11 Investigates the disappearance of Cherrie Mahan

BUTLER COUNTY, Pa. — It’s been 39 years since 8-year-old Cherrie Mahan vanished after getting off a school bus in rural Butler County.

Her mysterious disappearance has been the subject of intense local and national coverage for nearly four decades.

Chief Investigator Rick Earle has covered the case for 30 years now, even traveling to Michigan to track down a lead.

Earle recently spoke with Cherrie’s mother and investigators.

Even after all these years, Janice McKinney is still optimistic that one day she’ll find out what happened to her only daughter.

McKinney, who also has a son, hasn’t given up hope.

“Every time I come back here, I hope somebody sees me and then somebody makes a phone call and just, you know, cleanses their heart to say, ‘Yep, I did this,’ or, ‘I know what happened to her,’” McKinney said.

We met McKinney on Cornplanter Road in Winfield Township where Cherrie disappeared 39 years ago.

“To me, it’s a lifetime you know, three-fourths of my life, I have been searching for Cherrie, so you know February comes and it’s a cold one, but it just puts a chill to my heart because you know, she’ll be gone 39 years. And I just pray all the time. I just wish I knew where she was,” said McKinney.

Cherrie got off the bus and was supposed to make the short hike up the driveway to her home, where her mom and stepdad were waiting. McKinney said Cherrie was excited because she planned to spend that night at a friend’s house.

Cherrie never made it home.

“Five minutes later we come down the driveway there’s nothing, there’s nobody. There’s no car. There’s nothing,” said McKinney.

She and her husband then got into their car and chased after the school bus to see if Cherrie was still on it and hadn’t gotten off the bus.

“We stopped the bus, and the bus said she got off the bus. I called my mother and then I called police,” said McKinney, who recalled that police were there on the scene within an hour.

State police then began searching for a van with a skier mural that witnesses said was in the area, but McKinney doesn’t believe that van was involved.

Earle: They always thought that was the van that may have taken her, but you don’t think that’s the case?

McKinney: No, I don’t. I believe that there was another car here.

McKinney believes the other car was involved in Cherrie’s abduction.

For 39 years, police have investigated countless tips.

Investigators even reached out to authorities in Michigan after 11 Investigates received information that Cherrie may be alive and living under a different name.

It didn’t pan out.

Several years ago, an anonymous letter from a “Pastor Justice” identified who killed Cherrie and where her body was buried.

Police searched an area along the Allegheny River near Kittaning.

It’s about 30 miles from where she disappeared but came up empty.

State police declined an on-camera interview, but in an email to 11 Investigates confirmed that the FBI followed up on the letter as well, conducting “multiple out-of-state interviews.”

And just last summer two retired investigators with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children came here to the State Police barracks in Butler to review the file ”providing investigative ideas that could be beneficial to the case.”

Earle: Did you ever anticipate that it would be 39 years later and you wouldn’t know a thing?

McKinney: No. They’re like we’ll find her book bag, or we’ll find this and we’ll find her, you know, and then that second year came and then that third year came and then it just you know, it never ended.

Thirty-nine years later, with all of the ups and downs, Janice still isn’t giving up hope that one day she’ll find out what happened to her daughter.

“I always say she fell into a black hole and you know as I’m standing here right now I will do this every Feb. 22nd. I will be out here at this spot. I’ll be praying. I’ll be hoping that the good Lord gives me answers.”

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