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The weather the day the girl went missing from a residential youth home in rural Pennington County significantly hampered efforts to find her. 

When search and rescue personnel arrived in the early afternoon last Sunday to search for 9-year-old Serenity Dennard near the Black Hills Children's Home near Rockerville, there was little snow on the ground, said Willie Whelchel, chief deputy of the Pennington County Sheriff's Office.

"There would have been no footprints in the snow because we didn't have any," he said. The snow began falling mid-afternoon, and would have covered up evidence of Dennard's trail, such as overturned leaves. 

"Quite frankly, the snow didn't help us with this," Whelchel said of the fresh snow that fell after Dennard went missing and throughout the week. "It makes it harder for the dogs, it makes it harder for ground folks to be searching obviously because it would be very easy to go right by something."

Rain can wash scent away while snow can blanket the smell, said Tammy Stadel, a dog handler and the team leader for Pennington County Search and Rescue. Cold weather creates smaller scent molecules, which means the smell doesn't travel as far or smell as strong. 

Whelchel said the sheriff's office "made every attempt" to get helicopters or planes with heat imaging devices, but the weather — low clouds and snow — didn't allow any aircraft to take off.

"From a law enforcement perspective, we're always looking to get involved as soon as possible," Whelchel said when asked if staff at the Children's Home should have called 911 sooner.

Dennard ran from the facility at 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning and after searching for her, staff called police at 12:26 p.m. 

Whelchel said it's possible that staff didn't realize how much time had gone by in the high-stress situation. 

"What seems like maybe minutes isn't," he said. "Time moves quicker than we think, especially if you're not looking at your watch."

Despite snow and below-freezing temperatures, more than 200 people and dogs searched for Dennard Sunday through Tuesday, and a plane from the Civil Air Patrol was able to fly Monday. Whelchel said people with hand-held heat imaging devices first looked in areas where Dennard would have been familiar with from going on hikes with staff from the Children's Home. A map in his office shows where human, dogs and the plane searched within and beyond a one-mile radius of the facility. He said the sheriff's office doesn't have drones, but hopes to get them for future use. 

Search efforts were called off Wednesday and Thursday due to cold and dangerous weather conditions. Dennard was already presumed dead by Tuesday night if she spent her time in the woods.  

On Friday, one dog and some search and rescue personal were looking for Dennard in deep snow, Whelchel said.

Over the weekend, a helicopter and seven live scent and cadaver dogs will continue the search. 

Dennard's photograph and a warning she is missing is also now plastered across a digital billboard on Jackson Boulevard, near the intersection with Main Street. Whelchel said the billboard idea was from Lamar, the international advertising company that owns that billboard. He said he wasn't sure if Lamar has other billboards with the same information. 

Whelchel said there is still no evidence that Dennard pre-planned an escape or was taken by someone once she left the Children's Home. He also said the search has turned up no evidence from her, such as clothing or items she may have been carrying.

The couple that the sheriff's office was initially looking for hadn't seen Dennard, but a staff member who was looking for her, Whelchel said. However, a woman dropping a family member off at the facility did see Dennard at a nearby cattle gate around 11 a.m. 

He said the woman saw Dennard after dropping the relative off and was backing up her car, which had another passenger inside. The woman got out of her car and went inside to tell the staff that there was a girl outside. Meanwhile, the other person inside the car saw Dennard walk north up the road. By the time the woman returned to her car, Dennard was gone, and she couldn't find her as she drove up and down the road. 

Whelchel said the sheriff's office is in "regular contact" with Dennard's parents. "They're devastated," he said. 

"Our focus right now is to bring Serenity home." 

This story has been updated. The time that Black Hills Children's Home staff called 911 was 12:26 p.m.


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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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