"It take two people to make a lie work:the person who tells it, and the one who believes it."
It was the 22nd of February 1985. A Friday. Eight year old Cherrie Mahan was looking forward to finishing school for the weekend. That afternoon, her mother, Janice McKinney, had promised to bring her to a friend's house. Cherrie lived with her mother and stepfather, Leroy McKinney, in Winfield Township, Butler County, Pennsylvania, United States. Cherrie's biological father was not a part of her life.
Janice alleged that she was raped and as a result had Cherrie. It was just the two of them for a while and they were extremely close. When Janice met Leroy, he looked after and loved Cherrie. The young married couple moved to Winfield Township and Leroy worked as a postal worker.They chose the area as it was a quiet area and they thought it was the perfect place for Cherrie to grow up as there were many children who played outdoors and everyone felt so safe that they left their doors unlocked.
Janice and Cherrie
At around 4.10pm that day, the 22nd of February, Cherrie got off the bus, the stop closest to her house, with three friends. Her house was just fifty yards from the school stop and Debbie Burk, the mother of one of Cherrie's friends, saw Cherrie get off the bus and walk past her van. The three children who were with Cherrie got into Debbie's van. Two of the children were Debbie's children and she gave a lift to another child who lived near her house. Cherrie walked home alone. There was a van parked behind Debbie's van that Cherrie had to walk past. The van was parked on a corner and Cherrie had to turn at that corner and then walk up a hill to her house. Both Janice and Leroy were waiting for her at the top of the hill in the porch but Cherrie never made it that far. Janice said:
“We heard the bus come and after five or tens minutes and Leroy said ‘maybe she fell down, do you want me to go check? And I said ‘go check’ and he went down he checked and she wasn’t there.”
Debbie, the children on the bus and the bus driver told Janice and Leroy that Cherrie did get off the bus. Debbie was the last known person to see Cherrie and she claimed she waited until Cherrie walked past her van before she drove off.
Janice and Leroy began searching the area and called people they knew to try to find her. By this stage, it was around 4.30pm. When it became clear that Cherrie was not just playing with friends somewhere, Janice and Leroy contacted police. Police were notified within an hour of Cherrie getting off the bus.
Police began to speak to people in the area, the children who were on the bus and the bus driver to try to locate Cherrie. Children who were on the bus with Cherrie told police that a 1976 blue Dodge van was following the bus that day:
“It had a skiing scene, a mountain and a skier, painted on the side.”
It was such an unusual van. Blue in color with the mural on both sides.
Sketch of Van
Witnesses claimed that there was also a blue car following the van that day. Local, state and national agencies helped in the investigation. They believed that Cherrie was abducted. Cherrie's picture was distributed and featured on milk cartons. When Cherrie went missing, she was wearing a gray coat, a blue denim skirt, a white leotard, blue leg warmers and beige boots.
The only other piece of evidence police had was tire marks that had been left in the snow at the bottom of the hill.Nobody saw Cherrie get into a van or car and nobody saw anybody taking Cherrie. Bloodhounds were unable to pick up Cherrie’s trail past the point where the blue van had stopped.
When no leads developed, a national direct mailing company, ADVO, put Cherrie's image on postcards with the question "Have you seen me?" The cards were mailed to thousands of households around the country. Cherrie was the first missing child to be featured in the program.
Witnesses came forward to say they saw a blue van in the New Kensington area traveling back to the Mount Pleasant area in Westmoreland County. There were further and multiple sightings of a van. Some witnesses believed the van was painted black shortly after Cherrie went missing.
The family and friends of the family were questioned and Janice and LeRoy were given lie detector tests but nothing helped the investigation and the case went cold.
There were some leads in the years that followed. In 1994, police questioned a Massachusetts man who was accused of abducting and killing a child and of attempting to abduct another child. He was ruled out as a suspect when police confirmed he was in New York the day of Cherrie's disappearance.
Despite the unique appearance of the van and mural, no van has ever been seized in connection with Cherrie’s disappearance and there has never been a main person of interest. But somebody knows something. Somebody would have known who was driving a van with that design on both sides at the time. Even if someone does not know the full details of what happened, they know something and must come forward. Cherrie and her family deserve answers.
At the time of her disappearance, she was 4’2” tall and weighed about 68 pounds with brown hair and hazel eyes. If you have any information on the circumstances surrounding Cherrie’s disappearance, please call the Pennsylvania State Police Missing Persons unit at 724-284-8100.
Cherrie was officially declared dead in November 1998.
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