This week, her adoptive parents, Chad Dennard and Darcie Gentry, have revived the search, hiring a private investigation firm made up of FBI and police veterans in hope of finally tracking their daughter down.
Serenity was undergoing treatment at the Black Hills Children’s Home in Rapid City, because she had a habit of running away from home, that February, South Dakota News Watch reported. A visiting family caught sight of her as she was leaving the gym building on campus and followed her until she disappeared from sight and was never seen again, the outlet reported.
Doug Kouns, a retired FBI agent with Veracity IIR, the Indiana-based firm hired by Serenity’s parents, gave Heavy an overview of his strategy in the fresh search for the girl on Thursday, but acknowledged that “the odds are not with us on this one.”
Here’s what you need to know about the search for Serena Dennard:
1. Serenity Disappeared From the Black Hills Children’s Home in February 2019; 2 Employees Who Were Watching Her at the Time Were Later Fired
Around 10:45 a.m. on February 3, 2019, Serenity left the children’s home gym while the two employees watching her were distracted by another child, the Rapid City Journal reported.
Two of the facility’s employees were later fired after Serenity’s disappearance, the Argus Leader reported.
Serenity had issues with running away from her adoptive parents’ home in Sturgis, which was the basis for the treatment she was receiving at the children’s home, the Rapid City Journal reported.
A grandmother and her granddaughter were dropping off another child at the time and spotted Serenity running off; the grandmother alerted staff at the children’s home while her granddaughter stayed in the car and watched Serenity disappear into the trees, SD News Watch reported. This was the last confirmed sighting of Serenity.
We're looking for 9 year old Serenity Dennard last seen at 11:20 am near the Children’s Home Society on South Rockerville Road. We are concerned for her safety considering the winter weather & her lack of warm clothing. If you've seen or had contact with Serenity, call 394-6115. pic.twitter.com/JsBk9ZvUNk
— Pennington County SO (@PennCoSheriff) February 4, 2019
The Pennington County Sheriff’s Office posted an alert that afternoon to Facebook and Twitter, saying, “We are concerned for her safety, considering the winter weather and her lack of warm clothing.”
Sheriff’s personnel searched until 10 p.m. that day, according to a timeline by KELO News.
2. The Search for Serenity Went on for Months, Spanning 4,500 Miles of Rough, Wooded Terrain & Involving 1,200 People
A group spent this day continuing our grid search looking for Serenity Dennard in the Rockerville area. The search and investigation continue. pic.twitter.com/EsZ5ogEcQT
— Pennington County SO (@PennCoSheriff) November 3, 2019
The search for Serenity ramped up the following day, with an endangered alert issued and law enforcement helicopters joining the effort, KELO reported. One hundred more volunteers joined the search, as well.
The mass effort to find the girl would sprawl into one of the most exhaustive missing persons searches in South Dakota history, a local NBC affiliate reported in August 2019. More than 1,000 people from 60 different agencies participated in those first six months, the outlet reported.
“We’ve been doing them for many months, many searches a month” Captain Tony Harrison, of the sheriff’s office, told the NBC affiliate in August.
By January 2020, the search effort slowed, but ended up covering 4,500 miles of rough terrain, with more than 220 leads exhausted and 465 interviews conducted, SD News Watch reported.
3. Law Enforcement & Doctors Expressed Doubt About Serenity’s Chances for Survival Alone in the South Dakota Winter; Cadaver Dogs Have Picked Up Scents, but Have Found No Remains
Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom told the Rapid City Journal in February, one year after Serenity’s disappearance, that the girl’s small size and the chill of the region’s winters made the searchers fear for the worst, although many had still not given up.
“In terms of Serenity specifically, she’s very small, she’s 4-foot-9, roughly 90-some pounds, so if she’s in the woods and got lost, at the point you’re becoming hypothermic, there’s the potential that you find a spot to curl up to get warm, under a rock ledge or next to a log,” he told the outlet.
Cadaver dogs were also brought out during the effort, too. Thom told the Journal that they had picked up scents, but they had no way of knowing if the scents originated with Serenity.
Former prosecutor and true crime television host Nancy Grace posted a video to Facebook soliciting help in finding Serenity in August as well.
As of January 2020, according to SD News Watch, local authorities were guessing that Serenity had become lost in the woods and succumbed to hypothermia.
Her parents have not given up all hope, though.
4. Serenity’s Adoptive Parents Still Have Not Lost All Hope & Last Week Reached Out to the Retired FBI Agents at Veracity IIR to Restart the Search
The search continues tomorrow for Serenity Dennard and Larry Genzlinger. Seven dog teams from around the region are here searching through Tuesday. These pictures are Kris Brock and her canine Colt. pic.twitter.com/LUQtSWOggc
— Pennington County SO (@PennCoSheriff) May 17, 2020
Dennard and Gentry, Serenity’s adoptive parents, have since divorced, but both continued to feel strongly that Serenity may yet be found, the Argus Leader reported.
“As far as what I think happened, it changes every day,” Dennard told the outlet in February. “But I think she’s out there; I truly don’t think somebody picked her up. I think she liked to run and she wouldn’t run very far, but she liked to see people looking for her. I think she watched people look for her and I think she went too far and got lost. That’s just Serenity, and she had done that before.”
Gentry told the outlet, “We’d take any news at this point,” adding that her bedroom remains set up for her. “Sometimes I just go in there and I cry. I lay down, I hold her unicorn and I cuddle up in the blankets. It just completely rips your heart out.”
On August 27, they reached out to Veracity IIR, after a friend alerted them to a successful missing persons case the firm recently took on, founder and CEO Doug Kouns told Heavy.
“It’s not going to go cold,” Brian Gentry, Serenity’s stepfather told local ABC affiliate KOTATV. “We won’t allow that. We said that from the very beginning. Darcie and I did put this together after a lengthy conversation with the investigator that this was the right answer at this time.”
5. Doug Kouns, a Retired FBI Agent & CEO of Veracity IIR, Told Heavy the Odds ‘Aren’t Good,’ but They Are Gearing Up for an Extensive Re-Investigation
Kouns told Heavy on Thursday that his investigators are still brushing up on the circumstances of Serenity’s disappearance — “We’re kind of in sponge mode,” he said.
The case is “pretty cold,” but investigators have an extensive plan in place, based on cycles of intelligence and new or redone interviews.
“We’ll do as much research as we can,” Kouns said. “We’ll look for gaps and peopke that we think we might want to interview again. We’ll reach out to the investigators who worked on this already and hopefully they’ll be cooperative and share with us what they’ve done, maybe some insights that haven’t been made public.”
Kouns says he believes Veracity IIR will be the first private investigation firm to take on Serenity’s case.
“We’ll use the principles we used to use at the FBI,” he said. “Let the facts guide our investigation and use the intl cycle to figure out what questions need to be answered and how they’ll be answered. We’ll collect our intel, process it and analyze it, then produce a set of more detailed questions, just fine-tuning it each time around.”
As for the odds of finding Serenity alive?
“I have to be realistic: The odds are not with us on this one,” Kouns said. “The longer it goes, it just gets much worse. I hate to be pessimistic, but the statistics would say the odds aren’t good.”
There is a PayPal site set up for donations to help with the cost of the investigation, which Kouns said will be handled and billed like an escrow account as the investigation proceeds.
“These things can get expensive,” he said. “I used to work in South Dakota with the bureau and I know some retired agents out there. I’m hoping to enlist them as boots on the ground when we get to the interviewing stage … I’ll also hopefully find some local assistance. I’m familiar with the local authorities as well; we have a good working relationship.”