The 1985 Disappearance of School Girl Cherrie Ann Mahan

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Today’s article is a guest post written by Angela Berger.

The 1985 Disappearance of School Girl Cherrie Ann Mahan

On February 22, 1985, eight-year-old Cherrie Ann Mahan got off at her bus stop just like any other day. Unfortunately, she never made it home. She disappeared without a trace along the 150-yard walk from the bus stop to her home on Cornplanter Road in Butler, Pennsylvania.

Cherrie Mahan: map of Butler, PA
Winfield Township, PA (Photo/Google Maps)

Cherrie’s stepfather, LeRoy McKinney, was on the porch when he heard the bus coming. He told Cherrie’s mother, Janice McKinney, that he would meet Cherrie at the bus stop. Janice stopped him from going, saying, “No, it’s a nice day. Let her walk.” I’m sure Janice has regretted that decision ever since.

Ten minutes passed, and there was oddly no sign of Cherrie. LeRoy and Janice began to get a little concerned, so LeRoy walked down to the bus stop to see if he could find Cherrie. There was no sign of her. Snow was on the ground that day, but no footprints were leading to her house. There were only tire tracks.

The family began making phone calls to see if Cherrie somehow missed the bus and was at school. They also called friends and neighbors. After getting no answers as to Cherrie’s whereabouts, the family contacted the police within the hour.

Cherrie’s classmates, who were also on the bus, confirmed that Cherrie had been on the bus and that she had gotten off at her regular bus stop with three other students on Cornplanter Road at the normal time of 4:05 – 4:10 PM. The kids had noticed a bright blue or green 1976 Dodge van, with a snowy mountain scene and skier painted on its sides, following behind the bus. The skier wore red and yellow clothing.

A parent had been waiting at the bus stop to pick up her children. She picked up the children and watched Cherrie pass her car. She also noticed the same blue van with the mountain scene following behind the bus. This parent did not see what had happened to Cherrie. No one had actually seen Cherrie get into the van. Another witness had spotted a small blue car near the area where Cherrie disappeared.

Police used the local elementary school as a headquarters for the search, and the FBI became involved.

A thick fog had settled over the region, making the initial search challenging. Over the next few weeks, firefighters, police, and more than 200 volunteers scoured rural areas surrounding the Mahan family home while helicopters scanned sites from above.

Investigators administered lie detector tests to Leroy and Janice, and both passed.

Police questioned friends and neighbors. There were numerous subsequent searches but no sign of Cherrie or her belongings anywhere.

Police stopped and searched many vans but found no evidence leading to Cherrie’s whereabouts.

Letters and posters were sent to every television station and daily newspaper in the nation. MicroComputers, a Pittsburgh company, donated a personal computer for volunteers to keep track of addresses. They also wrote to prisoners in the area, hoping that one would have some information about Cherrie. A local songwriter even wrote a song for Cherrie, and several radio stations picked it up and played it on air hoping to generate some tips but to no avail.

Emily Thompson, Morbidology

By April, neighbors and family had raised $39,000 as a reward for Cherrie’s safe return. Local businesses pledged another $10,000.

According to CNN’s “AC360°,” Cherrie was the first child to appear on a “Have You Seen Me?” mailer.

In 2014, tips came in that a woman living in Michigan resembled the age-progressed photo of Cherrie. It was also claimed that a van matching the description had been seen in this area of Michigan years ago. Authorities jumped right on these tips. They tracked down the woman and confirmed that she was not Cherrie.

In July of that year, Pennsylvania State Police investigator Chris Birckbichler used search dogs to scour a site off Winfield Road after receiving tips of a body buried there. The dogs did not find anything, but Birckbichler noticed a mound of dirt that did not fit with the surrounding terrain. A forensic team that included six Mercyhurst College forensic anthropologists and graduate students excavated the mound but found nothing related to the Mahan disappearance.

Cherrie’s mother, Janice, received a letter from someone called Pastor Justice in August 2018. In the letter, Pastor Justice claimed that Cherrie had been murdered. He detailed who did it, why they did it, and where Cherrie’s body could be found. He said, “I pray you find some peace after you find her body.”

Janice turned the letter over to the police, but she never heard back. Investigators told Target 11 (WPXI) in February 2019 that “they are still working on it. They also said another tip led them to search an Armstrong junkyard and an old mine shaft in Butler County within the last year.”

Cherrie Ann Mahan was born on August 14, 1976. She went missing on February 22, 1985, from Cabot, PA. Cherrie lived with her mother, Janice McKinney, and her stepfather, LeRoy.

Cherrie was declared dead on February 22, 1992. On the day before Thanksgiving in 1984, Cherrie had suffered a broken arm in a car accident. She was awarded a settlement of $3,500. It was to be awarded the January after she went missing. If the trust was not claimed, it would become the property of the state. She was declared dead so that the money could be given to her younger brother.

Cherrie’s family presented a $58,000 check to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The money was to be used as a resource to help establish computer networks across the country to find abducted and runaway children and to help fight against violence in our schools.

In return, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children gave an $8,000 TRAC system, called Technology to Recover Abducted Kids, to the Butler State Police Barracks in Butler, Pennsylvania. They hoped that the community would be better prepared if another child were ever to go missing.

Cherrie was not there to attend her high school graduation in 1994. She did not get to meet her baby brother, Robert, born five years after her disappearance.

A statue of an angel for Cherrie sits at the family’s cemetery plot. It is not a gravestone because her mother cannot bring herself to place one there until she knows the truth.

Janice told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in November 1998: “This is not over. We’ll always look for Cherrie. If nothing else, she’ll always be in our hearts.”

There has never even been a person of interest in this case. The police still consider it a kidnapping.

If you have any information about the disappearance of Cherrie Mahan, call State Police in Butler at 724-284-8100 or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678.

Cherrie Mahan: age-progressed to 33 years of age
(L) Cherrie c. 1985 (R) Age-progressed to 33 years of age, 2015 (Photo/Fox News)

Sources

Biedka, Chuck. “Investigation continues in case of Cherrie Mahan, missing for decades.” TribLive.com. July 18, 2014. Accessed May 3, 2021. https://archive.triblive.com/news/investigation-continues-in-case-of-cherrie-mahan-missing-for-decades/

Roddy, Dennis B. “Cherrie’s Death Official, Mother’s Memory Eternal.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. November 6, 1998. Accessed May 3, 2021. http://old.post-gazette.com/regionstate/19981104close2.asp

Thompson, Emily. “The Disappearance of Cherrie Mahan.” Morbidology (website). November 13, 2019. Accessed May 3, 2021. https://morbidology.com/the-disappearance-of-cherrie-mahan/

WPXI News Staff. “Anonymous Letter Could Shed Light on Decades-Old Disappearance. WPIX.com. February 22, 2019. Accessed May 3, 2021. https://www.wpxi.com/news/investigates/anonymous-letter-could-shed-light-on-decades-old-disappearance/923586621/

WTAE News Staff. “Missing Girl’s 25-Year-Old Case Lends Hope to Others.” WTAE.com. February 22, 2010. Accessed May 3, 2021. https://www.wtae.com/article/missing-girl-s-25-year-old-case-lends-hope-to-others/7446216

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I've blogged true crime since 2010, happily taking up only a tiny corner of the internet. I'm not here for attention; I'm here to tell you their stories.

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