The Pennington County sheriff said he's feeling optimistic about today's search for a girl who's been missing for more than two months due to improving weather and searchers working to "systematically eliminate areas."
"We've eliminated areas. So, we're narrowing down our search area," Sheriff Kevin Thom said. "We feel like we're being able to start dialing in."
More than 90 volunteers walked "literally shoulder to shoulder" searching for nine-year-old Serenity Dennard from Highway 16 at the top of Tepee Gulch to Rockerville Road on March 27, 29 and 30, Thom said. Ten cadaver dogs also searched burnt piles of wood in the area.
Since Dennard wasn't found in those areas, Thom said, the sheriff's office can now focus on looking elsewhere. It was difficult to eliminate areas during previous searches since the ground was covered in snow.
About 30 people will search today for Dennard and possibly Sunday, Thom said. If she isn't found, the cadaver dogs will be brought in again, possibly next weekend.
Dennard ran away from the Black Hills Children's Home near Rockerville around 10:45 a.m. Feb. 3. After searching for her, staff called law enforcement at 12:26 p.m. People, dogs and aircraft searched for her that afternoon through Feb. 5 and then intermittently after that depending on the weather.
"The harsh reality set in is that if she's in the woods, it's a recovery at that point," Thom said.
He said he deferred to canine and search and rescue experts who said "until the snow is gone, we can't do anything." It's "frustrating," Thom said.
Snow isn't just hard to walk and see through, it also masks scents for the dogs, experts previously told the Journal.
It can be difficult to locate a small girl in the woods even without snow, said Thom, who hiked miles while searching for Dennard last weekend.
"It's uphill, downhill, there's all sorts of little crevices," he said. "It's a big geographic area. It's a rough terrain, lots of cover."
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He said when people become cold, they begin "burrowing" to keep warm by crawling into holes or next to rocks or logs, which can make it hard to see them.
Journal archives show that even with searches, it can take a long time to find missing people in rugged or hard-to-reach areas.
Michael Berry, a 61-year-old Rockerville man who went missing in 2006 while hiking near Keystone, wasn't found until 2011 when loggers came across his remains. Scientists later confirmed his identity through DNA testing.
Joshua Jacobson, a 39-year-old Nebraska man, was found about two months after he went missing in the Badlands National Park in 2015.
It took more than a year to recover the body of Joshua Haugen, a 17-year-old from Rapid City who drowned in Pactola Lake in June 1999.
While searchers from 37 agencies have looked for Dennard in the woods, the sheriff's office hasn't eliminated the possibility that she was picked up by someone, Thom said.
Investigators have followed the case each day since Dennard went missing by serving five search warrants, interviewing 335 people, searching the Children's Home, distributing flyers to nearby homes and meeting with the FBI for technical assistance.
Two days after Dennard went missing, public warning messages were also sent to 612 landlines and cellphones of residents and businesses within a six-mile radius of the Children's Home, according to Alexa White, deputy director of Pennington County Emergency Management. The messages gave a description of Dennard and asked people to look for her outside their homes or businesses.
The FBI or local agencies have looked into alleged sightings of Dennard in 13 states from Wyoming to California and South Carolina, Thom said. People across the country have learned about Dennard thanks to the sheriff's office social media — which has reached 3.3 million people on Facebook — media coverage throughout South Dakota, newscasts on NPR stations in other states, and awareness campaigns by the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Detectives also record all tips from psychics or people who say they had a dream or vision about Dennard and follow any credible leads, Thom said.