.

However, Maddox resigned as chief after only six days citing health issues as his reason for doing so.

The board unanimously appointed Assistant Fire Chief George Henry to serve as the interim chief in the meantime.

Other business

In other news, the board approved closing several downtown streets during October 9-10 for this year’s Heritage Days festival, as requested by the Rogersville Heritage Association.

They voted unanimously to purchase a new dump truck and snow plow through a state bid rather than advertising for bids. City Recorder Glenn Hutchens told the board that the funding for this equipment was already included in the 2021-2022 budget.

They voted unanimously to reject the lone bid of $28,037.75 from Ross Services Corporation for a fence around the future dog park. This park will be located in the northeast corner of Rogersville City Park in the same location as the former skate park. It is currently under construction.

They also voted unanimously to accept the Purdue Pharmacy bankruptcy settlement in the opioid lawsuit in which Rogersville is participating.