HAWKINS COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — A group of self-proclaimed social media sleuths traveled to Hawkins County this week to offer aid in the search for missing child Summer Wells.
Garnering a combined following of more than three million people, the group of four true crime fanatics told News Channel 11 that nearly six months without a break in the Summer Wells missing persons case was unacceptable. So, they decided to come to Hawkins County and see if they could do something about it.
The group consists of Marissa Zdazinski, a YouTube creator; Jonathan Lee Riches, a Twitter and Facebook creator; Andra Griffin, also a YouTube creator; and Olivia Vitale, a TikTok creator.
“As far as law enforcement goes, we do follow the rules,” said Zdazinski. “We gave Hawkins County [Sheriff’s Office] a heads up in person, told them our plans. We did the footwork for hours, went to City Hall, did everything that we possibly could. And we told them of our plans to go up there and see what we could scope out.”
The group all met while conducting an informal investigation on the Gabby Petito case earlier in the year and have been working together to search for answers they claim law enforcement may not be able to obtain.
“We love law enforcement; however, they are human,” Griffin said. “And I think this idea that our community feels that they’re subhuman like they don’t make mistakes, is just wrong. They do make mistakes, and we kind of help guide them in a way not to take away from them, they do fabulous work, but they do make mistakes.”
She said that social media sleuths like them may be able to obtain information closer to a specific case than law enforcement at times.
“What I find most helpful when we’re in, say, a county or a city is that people do open up to us, people that wouldn’t normally open up to law enforcement because they’re scared they may be doing illegal activities themselves and don’t want to be involved,” Giffin said. “You know, having a normal person to speak to that they can relate to, that they can feel the vibe that we’re here to help, they don’t mind using us as the conduit to get the information to law enforcement.”
Olivia Vitale told News Channel 11 she’s been doing social media investigations for about a year, but she didn’t become hands-on until she started working with the other three sleuths.
“I like to help people, and we work together as a team, and we’ve been able to do things that other people haven’t been able to do – law enforcement, they can only do so much,” Vitale said.
She also added that community members seem more open to converse with them than with law enforcement.
“Locals and neighbors and family members and friends – they open up to us and I think it’s because of our vibe or energy,” Vitale said. “They feel like they can tell us things that they don’t feel comfortable telling law enforcement and then with social media, we’re able to bring out different perspectives and we’re able to debunk a lot of theories, and that’s a huge part of what we do is we do a lot of debunking you know of theories that don’t make sense or are ridiculous aren’t true.”
‘We’re just boots on the ground.‘
So, why did the so-called “Power Team” come to Hawkins County? The short answer, according to Riches, was to make noise about the Summer Wells disappearance.
“We’re just boots on the ground,” Riches said. “Pressure breaks pipes, you know? Law enforcement, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to solve crimes that are unsolved. And by being out there, it’s forcing law enforcement to act and do something, because if they don’t, then they’re looked bad upon.”
The crew told News Channel 11 they briefed the sheriff’s department as soon as they arrived in Hawkins County that they would be seeking answers.
“t’s been six months, and they still don’t have answers,” Riches said. “Nothing has progressed with this case; we don’t want the case to go cold.”
The team echoed Riches’ remarks.
“If law enforcement doesn’t start doing something, and start letting people know what’s going on because right now, we feel that this child has been failed for six solid months, nothing has moved on this case,” Griffin said. “And if we need to start applying pressure, we’re going to start applying pressure. This was a fact-finding mission.”
She’s best known as “Bullhorn Betty,” and said that she did bring her bullhorn with her on the trip; however, she didn’t feel the need to use it.
“We always bring the tools necessary to do whatever strategy we decide on to execute, and the bullhorn was not one that we chose to use on this trip. We are starting to work on planning another trip and very well may use it,” Griffin said.
The group also laughed about the fact that each of them received several warnings before heading to the Hawkins County region – especially Beech Creek, where Summer was reported missing.
They each echoed the same stories of people warning them that Hawkins County natives would not want them in the area. Riches said the opposite could not have been more true, and the community was very accommodating.
“Didn’t know what to expect. We were told not to come here, that we were going to get killed, mugged as if this was a warzone. And it was the absolute, complete opposite,” Zdazinski said. “If you really want to know, I thought that the city was beautiful, I thought the neighbors and the people in town were absolutely lovely and really willing at this point in time, willing to speak.”
“When we came here, I mean we thought we were gonna get shot,” Vitale said. “Like, that’s what we were hearing people were saying: ‘please be careful,’ like ‘shoot first, ask questions later,’ like ‘you’re in extremely dangerous territory. Please be careful.’ So we were prepared to, when we came, I was ready to be shot – literally. And it’s beautiful here. We’ve talked to a lot of nice people. It was the polar opposite of what we were being told on the internet.”
‘This is a full time job.’
The four self-proclaimed truth-seekers told News Channel 11 they are not just focusing their efforts on the Summer Wells case but have dipped their collective toes in multiple investigations across the country.
So, who pays for the trips?
“We definitely get a lot of flack. People want to say things like ‘you’re just exploiting this person for monetary gain,'” Zdazinski said.
She said her YouTube followers have been dedicated to donating funds to make her investigations possible.
“My subscribers and my members were able to pay for everyone’s rooms, all of our meals, gas, my plane tickets, anything that we really need. Another cost is printing out flyers and getting things rolling – all those incur costs and it’s because of the donations,” she said.
The group relies heavily on donations from their collective social media followers.
“This is all possible because of our donors online. We have various social media platforms – Tik Tok, YouTube – this would not have been possible without people online that donate to us, and they help us out. All the money goes to our food and our transportation, our lodging,” Vitale said.
Griffin applauded the group’s social media benefactors for supporting their work.
“People wouldn’t fund us if they didn’t believe in us, if they didn’t see the work that we did, that we documented, they didn’t see the positive outcomes that are coming,” Griffin said. “While a lot of these don’t end in positive outcomes, but they realize that we are getting somewhere, they see what we are doing. They see what we’re able to accomplish, and they want to support that. They want to make sure that we move forward. They want to make sure I mean, we’re down in Florida, we’re over in Utah, we’re in Wyoming, we’re now in Tennessee. This stuff costs real money, and this is a full-time job.”
‘We’re gonna keep coming down here‘
The group said that this trip was only a fact-finding mission to explore the area where Summer Wells was last seen and report to the authorities anything that they might have found.
“It inspires me to want to make a difference in this world, and I document – we all document – what we do and we share it on our platforms, but hopefully when we share, we inspire others to come out and do the same. We don’t – I don’t – do it for clout. None of these people do it for clout or clicks. We do it because we want to help,” Riches said.
Griffin added that though law enforcement is equipped with the knowledge and resources to conduct an investigation into Summer’s disappearance, she believes they need help.
To aid in the investigation, Griffin said the group will hand over any and all “evidence” they gathered on their trip to Hawkins County.
“I look at these trips to see what we can accomplish, how we can help solve a problem. There’s a problem when we come out to a job, that means that somebody is either missing or dead. And if we can give that anybody just a little bit of information that can help solve that case – just a little bit – we’ve done our job well,” Griffin said.
Zdazinski said she hopes to be back and hopes to question Summer’s parents – Don Wells and Candus Bly.
“Don needs to come to reality, and Candus needs to talk. We’re gonna keep coming down here until she talks. Well, I’m not letting this go. I’m not letting this go,” Zdazinski said.
News Channel 11 reached out to Hawkins County Sheriff Ronnie Lawson to request an interview about the social media creators’ interactions with law enforcement during their visit but were told the sheriff was unavailable.