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One of the biggest mysteries in all of South Dakota — the unknown fate of 9-year-old Serenity Dennard — elicits one singular emotion more than any other for those who loved, cared for or searched for the precocious girl who disappeared from a Black Hills youth home more than four years ago.
Some people monitoring the missing person’s case feel disappointed that Serenity was able to escape from the locked Children’s Home Society facility on Feb. 3, 2019.
Others seethe with anger that employees of the complex near Rockerville waited 80 minutes to call 911 after she ran away in the middle of winter without a coat.
Many remain consumed with curiosity over how a young girl on foot with less than a five-minute head start could evade an initial search by employees and remain lost after a two-year, manpower-heavy search of the craggy, wooded Black Hills area.
And a few others, some with social media proclivities and only scant knowledge of the law enforcement investigation that took on national proportions, are pained by their insistence that Serenity was abducted by a stranger driving on a rural road, a neighbor, an employee of the facility or even a member of Serenity’s extended family.
But hovering above the entire tragedy is a painful sadness that remains top of mind and fresh of heart in all those who played a role in Serenity’s life or the effort to find her and who want nothing more than to bring closure to a haunting mystery with no answer in sight.
“The lasting emotion for me is that I still hurt that she’s not found,” said Tony Harrison, a former captain in the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office who oversaw portions of the physical search for Serenity and the missing person’s investigation. On what would have been her 14th birthday on May 12, 2023, authorities released an age-updated image of what Serenity might look like now.
“I still hurt for the family. I hurt for the thousands of people who volunteered to search for her. I hurt for the investigators that absolutely poured their entire day every day for years into this case. And I hurt for myself a little bit as a dad because there’s nothing worse than not being able to find a little girl.”
Investigators followed 329 leads but stopped search
Authorities haven’t ruled out anything but have settled on a working theory that the mischievous girl quickly made her way into the remote section around the Black Hills Children’s Home, tried to hide and became lost before freezing to death, according to several law enforcement officials interviewed by News Watch in recent years.
While no individual has been conclusively cleared in the case, investigators said they do not believe a stranger or neighbor abducted her or that any member of her family or the facility had a hand in her disappearance.
Their doubts about a possible abduction arise largely from the fact that a woman and girl were in a car at the Black Hills Children’s Home and saw Serenity run away, then drove up and down Rockerville Road after her a few minutes later without seeing her or anyone else.
“I can’t even begin to calculate the odds that someone who would be willing to violently abduct a child happened by on a rural western South Dakota road within the few minutes they had to do that and successfully abducted her,” then-sheriff’s detective Jamin Hartland said in 2020.
In January 2021, authorities officially halted the physical search for Serenity, her remains or any trace of her in the wooded area around the Black Hills Children’s Home. Yet the missing person’s case is still open and active, according to Helene Duhamel, the sheriff’s spokeswoman.
“The Pennington County Sheriff’s Office remains committed to investigating any leads received regarding Serenity’s disappearance,” Duhamel wrote in an email. “To date, we have investigated 329 leads with the help of other law enforcement agencies throughout South Dakota and the nation. As this remains an open investigation, additional details are not being released at this point in time.”
Nationwide search for Serenity Dennard included interviews with 538 people
The initial two-year investigation into Serenity’s disappearance involved a dual track effort.
The physical search for Serenity included more than 1,500 personnel from 66 separate agencies who covered more than 6,000 miles of terrain during 220 search attempts involving people on foot, air searches and use of cadaver dogs. The first days of the search were hampered by rain that turned to snow and temperatures that dipped well below freezing.
From the archives: One year later, S.D. girl’s fate unknown despite extensive search
A simultaneous investigative track sought to rule out foul play and search nationwide for Serenity. In all, 538 people were interviewed or contacted by authorities. The home, nearby residences and outbuildings were searched numerous times, and six search warrants were executed, officials said.
Harrison said the sheriff’s office received numerous reports of sightings of Serenity during the investigation, none of which panned out. Oftentimes, well-intended people would contact the department, such as when someone in Las Vegas took photos of a young girl in a parking lot who resembled Serenity but which turned out not to be her.
Sheriff: ‘It’s always more emotional when it’s a child’
Then-Sheriff Kevin Thom told News Watch in 2020 that the department took a “systematic, methodical approach” to the investigation that became the most exhaustive and expensive in county history.
He kept a large map of the area around the Black Hills Children’s Home on his desk, with a tangle of blue and red lines indicating each specific path taken by searchers and dogs.
Thom, who declined a request for an updated interview, said in 2020 that the case was stressful for his department. Duhamel said that when Thom was interviewed when he retired in December 2022 that he mentioned the Serenity case as one that will remain in his thoughts for years to come.
“It’s emotionally taxing. It’s always more emotional when it’s a child, and people connect to that differently,” Thom said in 2020. “We’ve had a lot of emotional ups and downs. .. There’s some days you go out there and think this is the day we’re going to find her and we don’t. We’ve gone through that cycle many times, but we pick ourselves up and go back out.”
Adoptive father: Serenity was smart girl who enjoyed being searched for
The inability to find Serenity or any evidence of her disappearance has compounded the anguish over losing a child for those who loved her, including Darcie Gentry, 42, who adopted Serenity with ex-husband Chad Dennard in 2014 after fostering the girl for several months.
Gentry is Serenity’s legal adoptive mother and retains secondary custody but did not live with her at the time of the disappearance.
For years after Serenity disappeared, Gentry kept a bedroom in her Rapid City-area home made up with stuffed animals and Serenity’s favorite things in case she returned.
Serenity was a “super smart” and outgoing girl who brought joy and light to those around her, even as she battled emotional problems caused by uncertainty and abandonment during her childhood, Gentry said.
Chad Dennard, Serenity’s adoptive father, said in 2020 that Serenity had spent time in a dozen foster homes and that her biological mother had served time in prison. He said Serenity was a highly intelligent girl who loved animals, babies, watching movies, singing along to music, riding her bike and spending time with her grandmother.
Chad Dennard acknowledged that Serenity had run away from home several times and enjoyed being searched for. He agrees with the theory that Serenity escaped from the home and somehow got lost to the point she couldn’t find her way back or be easily found.
Adoptive mother has faint hope of Serenity’s return
Gentry said she was disappointed that officials from the Children’s Home Society let Serenity get away and also did not respond to her requests for a sit-down meeting to discuss the disappearance and search.
Gentry said she was impressed with the actions and emotional response of the law enforcement officers who worked on the case, though she remains puzzled that no evidence of Serenity has ever been found.
And yet, with all the boulders, ridges, lakes and elevation changes in the Black Hills, and the poor weather at the time of her disappearance, Gentry said it seems likely that Serenity found a hidden final resting spot.
“With all the search crews and everything, it was really miraculous to me that they never found a boot or something,” she said. “But I know the Black Hills, and I know how vast that area is.”
Gentry remains unable to shake the feeling, however slight, that Serenity is still alive and will make her way home someday.
“It’s just like the perfect situation for her not to be found,” Gentry said. “Part of me feels like if she was still out there (in society), somebody would have seen her long before now. But that being said, if she’s up there in those woods, if she got dragged by an animal somewhere, we just really want to know.”
Conspiracies and criticism prompted two suicide attempts
The pain and pressure from reading near-constant criticism and conspiracy theories on social media led Gentry to try to take her own life twice.
Some online commenters tried to implicate Gentry in Serenity’s disappearance, even though she was at work as a nurse when the girl disappeared and was cleared by authorities.
Gentry agreed to have her suicide attempts reported by News Watch so people who make hurtful anonymous statements online will know that “words hurt, and words cut more than if somebody were to flat out punch me in the face.”
She wants to encourage people to think of others who may be in great pain before posting hurtful or hateful comments.
“I definitely was needing help, and I eventually told myself, ‘This is not me, and I need to be strong for Serenity in case she ever comes back,’” Gentry said.
Gentry said that when her husband was followed home from work and chased around their neighborhood in his car, the family had enough and decided to move to the Sioux Falls area, where they now live.
Chad Dennard told News Watch in 2020 that he and his family had also undergone extensive harassment after Serenity disappeared.
Strangers have driven by their home and taken pictures of his other children; his children were bullied at school; his and his wife’s parenting skills were questioned on social media; and one commenter even suggested he had given Serenity a cellphone as part of an abduction plot, Chad Dennard said.
Ex-lawmaker impeded investigation with conspiracy theories
Harrison, one of the investigators, said the immense social media attention on the case and frequency of uninformed posts caused pain for those involved in the case and may have actually slowed the investigation.
At one point, former state Republican legislator Lynne DiSanto interviewed people and created videos and a website devoted to conspiracy theories surrounding the case. DiSanto, who now lives in Montana under the name Lyndi Meyer, hurt the investigation, Harrison said.
“Social media can be very helpful … when people are doing it for the right reasons, which is to help the family out,” he said. “But she (DiSanto) didn’t do anything to make the case better. And she added confusion, so it was frustrating for us to go back and correct statements she made.”
Children’s Home Society faulted but no lawsuits filed
Gentry said she has considered but not proceeded with any legal action against the Children’s Home Society.
News Watch checked state and federal court records but did not find any pending legal action in the case. A society spokeswoman confirmed no litigation or settlements have been filed.
“That would just cause a rift and drag this out for another 10 years,” Gentry said.
The nonprofit Children’s Home Society, which operates inpatient child treatment facilities in Sioux Falls and Rockerville, was the subject of strongly worded investigative reports by the South Dakota Department of Social Services and the federal Center for Medicaid Services in 2019.
Those reports concluded that several errors committed by staff of the Black Hills operation played a role in Serenity’s disappearance. Two employees were fired as a result.
Security improved at Rockerville and Sioux Falls locations
Janet Andersen, a spokeswoman for the society, said the organization that also provides adoption, foster care and child mental health services, made several changes to improve security at its facilities after Serenity’s disappearance.
In a statement emailed to News Watch, the society wrote: “Children’s Home Society is committed to providing a safe, caring and fulfilling home for the kids we serve. As we have stated previously, CHS has made adjustments to both physical security at our Rockerville Road and Sioux Falls campuses and enhanced our policies and protocols to address potential run away situations. Caring for children is a profoundly important life-mission for each member of our team.”
Andersen declined to provide specifics about the policy and procedural changes. But society director Michelle Lavallee told News Watch in 2020 that security improvements included adding cameras and new, more secure doors at the two treatment centers, where runaway prevention drills are done more frequently.
Lavallee said a new policy requires employees to immediately call 911 if they lose sight of a child, that a supervisor will always be onsite and that radios will be synchronized to avoid communication breakdowns.
“You won’t see this happen again today,” Lavallee said in 2020.
‘We just want some closure’
Harrison, now retired from the sheriff’s office and working as a law enforcement training expert for a private company, said two cases from his 26-year career in front-line law enforcement still haunt him: The 2011 fatal shootings of two Rapid City police officers and Serenity’s disappearance.
“This case will never just go away,” he said. “But I take solace that at the end of the day, we did everything we could and literally left no stone unturned to the best of our ability to find her.
“I just hope and pray that someday, somebody comes across her and we can give some closure to the families.”
In the years since Serenity’s disappearance, Gentry and her family have fluctuated between the desire for Serenity’s remains or some sign of her to be found and their wish for the long-shot dream that Serenity might someday return alive.
“We kind of go back and forth,” Gentry said. “I still try and hold out a little bit of hope, but we just want to know that she’s found. … Anything.”
Gentry said even receiving the worst possible news would provide some salve to an open emotional wound.
“Those of us who love her, her family and close friends, we just want some closure,” she said. “If we could just have some closure, we could have a proper burial for her.”
- Serenity Dennard, 9, exits the gym building at the children’s home unattended around 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019 after staff members inside are distracted by another child. Dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, jeans and snow boots, Serenity is believed to head north on paths within the complex.
- At the same time, a woman and her granddaughter drop off a child at the northern entrance to the main office.
- As they begin to drive away, they both see Serenity running alone across the parking lot, and they recognize that she is a resident who is likely running away.
- They continue to watch as Serenity stumbles and falls at the cattle guard just short of Rockerville Road. The grandmother reverses the car back to the main building, gets out and rings a doorbell to alert staff inside of the runaway.
- The granddaughter stays in the car, watching Serenity. Now at a walking pace, Serenity heads north on Rockerville Road. At a spot about 50 yards north of the main entrance, the granddaughter loses sight of Serenity due to trees and topography. It was the last known sighting of Serenity, who has been missing ever since.
- Within three to four minutes of losing sight of Serenity, the grandmother and granddaughter drive down the Black Hills Children’s Home path and turn onto Rockerville Road to look for Serenity. Heading north, they drive up the road and return to the children’s home more than once and do not see Serenity or any other vehicles or people. Meanwhile, children’s home staff begin to search on foot and in vehicles and do not see Serenity. After 1 hour and 20 minutes since being alerted to the runaway, children’s home staff place the first call to 911, kicking off a year-long search and investigation that have turned up nothing.
About Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch, Rapid City, S.D., is the content director for South Dakota News Watch. A Wisconsin native, he is a former editor of the Rapid City Journal and also worked at newspapers in Florida. Bart has spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and writing coach. Contact Bart at email@example.com.