The search for a 9-year-old girl who's been missing for more than a week after running away from a residential youth home in rural Pennington County has been put on hold for now, it was announced Monday.
"We're regrouping and re-assessing, trying to decide how and when we continue our recovery efforts," Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom said during a news conference at the Public Safety Building in Rapid City.
"The weather has not been our friend," he added. "Everyone involved in the search has poured themselves into this physically and emotionally. It's been very draining on both fronts."
Thom said while the search efforts into the disappearance of Serenity Dennard of Sturgis are paused, the investigation remains ongoing until she is found. He said no scenario regarding what happened to her or where she might have gone is being ruled out.
Dennard left the Children's Home Society, located near Rockerville, around 10:45 a.m. Feb. 3. After searching for her, staff called law enforcement at 12:26 p.m.
After search and rescue personal arrived, Thom said, Dennard was entered as a missing person into the FBI's National Crime Information Center, which can be accessed by law-enforcement agencies across the country. An Endangered Missing Advisory was issued the next day. An Amber Alert was not issued since the system requires evidence of a kidnapping and a description of a kidnapper or their vehicle.
Investigators have conducted 115 interviews and are following 23 leads into where Dennard might be, according to a fact sheet distributed at the press conference. They have served two search warrants and are working on a third warrant, reviewed videos from cameras at seven businesses and used the Internet Crimes Against Children department for computer forensics.
The videos have shown no signs of Dennard, Thom said. The warrants are for items such as phone records, not nearby homes.
"We're covering all of our bases to make sure we haven't missed something," Thom said.
Staff searched the Children's Home four times, combed through neighboring homes and outbuildings, and interviewed Dennard's family and Children's Home staff and youth, the sheriff's office has said.
Since Dennard went missing until Feb. 10, 355 people and 14 dogs from 33 local, state and federal agencies have helped in the search, the fact sheet says. Searchers used handheld thermal devices and distributed flyers to every home between Highway 16 and 40. An airplane from Civil Air Patrol and a helicopter from Black Hills Aerial Adventures assisted in the search.
The search initially focused on a 1-mile radius around the Children's Home, said Tammy Stadel, team leader for Pennington County Search and Rescue.
"This is typical of any individual that's been missing whether it's a child or an adult," Stadel said as she stood in front of a map of the search effort.
She said searchers, especially aircraft, eventually looked beyond the 1-mile radius, including Highways 40 and 16.
The map shows dozens of colorful lines marking where searchers, dogs, the plane and helicopter went. Not all search routes are represented on the map since some GPS units quit working because of the cold weather, Stadel said.
She said the search for Dennard is one of the "top five" biggest search and rescue efforts in Pennington County history.
The Children's Home provides schooling and intensive therapy in both outpatient and inpatient settings for 4- to 14-year-olds struggling with abuse, trauma and mental and behavioral health, according to its website.
Bill Colson, executive director of the Children's Home Society that oversees the Children's Home, said he was not at the facility when Dennard went missing and that staff called 911 to report her missing.
"We have absolute confidence in our staff," he said, adding that staff evaluate policies after every incident.
Colson explained that the Children's Home is licensed by the Department of Social Services and each child there is either referred or approved by the state.
"Every time something happens with any child in our agency, the state of South Dakota is involved," he said when asked if DSS will investigate Dennard's disappearance from the facility.
"They operate with some very, very challenging situations and cases," Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris said of Children's Home. "The compassion that I've observed of staff members over the years is admirable."
Thom thanked the community for supporting first responders, including the Gaslight Restaurant in Rockerville, which served hot meals to search and rescue personnel.
"Neighbors help neighbors," he said of the assistance the sheriff's office has received from nearby agencies and businesses.
Colson said the Children's Home also wanted to express its appreciation for all the assistance in the search for Dennard.
"We think about her every day and we're praying," Colson said. "I have never seen an outpouring of heart and energy like I've seen in this last week. And I'm so thankful and our staff is so thankful."
Dennard is 4 feet, 7 inches tall, 90 pounds, with blue eyes and shoulder-length dark-blonde hair. She was last seen wearing a long-sleeved gray shirt with flowers, blue jeans and snow boots. She is from Sturgis and may have been trying to return to her family.
Anyone with information about Dennard should call the Pennington County Sheriff's Office at 605-394-6115. If anyone finds her body, they should mark down the location, not disturb the scene, and call 911.