Michael Cummins, 25, faces multiple murder charges in connection with the death of eight people in Sumner County, Tennessee.
Ayrika L Whitney, The Tennessean
WESTMORELAND, Tenn. – When the Sumner County Sheriff’s Office found the decapitated body of James “Jim” Fox Dunn Jr. outside of a burning shack he called home for more than 20 years, they said they didn’t consider Michael Cummins a suspect in his death.
Investigators knew who Cummins was. They knew he was capable of committing crimes. And he, along with “certain others,” was considered a person of interest, Sheriff Sonny Weatherford said.
But Weatherford said they couldn’t connect him to the scene they discovered on April 17 – 10 days before the discovery of seven more bodies in two separate locations just over two miles from Dunn’s cabin.
Still, authorities had found a headless body outside of a burning cabin.
Cummins, who was arrested in April, would eventually be charged in all eight deaths in what authorities have called the case one of the worst mass killings in state history.
Should authorities have alerted the public of a potential safety threat or a possible suspect on the loose in the highly wooded, rural community near the Kentucky border?
The USA TODAY Network in Tennessee spoke to experts on public safety information who said their agencies routinely ask the public for help or alert them to safety risks.
“Under the right circumstances, if we are looking for someone to question to further a violent crime investigation we will put it out,” said Metro Nashville Police Department spokesman Don Aaron, who was not speaking about the Cummins case specifically.
New details from the scene
When the Oak Grove Volunteer Fire Department was called to the scene of the fire at Dunn’s cabin, they knew he had been reported missing.
The department received a call at 7:18 p.m. on April 17 for a possible grass woods fire, according to the incident report from the fire department obtained by the USA TODAY Network.
Burned cabin and a headless body: Tennessee suspect charged with eighth homicide
“While en route dispatch advised that this could be a cabin explosion in the woods and that the man who lived in the cabin has not been seen,” the report reads.
A Sumner County dispatcher said the communications center would not say who reported the fire, and Fire Chief Jon Richardson said his department was unable to release other documents pertaining to the fire, citing the ongoing investigation.
The fire department report states that when crews arrived, they found what appeared to be a “medium size pile on fire with some personal belongings on fire but it was way down in a valley and crews had a hard time making an advancement on the pile.”
In total, 39 emergency personnel responded.
Crews took a brush truck into the area so they could put the fire out, then raked the pile “so an investigation could begin into where the person who lived in this pile was.”
No bodies were found in the pile, but hours later the Sumner County Sheriff’s Office found Dunn deceased nearby, according to the report.
His body appeared to “have been there for a few days and had been eaten on by wild animals,” the report states.
The fire was not thought to be involved in his death
No public alert
“I think he was dead like that before (the fire),” Weatherford said. “We don’t think his head was cut off (by a person). The medical examiner can’t give us a definite because there were signs of an animal.”
Weatherford said it appeared a coyote had gotten to the body.
Weatherford said there were several reasons the department did not alert the public to Dunn’s death.
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First, he said, the body had been there for some time.
The fire was likely not started by the person who killed Dunn, he explained, and instead could have been the result of some combustible materials found at the scene of the crime. That blaze likely started a day or more after Dunn was killed.
Next, investigators didn’t immediately know a cause of death due to the condition of the body, Weatherford added.
“We were waiting for the autopsy to come back,” he said. “There were several things we were waiting on.”
As of Thursday, results of Dunn’s autopsy by the Davidson County medical examiner had not been released.
“We didn’t really receive information on him (Cummins) until after the bodies were found … and then everybody wanted to talk about it.”
What wasn’t said
Weatherford said that while investigators were looking into Cummins and “certain people,” they had not found evidence to put Cummins at the cabin until after April 27. That’s when more bodies and a .30-30 rifle registered to Dunn were found.
“I don’t want to say (Cummins) was a suspect,” Weatherford said. “We couldn’t put him there. We had been looking into it, but we couldn’t put him there.”
Before the seven bodies were found on April 27 and 28, Weatherford said “no one wanted to talk about” Cummins.
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“This is what’s aggravating,” he said. “Everybody wants to talk about it now. No one wanted to talk about it then. I hate that it happened. Everybody says they knew this was going to happen. Well, if you knew he was going to kill eight people, nobody said anything. … If you see something going on and you don’t tell us, then we don’t know about it. Everyone just assumes the sheriff’s office knows.”
Experts weigh in
Hendersonville, home to more than 55,000 people and the largest city in Sumner County, regularly releases information regarding crimes and suspects to the media and public.
While the department has a media relations policy, it’s a liberal one, according to Detective Sgt. Neal Harris with the criminal investigation division.
“If it’s within the law for us to release information or talk to the media, it’s pretty much wide open,” he said.
Harris, who was also not speaking about the Cummins case specifically, said that the department tries to share as much information as possible with the public, especially when it comes to safety.
“We utilize the media as much as we can … to alert citizens to anything possibly dangerous or any arrests to be aware of for safety reasons,” he said.
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Aaron shared the same sentiment.
He referenced a bar shooting that took place in East Nashville last August. Initially, he said, police did not have suspect information in that case.
“Persons involved in the Cobra Night Club matter were, in the department’s belief, very dangerous,” he said. “And often times there’s a balancing act when you are looking for a suspect.
“If you publicize the fact that a person is wanted and you have a notion or general area of where the person might be, it could cause the person to go underground and cause the individual to elude immediate apprehension.”
But when public safety is at risk, Aaron said the department notifies the community.
“In situations where we believe a person is potential a danger to the community, once we have them identified, we will let the community know we are seeking an individual,” he said.
Cummins’ criminal history
At the time of the Dunn homicide, Cummins was no stranger to law enforcement.
He pleaded guilty to attempted aggravated arson and aggravated assault in Sumner County on July 19. In that case, Cummins set fire to his neighbor’s home and assaulted her as she attempted to extinguish the flames, shoving her to the ground and pulling her hair, according to the warrant.
After he was read his Miranda warning, he threatened he’d return to finish the job, the warrant states.
Other guilty pleas include theft and domestic assault in August 2017, evading arrest in April 2017, theft in April 2017 and probation violations.
The 2017 domestic assault case involved Cummins grabbing his grandmother by the arm, yanking her up and using her hair to move her, according to court documents.
Follow reporters Amy Nixon and Natalie Neysa Alund on Twitter @AmyKNixon and @nataliealund.
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