It’s been 196 days since 9-year-old state ward Serenity Dennard dashed into a snowy, subzero and mountainous forest without a parka to seemingly vanish. The tragic mystery of her disappearance persists despite the coordinated efforts of more than 1,000 volunteer and official searchers.
Anyone with even limited experience of a South Dakota cold snap knows the tiny girl would have perished quickly unless she happened almost immediately upon a place of warmth or winter clothing. Possibly Dennard sought protection in a well-hidden hollow or crevice whose location continues to elude searchers. It’s possible.
It’s not that searchers haven’t looked hard for it. They have collectively logged more 4,300 miles in search of anything connected to the missing girl. The searchers have included 91 dogs, their handlers and seven aircraft. And still nothing. With each additional search, it gets more difficult to find ground that hasn’t already been double or triple checked, and still they look.
There always was the possibility that somebody waiting outside collected Dennard as she ran away from the Black Hills Children’s Home south of Rockerville. Perhaps her flight was pre-arranged. While conducting searches, officials have concurrently pursued that prospect, also to no avail.
The Pennington County Sheriff’s Department has chased 195 leads in 15 states, conducted 440 interviews or contacts, and executed six search warrants. Information has been shared with news outlets of all kinds, on social media and with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, potentially reaching millions.
More than 30 stories about Dennard’s case have been printed in the Rapid City Journal alone — an average of one story every seven days since her disappearance on Feb. 3. Altogether, these articles have generated enough text to fill at least five newsprint pages — and that’s just one newspaper. Stories have been picked up by the Associated Press to be published or broadcast in towns stretching from here to Great Britain. Articles continue to be written and shared. And still, nothing substantial has been uncovered.
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Meanwhile, a Facebook page called “Lynne Seeks Truth,” created and maintained by state Sen. Lynne DiSanto, R-Box Elder, has featured a lot of uninformed speculation critical of sheriff’s department efforts. Some commenters have even alleged official collusion in Dennard’s disappearance.
On Aug. 3, for example, a commenter wrote: “They seem to have every excuse imaginable as to why they are unable to look for Serenity, first its too cold, then too hot, then the terrain and tall grass now it's the rally/bikers, LE [law enforcement] in that area is a complete joke!”
Nobody should question DiSanto’s well-meaning intent in setting up her page. Nobody should doubt her sincerity in wanting to help find Dennard. But it seems unlikely that fostering groundless speculation and conspiracy theories can serve any purpose other than to distract from serious efforts to solve this mystery. If Dennard is ever found, it will result because trained and qualified personnel with access to varied resources did their jobs. It won’t be because of a legislator’s amateur blog or because uninformed people posted critical comments.
The FBI currently has about 30,000 active missing person records for juveniles under age 18. It’s highly unlikely the vast majority of those cases resulted in searches anywhere close to what has been expended locally for Dennard.
Should the search for Dennard end? We have no idea. The sheriff’s department has that responsibility. It also has the experience and the information to best make that call. It’s what we pay them to do.
What we do know: Local officials, especially the sheriff’s department, have gone above and beyond in their efforts to find the missing girl. We applaud them. We support them. We are grateful. And we trust they will continue to do their best.