One year missing: The search for Summer Wells
It’s been one year since Hawkins County child Summer Moon-Utah Wells went missing, and investigators are still trying to find out what happened.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - It’s been one year since Hawkins County child Summer Moon-Utah Wells went missing, and investigators are still trying to find out what happened. To mark the occasion, Summer’s father, Don Wells, released a statement.
On Wednesday, TBI officials, along with Hawkins County Sheriff Ronnie Lawson, held a press event to give an update on the search.
Summer’s case took the country by storm last year, inspiring state and volunteer search efforts and an ongoing investigation. The girl was first reported missing on June 15, 2021, at the center of a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation-issued Endangered Child Alert. A case earns this status when authorities decide there’s a concern for the child’s safety.
Summer’s family, including parents Don Wells and Candus Bly, reported last seeing the girl around 6:30 p.m. that evening at her home. She was last seen wearing a pink shirt and grey shorts and may have been barefoot at the time.
On June 16, authorities issued an Amber Alert on Summer’s behalf, meaning they thought she was in immediate danger.
WVLT News was on the scene the entire day in Hawkins County, covering updates as soon as they happened. At a media briefing, Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office officials said investigators had not identified any suspects or vehicles of interest. By the end of the day, authorities had received 30 tips relating to the girl’s disappearance. Since then, that number has jumped to 2,200, TBI officials told WVLT News.
As the early stages of the search progressed, TBI and Hawkins County officials called in 19 other agencies to assist. Unreliable cell phone service and rugged terrain caused issues for search parties, and crews asked people to clear the area to help professionals ensure everyone’s safety.
A few days after Summer’s disappearance, the TBI announced it was investigating Don Wells’ claims that Summer had been abducted.
WVLT News spoke to Don Wells, who addressed concerns that foul play might have been involved in the case. Don Wells also said that TBI investigators had searched his home as part of the investigation and told WVLT News that the 5-year-old was not the first member of the family to go missing.
Rose Marie Bly, Summer’s aunt, went missing in 2009. The Charlie Project, an organization that catalogs missing person cases, stated that Rose Bly was last seen in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, on Aug. 1, 2009. She reportedly left her home that night to meet a cousin at a bar, but she never reached her destination. Five days later, her car was discovered 30 miles away in a parking lot. The woman was never found, and her case remains unsolved.
Just four days after the Amber Alert was issued, volunteers and agencies from Alabama joined in the search.
As the search continued, investigators asked Hawkins County residences to begin searching their own properties, saying that the 5-year-old could have made her way into a shed or outdoor building in her search for shelter.
At the time, 77 agencies spanning across multiple states, including Ohio, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina, were assisting in the search.
When asked if Summer’s parents were suspects in the missing person case, TBI officials said they had not ruled out any possibility. Hawkins County officials later revealed Don Wells had been arrested on domestic assault charges in 2020. Following the incident, Summer Wells’ mother, Candus Bly, filed for an order of protection against Wells. In the now dismissed order of protection, Bly stated “I am afraid for my children and myself.”
According to the protection order, Bly said Wells was mentally and physically abusive. Bly later asked for a dismissal of the order of protection. On April 21, 2021, the charges of domestic assault and unlawful possession of a weapon were dismissed.
TBI spokesperson Leslie Earhart spoke on the case as it passed into its second week, saying, “this one is outside the norm.” At the time, more than 106 agencies from six states had joined the search. Officials also asked nearby residences to check trail and security camera footage for any clues from Summer.
June 26, 2021, marked a significant development in the case; TBI officials asked the public for information on a truck that had been seen in the area around the time of Summer’s disappearance. The red Toyota Tacoma was described as having a full-bed ladder rack with white buckets in the bed.
TBI officials began scaling back the search on June 27. Earhart addressed the move at a press event.
“Search efforts will continue on a more specialized team basis as needed and directed from local, state, and federal agencies. Just because we may not be seen as such a large presence in and throughout the area, rest assured that we have not quit and won’t quit until we find Summer Wells,” officials said.
At the time, the search had composed of 1,150 searchers that had logged more than 13,800 hours of searching. The TBI’s fixed-wing search helicopter had also logged a combined 21.2 hours of flight in the search, which was facing problems with the terrain.
“The rugged mountainous terrain continues to cause problems. This slows search operations down in these areas but rest assured, while encountering these conditions, we are still searching with an aggressive approach with extreme attention to detail,” the Church Hill Rescue Squad stated in post on Facebook.
In late June, the Church Hill Rescue Squad announced a reward fund for information leading to the discovery of Summer’s location.
Summer’s mother, Candus Bly, later spoke to WJHL News about the case, saying she thought her daughter had been abducted.
“Me and my mother and her were planting flowers, and we went in after we got done washing our hands, and [Summer] got a piece of candy from grandma,” Bly told WJHL. “And [Summer] wanted to go back over and see her brothers, and I said, ‘OK,’ and I walked her all the way over to the porch, and I watched her walking into the kitchen where the boys were watching TV. I told the boys, I said, ‘Watch Summer; I’ll be back.’ And within two minutes, I came back, and I asked the boys where their sister was, and they said, ‘She went downstairs, Mom, to play with her toys in the playroom.’ I said, ‘OK.’ And I yelled downstairs for her a couple times, and I didn’t get no answer, which was unusual because usually she always answers me. And so, I went down there to check, and she was nowhere in sight.”
Bly told WJHL that she believes Summer was abducted. “I feel in my heart that somebody has came up here and took her … has lured her away from here,” she said.
Later, Don Wells spoke to the Kingsport Times, saying he didn’t think the case would have a good outcome.
“Statistically speaking, there’s a good chance she’s already dead,” Don Wells told the Kingsport Times News. “I hate to think that. I love her with all my heart. If nothing else, I’ll see her in the resurrection.”
Wells said he believed Summer was abducted but the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation still has no evidence to confirm that.
The Kingsport Times later reported that Summer’s three brothers had been removed from the Wells household by the Department of Child Services. Don Wells told WVLT News at the time that his home was “dangerous.” He said the family had received threats on social media and multiple people had trespassed on the home’s property, including people claiming to be psychics.
“All sorts of people. Juanita for one. They think she’s a psychic and she has some sort of special gift, and we don’t need her crazy ass stopping at our house. She claims to be a Christian, and then she claims to be a psychic. How does that work? If you’re a Christian God says you don’t go there, period. It’s against God,” the father told Times News.
When asked whether the boys are in state custody or with friends and relatives, Donald Wells told Times News, “I can’t answer any questions, buddy. I’m not going to go there.”
Four months after Summer’s disappearance, her parents created a YouTube channel dedicated to thanking the community for their efforts. The channel currently has dozens of videos posted and almost 14,000 subscribers. The two also made a website aimed at hosting information about the case. The website also contains several pictures of the girl and quotes from her family.
The family was not the only group to take to YouTube during the case. Another group, Heels on the Ground, also began documenting the case on the video platform. WVLT News spoke with YouTuber Marissa Zdazinsky; Candus Bly filed a trespassing complaint against her in December. Zdazinsky told WVLT News that she had indeed walked along a road near what she believed was the Wells’ property, and even entered a shed she thought they owned.
In late October, Don Wells was arrested for driving under the influence. The 56-year-old faced five charges: driving under the influence, open container, expired registration, improper lane usage, and violation of financial responsibility, according to a Hawkins Co. record-keeping app Mobile Patrol.
Feb. 4 marked Summer’s sixth birthday. The Wells family posted to their YouTube channel commemorating the event. TBI officials told WVLT News that the Summer Wells reward fund had received several large donations around this time, bringing the total to $73,705.90.
On Feb. 7, Don Wells pleaded guilty to a DUI charge he was arrested for on Oct. 30. It was Wells’ first DUI, but since the arrest violated previous probation, he was sentenced to 11 months and 29 days at the Hawkins Co. Jail, where he remains, according to WJHL.
TBI officials and Hawkins County deputies said they had returned to the Beech Creek area on Feb. 28 to conduct a “small-scale search” at “previously identified areas of interest.” According to a spokesperson for the TBI, the identified points of interest were in the area surrounding Summer’s home.
A year after her disappearance, Summer Wells still remains missing. Investigators and searchers have not given up on the girl and are asking anyone to submit information by calling 1-800-TBI-FIND.
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