Summer Wells was planting flowers with her mom and grandmother outside their home in rural Tennessee before she went inside to play with her toys, according to her father.
When her mother went looking for her a short time later, she was gone.
“She went out the basement door and we haven’t seen her since,” Donald Wesley Wells told WSMV in Nashville.
Search teams have spent six days combing thousands of acres of rugged terrain for the 5-year-old, who was reported missing around 6:30 p.m. on June 15 in Hawkins County, about 30 miles from the North Carolina border. The Tennessee State Bureau of Investigation issued an Amber Alert for Summer the next day.
At least 35 agencies from Tennessee and the surrounding states have assisted in the search, the Church Hill Rescue Squad said in a Facebook post Sunday.
Though they’ve covered about 2,400 acres, the squad said search efforts have been slowed by the area’s “rugged, mountainous terrain.”
Summer went missing from the family home on Ben Hill Road in the unincorporated community of Beech Creek, where officials said neighbors are few and far between. The road — which juts off a state highway — is less than a mile long, s and dead-ends at a dense forest surrounded by rocky peaks. A stream called Limestone Branch snakes alongside it.
Hawkins County Sheriff Ronnie Lawson told reporters during a news conference Friday that Summer lives at the house with her three older brothers and parents.
She is roughly 3 feet tall, weighs 40 pounds and was last seen wearing gray pants and a pink shirt, possibly barefoot. She has short blond hair and blue eyes.
‘Somebody had taken her’
In a recorded phone interview with the Kingsport Times-News published Friday, Summer’s father said she was planting flowers about 20 feet from the house with her mother and grandmother the day she went missing. She then went inside and told her brothers, who were reportedly watching TV, that she wanted to play with her toys in the basement.
Her mother, Candus Wells, couldn’t find Summer when she came inside, the father told the newspaper. He said it wasn’t unusual for them to find Summer out back.
“She has to be outside,” he said. “She’s an outside type of person.”
But she wasn’t.
Wells was at work in Jonesborough, Tennessee, at the time of Summer’s disappearance, he said. He rushed home after his wife called 911 to report her missing.
“When I got home, I drove to the bottom of the property and I realized that all my neighbors and stuff were combing the woods looking for her, and I realized right then and there that she was not there,” Wells said in the recording. “I knew right then and there that she was gone — because she would never leave there on her own. Somebody had taken her.”
Summer isn’t the first person in their family to disappear.
Wells told the Kingsport Times-News his wife is originally from Wisconsin, and she had a sister there who went missing a number of years ago.
“They never found no trace of her either,” he said.
Rough terrain slows search efforts
Crews have been looking for Summer since the night of June 15, including searching nearby ponds and creeks.
Tim Coup, incident commander of ground search operations, told reporters during a news conference Friday that search teams have traversed “steep and dangerous terrain” — including “dense canopy coverage” and ground cover. He also said poor cell phone service in the area has made communication difficult.
On Saturday, the agency shared photographs of the house and property where Summer was last seen, urging anyone with information to come forward.
“Every detail — no matter how insignificant you think it may be — is important,” TBI said in a tweet.
The agency said they’ve received 137 tips as of Sunday, but the circumstances of Summer’s disappearance remain unclear.
“Should we develop information that she was abducted and have suspect and vehicle specifics to provide, we will share it with the public immediately,” TBI said in a previous news release. “As this is an active and ongoing investigation, we cannot share specifics.”
The agency said investigators are “looking into all possibilities.”
‘Have mercy on that poor little baby’
For Summer’s father, all signs point to abduction.
“She would never leave our hill,” Wells told WJHL in a statement Thursday. “I think that someone snuck up on her and grabbed her. I don’t think she’s in the area because the dog goes down to the road and that’s the end of the trail, but I don’t know that for a fact. The way that she just disappeared, she would never do that.”
When asked in an interview with WZTV whether he associates with anyone who might have taken Summer, Wells said no.
“I try to stay involved with church people and good people and stuff like that, especially for my kids’ sake,” he told the TV station.
He also told the Kingsport Times-News he willingly took a lie detector test as part of the investigation into his daughter’s disappearance.
“It didn’t bother me to do it whatsoever,” he said. “I understand that, and a lot of times the parents are responsible.”
On Sunday, Wells told WJHL he’s not sure if Summer is still alive.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “Hopefully yes, depending on how bad, or what’s going on with her. There’s always hope.”
He said he hopes his daughter is “not in any pain or misery or being hurt,” according to WZTV.
“Please, please have mercy on that poor little baby. If there’s an ounce of mercy in your body, please let her find her way to get home,” Wells said. “Maybe God will have mercy on you.”
Mom paying to get son smuggled into US calls 911 as deal falls apart, Georgia cops say
Missing teen believed kidnapped by tech savvy dad found safe in Alabama, officials say
Stranger accused of kidnapping Virginia boy chose him ‘at random,’ authorities say