It’s winter in Pennsylvania, and snow covers the ground as Cherrie Mahan’s school bus pulls up outside her rural home. But somehow, the little girl never makes it to her front door. For two-and-a-half decades, police search for any leads in the baffling case. Then a tip-off leads them in a new direction.
Cherrie was born on August 14, 1976, to Janice Mahan, a 16-year-old single mother. After a while, Janice married Vietnam veteran Leroy McKinney, who became a devoted stepfather to Cherrie. And by February 1985, the family were living in a rural area of Winfield Township in Butler County, PA.
At the time, Cherrie had recently broken her arm in a car accident. However, it had been settled in her favor, and she was set to receive $3,500 in compensation. Sadly, tragedy would strike before she had time to collect the money. In fact, she was about to take center stage in a mystery that continues to haunt her family to this day.
On February 22, Cherrie, then eight, spent the day at school. Afterwards, she boarded the bus to return home, dressed in a denim skirt, white leotard, gray coat and white stockings. Apparently, she was also carrying a blue backpack, as well as a cream top emblazoned with a heart motif.
Just after 4:00 p.m., Leroy heard the school bus pulling up at the end of their drive. Normally, he would drive the 150 yards to meet Cherrie when she arrived. However, the weather was pleasant that day, and Janice urged Leroy to let the little girl walk home instead. Sadly, it was a decision that she would come to regret.
When Cherrie had still not arrived after ten minutes, her parents grew concerned. But when Leroy went out to investigate, he could find no trace of the young girl. Apparently, she had disembarked the bus as usual, along with three other children. But somehow she had vanished into thin air.
In fact, all that Leroy managed to find were some tire prints at the bus stop. And even though snow still lay on the ground, there was no sign that Cherrie had attempted to walk home. Concerned, he contacted the police, and the hunt for the missing girl began. But even though local residents joined emergency personnel to comb the area, they failed to get to the bottom of her disappearance.
Soon, some strange facts began to emerge about the afternoon that Cherrie had vanished. Apparently, some children on the same bus had spotted a distinctive van following behind their vehicle. They recalled it as being blue with a painted mural of a skier and some mountains decorating the side.
Then a passing motorist reported having seen the same van parked near Cherrie’s bus stop. According to the sighting, the little girl had gotten off the bus, only to vanish at around the same time as the mystery vehicle. Had the driver abducted Cherrie? Or did a small blue car, also spotted in the area, have something to do with her disappearance?
Sadly, both leads failed to generate any answers. And as the weeks passed, Janice and Leroy came no closer to finding out what had happened to to their daughter. Then the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which had been formed just one year previously in the United States, stepped in.
That year, it launched a series of advertisements known as the “Have You Seen Me?” mailers. In them, it planned to feature photographs of missing children in the hopes of finding out more information. And for the launch of the scheme, it chose to feature Cherrie and her puzzling case.
However, even having her image circulated so widely failed to shed any light on Cherrie’s disappearance. But as the years ticked by, tips continued to trickle in to the Pennsylvania State Police. Interestingly, many of them concerned the same distinctive van, although neither that vehicle nor the blue car could be traced.
Meanwhile, the McKinneys attempted to get on with their lives. The date for Cherrie’s high-school graduation came and went, and Janice gave birth to a baby boy. Eventually, the seven-year anniversary of Cherrie’s disappearance arrived. By that point, the law would have enabled the couple to have their daughter officially declared dead.
However, the McKinneys refused to take that step for another six long years. Eventually, on November 5, 1998, Cherrie’s mother petitioned a judge to take the necessary steps. Apparently, she wanted her son, Robert, to inherit the money that Cherrie had won in the settlement before her disappearance. However, she vowed to never stop searching for the missing girl.
At the time, Janice spoke to the press about the difficult decision. “This is not over,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1998. “We’ll always look for Cherrie. If nothing else, she’ll always be in our hearts.” Meanwhile, police continued to hunt for clues, even questioning the McKinneys and their friends.
While police did not find anything suspicious, investigators maintained that Cherrie was likely abducted by someone that she knew. But as the years passed, they came no closer to locating the mysterious van – or the girl’s presumed abductor. Meanwhile, Janice grew overprotective of Robert, refusing to allow the boy out of her sight.
Then in 2011 police announced a brand new lead – 26 years after Cherrie had first disappeared. And according to Robert McGraw, a Pennsylvania state trooper, it had the potential to break the case wide open. However, it came at a price. Apparently, the new details heavily implied that Cherrie was no longer alive.
McGraw, who was the fourth investigator to head up Cherrie’s case, agreed with the theory that someone familiar to Cherrie had been responsible for her abduction. “I believe Cherrie was abducted by someone she knows very well,” he told CNN in 2011. “And I believe this person had the ability to basically lure Cherrie to their vehicle without her giving it a second thought.”
But despite McGraw’s optimism about the new information, the tip-off led nowhere. Later that year, investigators turned their attention to Michigan, where a source had reported that an adult Cherrie was living. However, they soon established that the woman in question was not the missing girl.
Today, the mystery remains unsolved. Now in the hands of Trooper Chris Birckbichler, the case is personal to the Butler County native, who was a high-school student when Cherrie first disappeared. And even after all these years, he vows to continue the search. “She deserves to be found,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2015.