The 9-year-old girl missing in rural Pennington County since Sunday morning is "unlikely" to have survived three days of below-zero temperatures, the Pennington County Sheriff's Office said Tuesday.
Now, after more than 200 people, six dogs and an airplane investigated and searched three days for 9-year-old Serenity Dennard, the search effort will transition into a recovery operation.
"If Serenity was outside, it’s unlikely she survived. We have not ruled out the possibility that she found some place warm to shelter or that someone picked her up. We still have an active investigation and will follow up on all leads," the sheriff's office said in a Tuesday afternoon news release. Rescuing Dennard has been the "top priority" of the sheriff's office.
Dennard was last seen at 11 a.m. Sunday walking north on South Rockerville Road after running from the Black Hills Children's Home, a residential youth facility near Rockerville.
Staff from the sheriff's office will remain at the Children's Home on South Rockerville Road but recovery efforts will be reduced until crews with specialty dogs arrive from eastern South Dakota and Colorado, the release says.
Some of the specialty dogs are trained in body recovery and others specialize in working in deep snow according to Helene Duhamel with the Pennington County Sheriff's Office. The arrival date of the dogs has not been confirmed.
Crews from 30 local, state and federal agencies "scoured the area" looking for Serenity with hand-held thermal imaging devices. The more than 200 people also distributed flyers, canvassed all neighbors and interviewed more than 60 people.
Search and rescue staff came from the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and Search and Rescue, the Rapid City police and fire departments, Civil Air Patrol, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Ellsworth Air Force Base, Mount Rushmore National Park, and many other area police, sheriff and fire agencies.
Before transitioning to a recovery effort, more than 100 people, plus dogs, searched Tuesday for Dennard within a one-mile radius of the campus in and around the Children’s Home.
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Deputies spoke with the few neighbors in the rural area, and checked in outbuildings and behind places were a child might take refuge, such as log piles and hay bales.
On Tuesday morning the sheriff's office said it had found and spoke with the couple — a man and a woman in their late 20s or early 30s —who last saw Dennard. The public helped locate the couple and the couple helped the sheriff's office better understand the timeline surrounding Dennard's disappearance.
Dennard went missing Sunday morning when she ran away from the Children's Home while playing inside the facility's gym, said Bill Colson, executive director of the Children’s Home Society.
Dennard and three other children were being supervised by two staff members when one of the other children ran away, Colson said. As a staffer ran after that child, Dennard then took off herself. Because the remaining staffer was still supervising two other children, the staffer stayed put and called for help rather than follow Dennard.
Other staff soon arrived to find her, but to no avail, Colson said. Staff then called 911.
The Children's Home Society is a private nonprofit that provides residential treatment and programs for children with emotional or behavioral needs, and victims of domestic violence, abuse and neglect, or other trauma. Colson said due to privacy concerns, he can't say how Dennard arrived at the organization's Black Hills residential home or which program she is in.
Dennard is 4’7”, 90 pounds, with blue eyes and shoulder length dark blonde hair. She was last seen wearing a long-sleeved grey shirt with flowers, blue jeans and snow boots. She is from Sturgis and may have been trying to return to her family.
Because there is no evidence that Dennard was abducted, an Amber Alert was never sent out. However, because of the low temperatures, an Endangered Missing Advisory was issued by the state of South Dakota.
Anyone who lives in the Rockerville, Foster Gulch and Highway 16 area should search their property and outbuildings. People with game cameras in the area should check their footage and let authorities know if they see anything. The sheriff's office continues to investigate Dennard's disappearance and asks anyone who has seen or heard her to call 394-6115 and share that information on social media.