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The most extensive investigation in western South Dakota and one of the most exhaustive searches in state history have failed to determine what happened to 9-year-old Serenity Dennard, who disappeared on Feb. 3, 2019.
Despite a search by more than 1,200 people covering 4,500 miles of woodlands, and an investigation tracking down more than 220 leads and involving 465 interviews, Serenity remains missing and her fate remains a mystery.
Serenity was 9 on Feb. 3, 2019, when she ran away on a cold Sunday morning from the Black Hills Children’s Home, a residential youth treatment facility located near Rockerville, S.D., less than 10 miles from Mount Rushmore amid some of the most rugged and remote terrain in all of South Dakota.
Two witnesses saw her run off, and a search began almost immediately, but Serenity has never been seen again and no evidence of her death has been discovered.
Over the past year, the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office has led an aggressive, two-pronged attempt to find Serenity — an investigative track that has sought to rule out foul play and search nationwide for Serenity; and the search track that has engaged 1,200 trained personnel from more than 65 agencies using scent and cadaver dogs, aircraft and thermal devices to look for Serenity’s body or any evidence.
Pennington County authorities have not ruled anything out, but their working theory is that Serenity ran into the woods, got lost and froze to death or died of hypothermia.
Yet until Serenity or any evidence is found, her disappearance will remain a mystery that has captivated, saddened and in some cases angered people in South Dakota and beyond.
As the one-year anniversary of Serenity’s disappearance approaches, South Dakota News Watch interviewed several people close to Serenity or her case. The reporting has led to several discoveries, including:
— Serenity was known to run away frequently from her family home in Sturgis. Runaway prevention was part of the reason for her placement and part of her treatment plan at Black Hills Children’s Home. Serenity tried to run away one week before her final escape and was placed on a protocol of “arm’s length only” monitoring. But for reasons unexplained, the strict runaway-prevention effort was ended a day or two before her fateful Feb. 3 escape, according to Serenity’s adoptive father and his wife, who are her primary caretakers.
— The children’s home, run by the non-profit Children’s Home Society, was cited by state and federal regulators after Serenity’s disappearance for waiting 80 minutes to call 911, for having radios that were on different channels and for lacking planning and training in runaway prevention.
— Two people with direct physical oversight of Serenity at the time of her disappearance were fired after she ran away, according to Children’s Home Society Executive Director Michelle Lavallee. But the on-call supervisor who advised employees on the scene to search longer on their own before calling 911 remains employed, as does the director of the home, who refused an interview request from News Watch.
— Although the home society has engaged new protocols to heighten runway prevention and training for employees at the Black Hills home, those same methods have not been fully implemented at the society’s residential treatment home in Sioux Falls. Also, as of late January 2020, security cameras and doors with security alarms were planned but not yet installed at the Black Hills home, nearly a year after Serenity’s disappearance. Similar security mechanisms are proposed for the Sioux Falls home but won’t be purchased or installed until the society receives a funding grant it has applied for, Lavallee said.
— Serenity’s adoptive parents, now divorced, and their loved ones have had their sorrow and stress worsened by criticisms and outrageous false statements on social media and a website created about the case. Serenity’s adoptive mother has been accused of involvement in her disappearance, even though she was at work when the girl went missing and investigators do not suspect any of the parents. Serenity’s adoptive father has had strangers take pictures of his other children playing outside his home and has been accused of giving his daughter a phone in a plot to help her escape.
— Sheriff’s officials say Serenity had only a 3-minute to 5-minute head start on the first searchers. Two eyewitnesses who saw Serenity run away reported it and then searched for her. The eyewitnesses lost sight of Serenity for only 3 to 5 minutes before trying to follow Serenity’s path.
Deputy Jamin Hartland, the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office lead detective on the case, said the investigation is the most extensive in Pennington County history, and so far has shown no evidence of an abduction or other form of foul play.
“In this investigation, as in any investigation, obviously we can’t rule out any possibility until we know exactly what happened to Serenity,” Hartland told News Watch. “We just have no solid evidence thus far to suggest that this was an abduction or anything other than a girl who ran away from a facility and has yet to be found.”
- 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 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.
Hartland and Sheriff Kevin Thom say it is highly unlikely that Serenity was taken by a stranger or someone driving by.
They base that view on the short period of time Serenity was out of sight; the fact that she was walking in snow boots on a rural stretch of a road trafficked almost exclusively by locals during winter; and the fact that it was late morning on a chilly Super Bowl Sunday.
“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,” Hartland said.
Cadaver dogs searching for her have picked up scents, but it is unknown if the odors emanated from Serenity.
Serenity’s adoptive father, Chad Dennard, said Serenity had become adept at planning and executing runaway attempts, but also seemed to enjoy watching people search for her. Dennard said his theory is that the girl stayed just ahead of searchers and got lost before succumbing to the freezing temperatures and snowfall that arrived the evening of her running away.
“As far as what I think happened, it changes every day,” Dennard said. “But I think she’s out there; I truly don’t think somebody picked her up. I think she liked to run and she wouldn’t run very far, but she liked to see people looking for her. I think she watched people look for her and I think she went too far and got lost. That’s just Serenity, and she had done that before.”
Dennard, his wife, KaSandra Dennard, and Serenity’s adoptive mother, Darcie Gentry, all expressed shock that such an intense, sustained and expansive search has not found Serenity. The anguish of not knowing what happened or where she is has led them all to hope that someday, somehow, Serenity might return to them.
“We’d take any news at this point,” Gentry said in an interview at her home east of Rapid City. “Her bedroom is all set up for her, waiting for her to come home. Sometimes I just go in there and I cry. I lay down, I hold her unicorn, and I cuddle up in the blankets. It just completely rips your heart out.”
After being given up by her birth parents who were unstable, and moving through more than a dozen foster homes, Serenity had been diagnosed with reactive detachment disorder, a condition in which children do not feel secure with familial relationships and can act out as a result. She was also diagnosed with disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, a condition marked by mood swings.
Chad and KaSandra Dennard said Serenity was referred to the children’s home after a period of worsening behaviors that included running away multiple times, instability in relationships with other children and the potential for self-harm. She began residing at the home in July 2018 for what is typically a 14-month admission.
A quick plan, then a quick escape
According to Deputy Hartland, Serenity was playing in the gymnasium at the children’s home just before 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019, with two staff members and six children present.
Serenity and another girl made an impromptu plan that the girl would distract staff members so Serenity could run away, Hartland said. When the girl ran out of the gym and back into the main building, one staff member chased her while the other stayed and supervised the remaining children.
Serenity used the distraction to open the outside door and run away (for security and safe-exit purposes, doors in the children’s home are locked from the outside but not from the inside.) No one from the children’s home gave immediate chase.
Serenity, dressed in jeans, a long-sleeve shirt and snow boots, ran north across a campus path and into the main parking lot of the complex.
Authorities know this because after Serenity left the gym, a woman and her granddaughter saw her, Hartland said. The pair had dropped off a child at the northernmost building on the campus and were driving on a campus path when they saw Serenity run through the parking lot and stumble on the cattle guard just short of the exit onto Rockerville Road.
While watching, the grandmother reversed the vehicle back to the main building, got out and rang a doorbell to alert a cook inside that a child was running away. The cook was equipped with a radio to alert other employees, but the radio was on a different channel, which slowed the initial staff response, Lavallee said.
The granddaughter remained in the car and watched as Serenity, now walking, headed north on Rockerville Road.
After walking about 50 yards north of the complex entrance, Serenity went out of sight of the granddaughter, whose view was blocked by trees and topography.
When the grandmother returned to the car, the pair drove out of the children’s home complex and followed Serenity’s path north on Rockerville Road.
They drove a while and returned to the home, then retraced their route more than once, but they never saw Serenity again, and they never saw anyone or any vehicles, Hartland said.
The witnesses said about three to five minutes elapsed from when they watched Serenity running to when they first notified the cook. Then, another three or four minutes went by from when they lost sight of Serenity to when they drove onto Rockerville Road to begin searching.
At the time of the runaway, 15 staff and 37 children were at the facility, Lavallee said. Four staff members began searching for Serenity as soon as they were notified; one more joined in later. Lavallee said that the on-call supervisor was contacted at home and advised staff to continue searching for 15 minutes more before calling 911.
When that supervisor arrived on scene about 80 minutes later, 911 still had not been called, so the supervisor then called authorities to report the runaway, Lavallee said.
The emergency call kicked off an aggressive search and investigative effort that evening, including the arrival of a portable command post, searchers with dogs and eventually the arrival of detectives, including Hartland, who was notified of the case around 6 p.m.
The hunt begins, and drags on
The first night, Hartland and other deputies went door-to-door to all the homes in the area, about 40 in all, trying to see if anyone had seen Serenity, but also getting a feel for any unusual responses, Hartland said.
The department also gave immediate national attention to the case by reporting Serenity as a missing person with the National Crime Information Center, and the next day issuing a national Missing and Endangered Person alert, which is one step above the NCIC notification, Sheriff Thom said.
In the days after, detectives interviewed children’s home employees and residents who were at the home the day Serenity left. Eventually, Hartland said, his team interviewed all employees or former employees of the home who had had any contact with Serenity, about 100 people in all.
Investigators also interviewed both sets of Serenity’s adoptive parents and her birth parents, and none are considered suspects, Hartland said.
“We’ve been criticized for not investigating the children’s home staff and the families, when in fact those are two of the first things we did,” Hartland said.
Another key component of the investigation, he said, was determining whether Serenity could have contacted anyone outside the home before her escape, either by phone or computer. Investigators found nothing to indicate she had done either, Hartland said.
Through the year, Hartland and investigators from a wide range of agencies have followed up on 224 leads from across the country, mostly reported sightings of Serenity. With the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and numerous other local agencies across 36 states and Canada, every lead has been checked without positive results, he said. The department has also looked into claims of sightings in Pakistan and Nigeria that turned out to be scam attempts.
Searching, searching, and not finding
While most of the investigative effort has been done quietly, the numerous and extensive searches for Serenity have been well publicized.
In all, more than 1,200 people from nearly 70 agencies, including more than 100 dog teams, have logged more than 4,500 miles of walking, Thom said. The agency often alerts local media that a search has taken place or is about to, and pictures and videos are often posted on the department’s Facebook page and Twitter account.
To monitor the search and try to rule some areas out, Thom maintains a tabletop-size map of the area with lines demarcating where GPS devices show people and dogs have searched so far. Almost the entire region is nearly covered with blue and red lines where searching has taken place.
Thom pointed out that his agency has conducted numerous searches for lost people in the Black Hills during his nine years in office, and mostly with success. But he also cautioned that searching in the Hills is never an easy task.
The weather turned bad the day Serenity ran away, with temperatures below freezing and snow that fell and stayed for several weeks, hampering the search and reducing the chances Serenity could survive outside for more than a few hours, Thom said.
“In terms of Serenity specifically, she’s very small, she’s 4-foot-9, roughly 90-some pounds, so if she’s in the woods and got lost, at the point you’re becoming hypothermic, there’s the potential that you find a spot to curl up to get warm, under a rock ledge or next to a log,” Thom said. “Experienced searchers will tell you that it’s not uncommon to walk past people multiple times in an area once they get hidden and you can be a few feet from someone and walk right past them.”
Thom said cadaver dogs have alerted to scent, but it is unknown if the scent originated with Serenity, and so far nothing has been found.
“We’ve got two tracks; the investigative track and the search track, and we’ve never stopped doing either of them,” Thom said. “I think there is a point we stop, but we haven’t reached that point yet.”
The sheriff’s office consulted a pediatrician who said that given Serenity’s age, size and the weather, she possibly could have walked three to four miles from the children’s home, presenting searchers with a giant area to search.
Thom noted that his department has an ongoing case in which a man remains lost in the Black Hills. Experienced elk hunter Larry Genzlinger, 66, of Howard, was hunting near Deerfield Lake in the Black Hills on Oct. 1 and has not been found despite an aggressive search.
Gail Schmidt, chief of the Rockerville Volunteer Fire Department, has helped lead numerous searches for Serenity and is believed to have spent more time in the woods looking than anyone else. As of early January 2020, she had personally logged 63 days of searching and had covered an estimated 375 miles on foot.
Schmidt said searching is difficult in the region around the children’s home owing to the sheer variety of terrain and topography — from open forest roads and trails to granite outcroppings to caves to draws and drainages to ponds and lakes. The region is also home to numerous downed, blackened trees that remain piled up from the Battle Creek Fire that scarred 13,000 acres around the children’s home in 2002.
“I’ve found myself seeing something black and square and thinking, ‘Could that be her boot?’” Schmidt said.
The wide variety of low and high points not only creates myriad places where a pre-teen girl could hide or seek shelter, but also creates challenges for dogs and handlers trying to track a scent, Schmidt said. Wind, temperature and humidity all affect how scent travels, making it tricky to determine the source of smells that have been occasionally picked up and noted by cadaver dogs.
Schmidt, like others, is bothered and surprised that such an extensive search has not turned up Serenity or even any of her clothing.
“My explanation for how we could have covered so many miles and haven’t found her is that we just haven’t gotten to her yet,” she said. “We’re in the process of eliminating areas and following any scents … but there’s lots of rock outcrops, so if she tucked herself into a rock or a cave somewhere, we just try to check those areas as best we can.”
Schmidt said she has been amazed and touched by the incredible efforts of local first-responders, community members and outside experts who have participated in or supported the search for Serenity. Thom said the value of the volunteer hours devoted to the case, added to the actual costs incurred by his department, are likely over $500,000.
Safety improved at Black Hills Children’s Home
Lavallee became executive director of the Children’s Home Society in late September, replacing longtime director Bill Colson, who retired in 2019 after a decade leading the agency. Lavallee is a former candidate for lieutenant governor who has served as an executive at Raven Industries, Avera Hospital and the University of South Dakota.
The Children’s Home Society has two residential treatment centers; one with 60 children in Sioux Falls and the Rockerville facility, which houses 36 inpatient children. The society receives about $8 million a year in Medicaid funding; it costs about $275 per day to house a child, depending on the treatment plan, Lavallee said.
Lavallee said improving safety for children at the Children’s Home Society residential facilities became a top priority after Serenity’s disappearance and a scathing review of policies by the state Department of Social Services and the federal Center for Medicaid Services in April.
The society has complied with all the directives put forward by the state and federal regulators, Lavallee said.
Several policies have been updated, including that 911 will be called anytime a staff member loses “line of sight” on a child and that all radios are now programmed to the same channel.
A new phone system has a button to alert employees inside and outside the home that an emergency exists, and a designated supervisor must be on campus at all times and would serve as the search coordinator in an emergency.
Beyond that, runaway drills are conducted monthly in Rockerville and more frequently than before in Sioux Falls. New employees undergo runaway training at the time of hiring, Lavallee said.
The society plans to install cameras outside the Rockerville facility in early February, and at that time new doors will be installed that can be opened only from the inside with a key card or else an alarm will sound and a 15-second delay will engage to prevent unauthorized departures.
“You won’t see this happen again today,” Lavallee said, adding that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security visited the children’s home in October to make further suggestions on security and will make a similar visit to the Sioux Falls home in March.
Lavallee said the state DSS recommended the termination of the two children’s home employees; she would not discuss other personnel decisions or anything related to Serenity’s treatment, including if or why the “arm’s length” monitoring ended.
Lavallee said she and other society employees are deeply saddened over Serenity’s disappearance and that, “Serenity remains in our hearts every day.”
KaSandra Dennard said that given Serenity’s history of running away — and her high intelligence and ability to manipulate others — she doesn’t directly blame the children’s home for losing Serenity.
But she does acknowledge she is disappointed that a girl with Serenity’s behavior pattern and treatment plan was not kept safe by professionals she and her husband entrusted with the care of their daughter.
“We were literally, 24/7, keeping an eye on her to make sure nothing happened to her or to any other kids, and that she didn’t leave,” KaSandra said, noting the family has a security system to alert them if Serenity left the home at night or unattended. “They’re trained for that and they have people there all the time for that.”
KaSandra and Chad said they don’t understand why Serenity was taken off the “arm’s length” monitoring policy so soon after her previous runaway attempt.
“Her safety was the number-one reason we went the route we did” in placing Serenity at the home, KaSandra said. “Here’s a child who just tried running, and they took her off that plan? I just don’t know…”
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.