Rumors on social media are derailing search for missing Summer Wells, officials say

Authorities issued an Amber Alert on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, for 5-year-old Summer Moon-Utah Wells after she went missing outside her house in east Tennessee, about 30 miles from the North Carolina border. Investigators said she was last seen wearing gray pants and a pink shirt.

Authorities issued an Amber Alert on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, for 5-year-old Summer Moon-Utah Wells after she went missing outside her house in east Tennessee, about 30 miles from the North Carolina border. Investigators said she was last seen wearing gray pants and a pink shirt.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation

Summer Wells vanished from her family’s home in rural Tennessee more than three months ago. The circumstances surrounding the 5-year-old’s disappearance garnered national headlines, and law enforcement spent weeks combing the back country for any sign of her.

The case is far from cold, law enforcement said, but it’s no longer the rugged, mountainous terrain that’s derailing search efforts — it’s a slew of misinformation circulating on social media.

“We want to urge you only to share information from official sources,” Leslie Earhart with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) said in an update Thursday. “The misinformation and speculation simply don’t help the case. Our teams continue to sift through hundreds of tips and it turns out most of them are rooted in rumors and bad information spread on social media.”

Summer went missing June 15. She was last seen outside her family’s house on Ben Hill Road in Hawkins County, about 30 miles from the North Carolina border.

Her family said Summer was planting flowers outside with her mom and grandmother before she went in the house to play with her toys. That’s the last time anyone saw her.

Summer was last seen wearing gray pants and a pink shirt and was possibly barefoot. She is roughly 3 feet tall and weighs 40 pounds with blonde hair cropped close to her head and blue eyes.

Rumors run amok

Updates on Summer’s case have been few and far between since the end of June.

“We’re still looking, still searching, we’re still following tips,” Hawkins County Sheriff Ronnie Lawson said Thursday. “One thing that we need to do is preserve the integrity of this case because we can’t tell everything we’re doing. We can’t tell everything we know.”

The long stretches of silence have left room for true crime fanatics and amateur internet sleuths to move in.

Within a week of Summer going missing, someone created a Facebook group where people could share updates and trade theories. The group boasts over 6,000 members and is still active with dozens of posts a day. Summer’s case also has its own page on WebSleuths and a Reddit community with more than 4,500 members.

A segment about the case is even slated to air next week on Investigation Discovery’s “In pursuit with John Walsh.”

But the attention has fueled a lot of misinformation and false leads, investigators said.

“We are still being interfered with, with social media and we’re getting calls from the office, that I’m sure TBI is getting, and getting emails with people just concerned about things that’s going on with social media and not the true facts,” Lawson said in early August. “It’s plain and simple: If they don’t hear it from me, or the TBI, it’s not true.”

At the end of July, Summer’s three brothers were removed from their home in Hawkins Creek by the Department of Social Services, The Kingsport Times-News reported.

Their father, Donald Wesley Wells, told the newspaper in a five-minute recorded phone call the house was no longer safe. Wells was hesitant to elaborate on the circumstances, telling the reporter he can’t “say a word because everything’s so blown out of proportion, it’s unbelievable.”

“Right now, it’s not safe at my house. Let’s put it that way,” he said. “There’s too much going on and people are crazier than hell and right now it’s just not safe at my house. There’s too much going on, too many crazy people coming around trying to start stuff and everything like that.”

The reporter pressed him about what kind of people were coming to his house, asking if they were “amateur crime hunters.”

Wells said yes. He also said a psychic named Juanita had shown up on the property unannounced.

“All this speculation is getting worse and worse and worse,” he said. “People are threatening us, it’s just not safe.”

A week after the interview with Wells was published, rumors about the involvement of an alleged psychic in the investigation prompted the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office to speak out.

“HCSO is not utilizing the assistance of any psychics in the search for Summer Wells,” the sheriff’s department said on Facebook. “Any reliable tips should be directed to the TBI at 1-800-TBI-FIND only. Social media posts directed to HCSO shall not be evaluated.”

‘True crime is everywhere’

Summer’s case is not the first to face interference from social media and web sleuths.

True crime has attracted the masses for decades with shows such as “20/20,” “Dateline” and “America’s Most Wanted.” That fascination has seemingly grown in the age of podcasts with hits such as “Serial” and “Crime Junkie.”

“True crime is everywhere,” Kelli Boling, a researcher at the University of South Carolina who studies true crime audiences, told Time last year. “When you watch the nightly newscast, you’re watching true crime. What makes the genre special is that it turns those facts into a narrative, a really strong story.”

The problem is that audiences often forget the impact reliving these crimes has on the victim’s families, Time reported.

“It changed the grief process,” one woman said of discovering the murders of her father, mother and stepfather had been turned into a book. “You can’t just quietly grieve for them.”

Perhaps no true crime case in recent history has attracted such widespread interest as that of 22-year-old YouTuber Gabby Petito.

In some ways, social media’s obsession with her disappearance helped investigators. But it’s also prompted widespread discussions about when internet sleuthing goes too far — particularly when TikTokers and influencers profit off the tragedy.

“Some have accused true crime sleuths of capitalizing on cases for clout, overriding the wishes of victims’ families, and treating tragedies as public spectacles, all while potentially hampering investigations,” Vox reported in a lengthy piece about the role social media played in the investigation of Petito’s disappearance.

In Summer’s case, the pitfalls were two-fold: Social media sleuthing both bogged down investigators and took a toll on her family members — some of whom have been accused in a plot to hurt her.

“It’s hard not only on the mother and father but you’re looking at three little boys, too, who are also hearing it and seeing it,” David Dotson, who goes to church with the Wells family, told WCYB shortly after Summer went missing. “People forget the human factor.”

Hayley Fowler is a reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking and real-time news across North and South Carolina. She has a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and previously worked as a legal reporter in New York City before joining the Observer in 2019.

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