The Mysterious Disappearance Of Cherrie Mahan Explained

On the afternoon of February 22, 1985, 8-year-old Cherrie Ann Mahan boarded the school bus outside her elementary school and rode to her usual stop outside the home she shared with her mother and stepfather, Janice and LeRoy McKinney. Several witnesses, including her schoolmates, saw Mahan get off the bus and begin walking toward her home, which was approximately 50 yards away. However, the little girl seemingly vanished into thin air and was never seen again.

As reported by Chilling Crimes, Janice became pregnant with her daughter when she was raped as a teen. Although the circumstances were difficult, Janice formed a close bond with her daughter, and the publication described their relationship as "extremely close." Janice was a single mother for several years before she met and married Vietnam veteran LeRoy McKinney. By all accounts, McKinney cared deeply for Mahan and treated her as if she were his own daughter.

The family eventually moved to the quiet suburb of Winfield Township, Pennsylvania, where LeRoy was employed as a postal worker. The neighborhood was described as a safe place where children spent a lot of time playing outside, and residents rarely locked their doors. However, Mahan's horrifying disappearance changed everything.

According to Chilling Crime, Mahan, along with three other children, exited the bus at approximately 4:10 p.m. Debbie Burk was parked in her van at the bus stop, waiting for her two children and another child who she had agreed to drive home.

Cherrie Mahan vanished 50 yards from her home

Debbie Burk said the three children got into her van, and Cherrie Mahan continued walking toward her home. Although she did not witness anything unusual, Chilling Crimes reports Burk said she did notice another van parked at the corner Mahan would have to pass.

As reported by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, LeRoy McKinney was outside waiting on the porch when he heard the school bus pulling up to the stop and the children getting off the bus. Although he often walked to the end of the driveway to meet Mahan, Janice told him to let her walk alone because the weather was particularly nice that day. After five to 10 minutes, Chilling Crimes reports LeRoy walked to the bus stop and could not find any trace of Mahan. After checking with her friends, the Mckinneys realized something was terribly wrong and contacted authorities to report the girl as a missing person.

Although it was confirmed that Mahan rode the bus, exited at the correct stop, and began walking toward her house, nobody witnessed what happened to the girl between the bus stop and her home. The only physical evidence suggesting anything unusual happened was a set of tire tracks in the snow where Burk said the other van was parked. Chilling Crimes reports several children, who were riding the school bus, also remembered seeing an unusual van.

A blue van with a large mural was seen in the area

According to the children, the van — a 1970s Dodge that reportedly followed behind the bus for several miles — was blue and had large murals of mountains and a downhill skier. Active Missing People reports that the description matches the van Debbie Burk saw parked on the corner Cherrie Mahan would have passed on her way home.

According to Morbidology, law enforcement officials were immediately joined by family and neighbors in the search for the missing girl. However, their early efforts were hampered by a thick fog, which covered the region. Within weeks, up to 250 people and several helicopters were scanning the region for Mahan or the van that was seen on the corner. Unfortunately, no sign of the van or the girl was ever found. Although the FBI eventually joined the search, they were also unsuccessful.

There could be several explanations for Mahan's disappearance, but law enforcement officials believe she was kidnapped and taken out of the region. If she had gotten lost or was killed near her home, for example, officials believe they would have found some trace of her, her clothes, or her belongings during the extensive searches.

Two months after she vanished, the family raised $39,000 for any information about Mahan's whereabouts. According to Morbidology, authorities also launched a national campaign to print her photos and a description of the van on grocery products. Fliers were also placed in telephone and utility bills to raise nationwide awareness about her disappearance.

Authorities launched a national campaign to find Cherrie Mahan

Morbidology reports Cherrie Mahan's family and law enforcement agencies throughout the nation went to great lengths to make sure every media outlet and newspaper in the United States would distribute information about Mahan and the mysterious van. Authorities also sent letters to people who were incarcerated to ask whether they had heard anything about the missing girl from other inmates. However, none of their efforts led to any new or useful information.

Law enforcement officials ruled out Mahan's family and friends as suspects via extensive questioning and lie detector tests. Although it was suggested that her biological father might have been involved, authorities were never able to tie him to the assumed abduction. According to Active Missing People, authorities also ruled out kidnapping for ransom, as the family never received any ransom demands.

According to Chilling Crimes, law enforcement officials briefly suspected a Massachusetts man of Mahan's abduction. In 1994, they learned the man had abducted and killed one child and attempted to abduct another. However, he was eventually ruled out as he had a confirmed alibi on the day Mahan vanished. By the mid-1990s, authorities had exhausted all leads, and the case went cold. In 1998, the missing child was officially declared dead. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports Janice McKinney addressed the court, saying, "This is not over. We'll always look for Cherrie. If nothing else, she'll always be in our hearts."

Police continue to receive tips

Although Cherrie Mahan was declared legally dead, her family refused to hold a funeral service. Janice McKinney said she still has hope that her daughter may be alive. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, McKinney said, "When people die, you have a body. You kiss 'em in the face, you put them in the ground, and you say goodbye. That's something I never had."

Despite the fact that the case was declared cold, Pennsylvania State Trooper Frank Jendesky continued working on the case for 15 years. In an interview with 11 News, Jendesky said the search for Mahan had been terribly "frustrating." However, he wanted to "bring the case to a conclusion." Nevertheless, as he made plans to retire, he still had not found any answers.

Jedesky said he still received tips, including a call from a woman who believed she saw Mahan on an episode of "Dr. Phil" and a letter from an inmate at a correctional facility in Ohio who said he might have information about the girl's disappearance. Unfortunately, none of the tips were deemed to be credible. Jedesky retired in 2011, and another trooper was assigned to continue investigating Mahan's case.

In 2011, authorities were also alerted to a woman living in Michigan, who a tipster reported was Cherrie Mahan. As reported by 11 News, the tipster said she saw the mysterious van and a girl matching Mahan's description in Michigan in the weeks after the girl vanished.

No traces of Cherrie Mahan were ever found

The tipster said she reported the sighting at the time but never received a response. Authorities eventually determined the girl might actually be Cherrie Mahan. Law enforcement officials made contact with the woman, who denied she was the missing girl. 11 News reports authorities were able to confirm it was a case of mistaken identity, as the woman had a copy of her original birth certificate and official records confirmed she attended the same elementary school since she was in kindergarten.

In 2019, Janice McKinney received an anonymous letter from someone who claimed they knew specific details about what happened to her daughter. Although authorities have not released the actual contents of the letter, they confirmed it included specific names and locations, which were thoroughly investigated. According to 11 News, authorities conducted an extensive search of a hunting camp along the Allegheny River, as the letter indicated Mahan was killed and her remains were buried somewhere on the property. "There was [sic] a bunch of people and a couple of dogs, and you know they went over the property with a fine-tooth comb," Janice said, but no trace of Mahan was found. Authorities also confirmed they contacted each person named in the letter and were unable to find any evidence proving they were involved in Mahan's disappearance.