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Serenity Dennard disappeared from the Black Hills Children's Home four years ago, and there are still more questions than answers.
Serenity Dennard disappearance: 2019 mystery still causing misery
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
Adoptive father: Serenity was smart girl who enjoyed being searched for
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.
‘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.”