ROCKERVILLE, S.D. — Dogs have alerted to a cadaver scent during several April recovery searches for the 9-year-old girl who ran away from the Black Hills Children's Home nearly three months ago.
"We have cadaver scent and these dogs are highly qualified, well-trained dogs from a variety of states," Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom said when asked if the dogs alerting means it's certain that a dead person is in the area. "We have high confidence in the dogs."
The dogs are only trained to smell humans, Thom said. But it's unclear if the scent is from Serenity Dennard or another person, and exactly where the scent is coming from since it can travel from one or two miles away.
He said scent strength and travel is impacted by the temperature, wind, moisture, terrain and other factors.
Dennard ran away from the Children's Home near Rockerville around 10:45 a.m. on Feb. 3. Staff should have immediately called 911 rather than first searching for Dennard before calling at 12:26 p.m., according to reports from two regulatory agencies.
People, dogs and aircraft searched for Dennard Feb. 3 through Feb. 5 and then intermittently after that depending on the weather. Search and rescue personnel plus cadaver dogs searched for Dennard last weekend and are planning to return May 10-12 after the snow melts and when the volunteer handlers are available, said Helene Duhamel, spokeswoman with the Pennington County Sheriff's Office. The search and rescue experts have told the sheriff's office that it's not worth searching in the snow since the dogs can't smell well and searchers can't see the ground, Thom said.
The sheriff's office is also looking to work with drone operators, Duhamel said.
The volunteers have searched in areas more than two miles away from the Children's Home and record their path with a GPS system, Duhamel said. The sheriff's office divided the area into a grid, and volunteers are walking shoulder-to-shoulder across each section to systematically eliminate areas where Dennard isn't located. But Thom said volunteers have told him that missing people are sometimes eventually found in areas already systematically searched by humans and dogs. "None of this is exact science," he said.
Even with the dogs alerting to a dead body, the Sheriff's Office continues to explore all options of where Dennard might be. Deputies and detectives have served six search warrants, interviewed 375 people and followed 115 leads throughout the country with the help of outside agencies, Duhamel said.