Serenity Dennard disappearance: 2019 mystery still causing misery
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 search.
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 of the children’s home, 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.”
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 of the Black Hills around the 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 children’s home 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 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 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.”
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.
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 children’s home, nearby residences and outbuildings were searched numerous times, and six search warrants were executed, officials said.
The inability to find Serenity or any evidence 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.
Gentry is Serenity’s legal adoptive mother and for years after she disappeared, Gentry kept a bedroom in her Rapid City-area home made up with stuffed animals 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 was a highly intelligent girl who loved animals, singing and spending time with her grandmother. Dennard acknowledged that Serenity had run away from home several times and enjoyed being searched for.
Gentry remains unable to shake the feeling, however slight, that Serenity is still alive and will make her way home someday.
“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.”
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.
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.
Gentry said she has considered but not proceeded with any legal action against the Children’s Home Society.
Janet Andersen, a spokeswoman for the home society, said the organization made several changes to improve security at its facilities after Serenity’s disappearance.
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.
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.”
— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at sdnewswatch.org.