A Force of Forgiveness: 35 Years Later, Still Hope that Cherrie Mahan is Alive
Inside her mobile home, Cherrie Mahan slid her arms into the long sleeves of her white leotard, concealing the scars that were still visible on her left arm: the dog bite and broken bone she suffered after being hit by a car. Bad luck really. But she received a settlement of $3500 for the broken arm and quickly recovered. She finished the outfit off with a denim skirt and blue leg warmers. She was known as a plucky 8-year-old, and she was even more so on this particular morning. It was Friday, and her mother, Janice McKinney planned to take her on a play date with friends after school.
Janice helped push her daughter’s feet into the tiny beige ankle boots, then zipped up her grey coat and covered her ears with Cabbage Patch earmuffs, just before grabbing her blue book bag with the hearts on the straps and heading to the bus stop. How could Janice have known this would be a morning filled with lasts? The last morning sending her daughter off to Winfield Elementary School, the last exchange of “I love you’s” and the last time she would see her first-born child again.
It’s a quiet dirt road. Especially on February 22, 1985, the snow was packed tightly in still frozen patches and continued to fall as the day went on, accumulating a little over an inch. Very few families lived on Cornplanter Rd. in Butler County Pennsylvania back then, and the McKinney’s were among the newest arrivals, moving into the 1100 area mere months earlier. There’s no need for fences out here, the neighbors are few and far between. The homes, surrounded by wooded areas, are separated by large fields and expansive farmland.
At 25, Janice was a young mother at the time of Cherrie’s disappearance, and had already endured additional hardships prior to the one she now faced. At the tender age of 15, Janice claims to have become pregnant as a result of being raped, which brought the birth of Cherrie and the struggles of being a single mother, since Cherrie’s biological father was not present in their lives. Mrs. McKinney also recently revealed her suspicion that someone associated with Cherrie’s biological father knows what happened to Cherrie, or where she may be. When she met and married Leroy McKinney it must have been a welcomed bright spot in an otherwise difficult life. Mr. McKinney, a Vietnam Vet turned postal worker, was happy to be part of creating a comfortable, happy life for their new family of three.
Janice had the day off and was waiting inside the white home perched upon a hill, perhaps finishing up some household chores or getting dressed for the evening. Around 4:00 that afternoon, Cherrie’s stepfather, 35-year-old Leroy stepped out onto the cluttered green porch with the mismatched railings about the time he expected Cherrie to get off of the bus.
Mr. McKinney heard the bus come down the hollow, rumbling to a stop on the corner of Ewing and Cornplanter Rd. Kids’ voices echoed through the trees. Cherrie stepped off the bus with three other children. Another child’s mother watched Cherrie’s final moments before her disappearance. Adjusting her clothing, Cherrie fumbled with the bulky Cabbage Patch earmuffs, then walked behind the bus, past a witness’s vehicle, and then, as if the earth had opened up beneath her and swallowed her whole, she simply vanished.
“It’s a nice day, let her walk.” Janice told her husband. It’s a sentence she would regret. The kind of regret that would take up residence in her mind and drive her to drink. Those 6 little words soaked in guilt would push her to try to jump out of Leroy’s moving truck on Route 8. This was the first and only day she didn’t meet Cherrie at the bus stop, and Cherrie still hadn’t made her way up the hilly driveway. Was the 8-year-old confused? Was she waiting there to be picked up or for someone to walk the 150 yards with her? Did she fall down?
After ten minutes, Leroy raced down the driveway. Panic lodged in his throat as he yelled her name into the wind but got no response. He ran up and down the driveway, back and forth on Cornplanter and Ewing Rd. Chilling scenarios must have raced through his mind. Had she gone with someone willingly? Someone she knew? Or was she forcefully grabbed and stuffed into a getaway car by a complete stranger?
The local police were called, and a search party started immediately, lasting for about a week. Roughly 250 volunteers came out in fog and snow to help search the fields and farmland surrounding the bus stop where she was last seen. A local grocery store dropped off food to keep the volunteers energized. Law enforcement photographed tire tracks found at the scene. It was reported that there were no footprints in the snow going up the driveway that would match Cherrie’s, but it was unclear if there was enough snow on the ground to capture her footprints, or if the snow that was falling fell fast enough to cover her tracks. They hung flyers, and for the first time in American history, a missing child’s face appeared on “Have You Seen Me?” mass mailers printed by Advo Inc. and stuffed in utility bill envelopes. That was the face of Cherrie Mahan, with her warm hazel eyes and shoulder-length brown hair.
Only later will the children and one of the other children’s mothers describe just two things out of place that day, a blue car and a 1976 Dodge Conversion Van with a painted mural on it. They describe a green or blue van, with a mountain across the side, and a skier dressed in red and yellow. A very memorable vehicle that despite a whole box of registered vehicles they examined, has never been identified. Cherrie’s mother isn’t confident the van played any part in her daughter’s abduction.
Not long after Cherrie’s disappearance, the McKinneys paved their driveway, sold their trailer, and moved about a half an hour away to Mars Pennsylvania. It was all too overwhelming to live in the same home where the sad memories outnumbered the happy ones.
Thirteen years later, Janice would file for Cherrie’s death certificate, not because she no longer believed Cherrie was still living, but due to a technicality in order to release $50,000 in reward money that had been raised by the community. McKinney gifted the funds to a charity for missing children, in honor of Cherrie.
Leroy and Janice will play that afternoon over and over in their minds, how could they not? What had they missed? Had he heard her scream? Did she yell for help? They will be questioned and interviewed countless times. Both taking lie detector tests. But this won’t stop the painful rumors that perhaps they had something to do with her disappearance. And if losing your child wasn’t soul-crushing enough, Janice also endured graphic false confession letters and a cruel attempt by a woman claiming to be Cherrie over the years.
The case has taken wild turns in the passing years, one involving psychic sisters offering up their visions that Cherrie knew her abductor. The sisters searched areas they felt had strong connections to the case, but no new information would be discovered. And then in 2011, police were highly optimistic they had found Cherrie – ALIVE in Michigan. But it would prove to be just another dead end, through interviews, photographs, and birth records, police were able to determine that the Michigan woman, unfortunately, was not Cherrie Mahan.
Even after 35 years, police say they still receive leads on the case, at least once a month, and without any concrete evidence that says anything otherwise, they still believe Cherrie could still be living her life somewhere. They also report that anyone who has been implicated in the disappearance of Cherrie Mahan, has not been ruled out as a suspect. The public hasn’t forgotten Cherrie, and most importantly, hasn’t given up on finding her.
To date, the only thing found among the heartbreak was forgiveness, Forgiveness not only for herself, and the guilt she carries, but also for Cherrie’s abductor. Janice says her faith helped her find forgiveness, which then ended her downward spiral into drugs. “[I needed] to forgive somebody that I didn’t know because I was killing myself.” Janice also says forgiveness was necessary in order to find peace. “You can never move on until you forgive, and I have forgiven,” she said. “I’ll never forget, but I have forgiven.”
Anyone with any information relevant to the disappearance of Cherrie Mahan, please contact:
Pennsylvania State Police
Missing Persons Unit
NCIC Number: M-147906762
Please refer to this number when contacting any agency regarding this case.
You may also remain anonymous
Telephone calls and emails to Cherrie’s mother, Janice McKinney, were not returned.