Episode 015: Summer Wells

October 25, 2021

Five-year-old Summer Wells went missing from her home on June 15, 2021. One minute she was playing with her toys, and the next minute she was gone. What happened to Summer?

Episode Media
Summer Wells (Wells family)
Summer Wells (Wells family)
Candus Bly Wells and Summer Wells (Wells family)
Wells family home (WJHL/Ted Overbay)
Property where Summer was last seen (Sky5)
Summer Wells Amber Alert (Tennessee Bureau of Investigations)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I am bringing you a case that I have followed since Day One. When little Summer Wells went missing this summer, I immediately began seeking out information, hoping that she would be found soon. Cases involving children are often the most difficult to process; this episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

On the morning of Tuesday, June 15, 2021, five-year-old Summer Wells was woken early by her mother, Candus. They had to take Summer’s grandmother, Candy, to the Holston Valley Medical Center in nearby Kingsport, Tennessee. Grandma Candy had trouble with her knee, and she was in a lot of pain that day. 

Before they left the house, Candus told Summer’s brothers – 12-year-old Josie, 11-year-old Wyatt, and 9-year-old Waylon – to stay in the house until she got home. Candus’s husband, Don Wells, had already left for work.

Candus, Summer, and Grandma Candy made the 40-minute drive to the city of Kingsport. After they dropped Grandma Candy off at the hospital, Candus and Summer waited in the truck for a while before Candus made a quick phone call to Hunter, her friend Allyson’s 15-year-old son. She told Hunter she would pick him up and they could go fishing after Grandma Candy was released from the hospital.

Hunter joined Candus and Summer, and the three ran errands around town. At some point that morning, Candus got a phone call from Don. He usually called her every few hours just to check in, but this call was strange. Don told Candus that there was a man on their property – the same man that had supposedly been lurking around their house for the past week. Candus told Hunter that she thought the man was stalking her children.

After Candus hung up with Don, they returned to the hospital to pick up Grandma Candy, then drove to Warrior’s Path State Park, a recreation area located on Fort Patrick Henry Lake. At the park, Summer splashed around in the swimming hole while Candus took pictures and videos to post on TikTok. Candus and Hunter sat by the water, vaping and drinking Twisted Tea. 

Grandma Candy sat in the truck for a while, but then decided she wanted to join the rest of the group down by the water. While Candus went to help her mother down the hill, Hunter watched Summer swim. Summer disappeared under the water for a few seconds, and when she didn’t resurface, Hunter jumped into the water to check on her. When he pulled her up, she was laughing, clearly fine and having a wonderful time.

After everyone dried off and Summer had changed out of her swimsuit, they piled back into the truck and ran a few more errands, including picking up groceries and Grandma Candy’s prescription at the local Walgreens. They then dropped Hunter back off at his house and made the drive home to Rogersville. Summer fell asleep in the backseat, exhausted from the day’s activities.

When they arrived home around 3:30pm, Candus found the boys sitting in the kitchen watching television. She asked them to help bring the groceries into the house while she started the laundry. For a while, everyone was just hanging out around the house. Grandma Candy mentioned that it would be a good time to replant some of the flowers in front of her camper, so she and Candus recruited Summer to help. The three of them worked to fill the planters, with Summer arranging the rocks and adding her small plastic Paw Patrol toys on top as a finishing touch.

When they were done, they went into Grandma Candy’s camper to wash their hands, and Summer got a piece of candy as a reward for her hard work. Summer then said she wanted to go back to the house with her brothers. Candus watched as Summer walked the few short yards to the main house. She could see the boys sitting at the kitchen table, so she called over to them, telling them to watch Summer for a few minutes while she fixed Grandma Candy’s knee brace.

When Candus made it back to the house a short while later, she asked the boys where Summer was. They told her that Summer had gone down to the basement to play with her toys. Candus called down to Summer, but there was no answer. Concerned, Candus climbed down the stairs to see if she could lay eyes on her daughter, but Summer wasn’t there. She then went through the entire house, calling Summer’s name, growing more frantic by the minute. She went outside, yelling for Summer, hoping she would hear her responding through the trees.

Candus told the boys to grab their walkie-talkies and their buck knives and go down to search by the creek. She hopped into her mom’s truck and started driving the dirt roads, calling out for Summer. She didn’t see anyone around, and she didn’t see her daughter.

Back at the house, Candus called Don. She told him, “I can’t find Summer. Get home now.” But Don was over an hour away at a job site. He told Candus to call 911, so she ran over to her mother’s camper to use her phone, the only one that had enough signal to make the call.

Candus told the dispatcher that her 5-year-old daughter was missing, that she had been playing down in the basement and had just disappeared. The dispatcher said that officers were on the way, but Candus wasn’t going to wait around. She hopped back in the truck and drove to a neighbor’s house, asking if they would help her look for Summer, just in case she wandered off. 

Candus drove as far back into the holler as the truck would go, but there was still no sign of Summer. By the time she made it back to the house, Don had arrived home, and police officers were coming up the driveway. 

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation immediately issued an Endangered Child Alert, and a search of the area began. Around 100 people from multiple agencies joined together in the search, which included both aerial and ground teams scouring the surrounding woods.

The intense search continued through the night and into the morning. Hawkins County Sheriff Ronnie Lawson said that the search teams had plenty of support, but that the terrain and spotty cell phone service in the remote area were making a difficult situation even harder. In a press conference on Wednesday, June 16th, he commented on the challenges and thanked the community for their support. “It’s outstanding how the community’s coming to help us… Our main goal is to find Summer and to find her safe.”

Leslie Earhart, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, announced that the Endangered Child Alert had been elevated to an AMBER Alert, indicating that the Bureau believed Summer to be in imminent danger. She told the press that TBI agents were following up on every lead, and that they were asking anyone in the immediate area to check their trail cameras, crawl spaces, and outbuildings for any sign of Summer Wells.

Tips began pouring in, but nothing was panning out for investigators. The TBI was not naming any suspects or releasing any information other than a description of Summer. Leslie Earhart told reporters, “The circumstances surrounding Summer’s disappearance remain unclear. If we do develop information that she was taken and we develop a suspect and a vehicle description… we will share that immediately. At this time, that’s just not the case.”

Sheriff Lawson agreed. “Everybody’s a person of interest until we find Summer.”

By Friday, ground teams – including four different K9 units – had covered over 1,000 acres of land near the Wells’ home, and aerial teams had covered four miles with helicopters and drones. AT&T and Verizon brought cell signal boosters to help increase reception for search teams. Dive crews were called to search multiple ponds and streams in the nearby area. One search team captain said, “We are pursuing every avenue. We’re covering every ground area, every aspect. We want to flip every rock, check every crevice.”

As the weeks passed, the news of Summer’s disappearance spread throughout the South. Over 70 agencies from Tennessee, Alabama, Ohio, Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina were on high alert for any sign of the little girl. An advertising agency in South Carolina used its billboards to display Summer’s name and face all over the coastal region of the state. Even the FBI became involved, sending out its Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team.

Investigators followed up on hundreds of leads, particularly those from residential surveillance videos and pictures from around the Beech Creek area. They were able to identify and interview several drivers whose vehicles had been seen in the area around the time of Summer’s disappearance. They also set up a roadblock, asking passersby if they noticed anything out of the ordinary on June 15th.

On June 26th, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced that they had received information that a Toyota pickup was seen in the area around the 14th or 15th. They described it as a red or maroon Tacoma, possibly between a 1998 and 2000 model, with a ladder rack and white buckets in the truck bed. The agency stressed that the driver of the truck was not a suspect, but a potential witness, asking the individual to contact the bureau with any information that may help in the search for Summer.

While all this was going on, Summer’s family was struggling. Don Wells told a local news outlet that Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services had been helping the family work through the stress and trauma of having a missing child. The boys had been on edge, fighting more than usual as they lived with the constant stress. Candus wasn’t doing well either; Don described her as frantic. “She’ll be okay for a little bit and then she’s up and down.”

Don was especially concerned about Summer being alone and scared. “All those feelings of her being traumatized and stuff like that, those thoughts were coming back and where she could possibly be, you know? And I know she’s hurting and I know she’s scared and I know she misses us.”

By mid-July, over 900 tips had been called in. Sheriff Lawson reiterated that the investigation was still going strong, and that everyone was still considered a person of interest. “Everything that we do is trying to put a piece of the puzzle together to find Summer.” 

But the family was beginning to lose hope. Don Wells told the Kingsport Times News that he believed Summer had been abducted. “Statistically speaking there’s a good chance she’s already dead. I hate to think that. I love her with all my heart. If nothing else, I’ll see her in the resurrection.”

On July 26th, over a month after Summer was last seen, the Department of Children’s Services removed Summer’s brothers from the home. Don confirmed the reports, saying that the boys were taken away because the house was not safe, that trespassers were constantly approaching the home and that the family had been receiving threats on social media. 

July soon turned into August, then September and October. Summer has still not been found, and law enforcement has not declared any persons of interest. The reward for information has surpassed $40,000, and over 1200 leads have been followed in the past four months. 

Of course, there are dozens of theories circulating the internet in regards to what happened to Summer. I don’t usually like to speculate on this podcast, preferring to stick to the facts, but I would like to share two theories that kept popping up in my research so that you can make your own decision.

The first theory, and the one that Don and Candus subscribe to, is that Summer was abducted by a stranger. Both parents have repeatedly insisted that Summer would never wander off on her own. Candus has said that Summer never went anywhere without her, and would always tell her what she was doing, whether it was going out to the tree swing or playing in the yard with the dogs. Plus, Summer is a country kid, and she would know better than to go into the woods by herself – she was well aware of the dangers, dangers like bears and snakes and coyotes. 

Based on the layout of the family’s property, which you can see on the podcast website, it’s entirely likely that Summer could have left through the basement door without being seen. Could Summer have told her brothers she was going to play in the basement, then stepped outside to play in the grass – something she did often? That side of the house is obscured from view and is just feet away from the tree line. Someone could have easily walked up, grabbed Summer, and hightailed it into the woods without anyone noticing. Don and Candus have mentioned a few potential suspects, including a coworker that Don fired the day before Summer disappeared who may have been seeking revenge. There were also allegedly some workers in the nearby area who could have spotted Summer, and if Candus’ story about Don’s phone call is true, there may have been a man lurking around the property, stalking the children. Sheriff Lawson confirmed that search dogs had followed Summer’s scent down a trail but lost it at the road. However, four months later, law enforcement still hasn’t indicated that they are officially treating Summer’s case as an abduction.

The second theory, possibly the most prevalent one circulating online, is that Summer’s parents had something to do with her disappearance. Don Wells has a history of domestic violence and was arrested in October of 2020 after Candus called the police to report that he had drunkenly assaulted her. She filed for an emergency protective order, saying that she was afraid for herself and her children. In the filing, Candus asked for temporary custody of the four children and for Don to move out of the house. She chose to dismiss her petition four days later. It is also known that Candus has two older children from a previous relationship who were taken away from her by the Department of Children’s Services. The reasons why are unclear, and I won’t get into any unfounded rumors here. Simply put, there are multiple red flags where Don and Candus are concerned, and small details of their story have changed over the last four months. However, there is nothing concrete tying them to Summer’s disappearance, and law enforcement have not named them as suspects in the case. 

Right now, officials are still actively searching for Summer Wells. She was last seen outside her home in the Beech Creek area of Rogersville, Tennessee, on Tuesday, June 15th, 2021. At the time of her disappearance, Summer was wearing gray pants, a pink shirt, and is believed to be barefoot. She is about 3 feet tall, weighs 40 lbs, and has blonde hair and blue eyes. 

Investigators are also still on the lookout for the 1998-2000 maroon Toyota Tacoma truck that was spotted in the area near the time Summer went missing. If you have any information about the disappearance of Summer Wells, please contact the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations at 1-800-TBI-FIND or email TipsToTBI@tn.gov.