NEW Serenity Dennard Photo

This photograph of Serenity Dennard was taken Feb. 2, the day before she went missing. 

A state senator was suspended from visiting Department of Corrections facilities in South Dakota, but that suspension may now be vacated in light of new information, according to the department’s top official.

The conflict between state Sen. Lynne DiSanto, R-Box Elder, and the Department of Corrections dates back to at least March. DiSanto sought permission to pay a visit that month to the biological mother of Serenity Dennard, the 9-year-old girl who ran away from the Black Hills Children’s Home in February and has never been found. Dennard’s biological mother was an inmate at the state Women’s Prison in Pierre.

The department approved the visit by DiSanto, who has created a Facebook page and a website — both called Lynne Seeks Truth — where she publicly discusses the Dennard case. But the department’s deputy secretary verbally denied DiSanto’s request to make a recording of her conversation with Dennard’s biological mother. Written departmental policies state that no photograph, audio or video recording may be made during a prison visit without specific prior approval.

According to DiSanto, when she arrived at the prison, she asked to speak to the warden, with the intent of again seeking permission to record. But the warden was not present, so DiSanto said she asked a prison employee.

“I said to that person, ‘Is it OK if I record?’” DiSanto recalled. “And they said ‘yes.’”

DiSanto then made recordings during her prison visit with DiSanto’s biological mother and posted them online. DiSanto’s YouTube page includes a video and an audio recording of the visit, each posted March 13 and each with more than 9,000 views since then.

Secretary of Corrections Mike Leidholt said he learned of the recordings sometime soon after they were posted online, and he subsequently wrote and sent a letter to DiSanto informing her that she was suspended from visiting Department of Corrections facilities because of her violation of the department’s rule about recordings.

Leidholt said he mailed the letter to DiSanto and also emailed it to her official legislative email address. He declined to release a copy of the letter to the Journal, and South Dakota law exempts correspondence from mandatory disclosures of public records.

DiSanto said she never received the letter.

“I have not received anything from anyone,” she said.

After being interviewed recently by the Journal about the situation, DiSanto contacted Leidholt and told him an employee at the prison gave her permission to record. Leidholt said he then conducted an inquiry to determine whether that employee — apparently, a control-room operator — had in fact given DiSanto permission.

“The control-room operator doesn’t agree that happened,” Leidholt said. “But he’s not able to show definitively that it didn’t happen.”

Leidholt said security recordings of DiSanto’s time at the prison five months ago have since been automatically overwritten.

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Leidholt said he will now “probably” rescind the suspension he imposed against DiSanto.

“We do not have enough evidence to refute her version of the story, so I guess we’re going to have to accept her version of the story,” Leidholt said.

Yet he remains upset with DiSanto.

“It still concerns me,” Leidholt said, “that she received an answer from the deputy secretary and then went out to the Women’s Prison apparently looking for a different answer.”

DiSanto said the blame lies with the Department of Corrections.

“I had someone that was watching me in that room, and so if I couldn’t record that person that was watching me should have said something,” DiSanto said.

DiSanto’s activism in regard to the missing-person case has made her a lightning rod for criticism and support on social media. Her critics have accused her of using the case to raise her own profile, while supporters have praised her for honoring Dennard’s memory, keeping the case in the public eye, and conducting her own searches with fellow volunteers.

Facebook messages about the Dennard case between DiSanto and one of her constituents grew so heated earlier this summer that the constituent reported one of DiSanto’s messages to the Box Elder police as a threat. An officer investigated and did not find the elements of a crime but did issue a no-trespass order against DiSanto at the constituent’s request.

DiSanto said threats have been made against her, too, including an online written comment to her that said, “you’re digging your grave, fast.” DiSanto said she reported the comment to authorities, but she opted not to press charges or to seek a no-contact order or restraining order.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 searchers have logged 4,300 miles during numerous officially organized searches for Dennard in the area near the Black Hills Children’s Home, a privately owned but government-funded facility that Dennard ran away from on a dangerously cold and snowy day in February. The area is several miles south of Rockerville in a mountainous and forested area of the Black Hills.

Regulatory agencies have filed reports critical of Black Hills Children’s Home officials and employees for waiting too long to call 911 immediately after Dennard ran away, lacking a sufficient emergency preparedness plan, failing to conduct training or drills for runaways, falling into complacency after previous attempted runaways, conducting an initially disorganized search for Dennard, using several different radio communication channels during the initial search instead of one common channel, and not following the home’s own policy regarding lost children on campus.

In addition to the searches for Dennard, a continuing investigation into her disappearance by the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office has included 440 interviews or contacts, according to the office’s own tally, with nothing so far leading authorities to believe that Dennard is still alive.

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal and author of "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills."