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CHERRIE MAHAN Anniversary of missing girl noted



Published: Tue, February 22, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The white 'Have You Seen Me' cards derived from the kidnapping that occurred 20 years ago.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The nation deals with its missing children differently since 8-year-old Cherrie Mahan stepped off a school bus 20 years ago, never to be seen again.

Cherrie was the first of about 1,200 missing children pictured on postcards now mailed to millions of homes with advertising circulars. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, then in its infancy, has become part of the national crime-fighting establishment. And Amber Alerts are a part of the national vocabulary.

That progress -- and the belief that somehow, somewhere, Cherrie is OK -- is what keeps her mother going these days.

"I don't know that I will ever accept it," Janice McKinney, 44, of Mars, says of Cherrie's abduction on Feb. 22, 1985. "It's just that the good Lord gave me enough faith to know that he's protecting her and ... that someday I will know [what happened to her]. It may not be until I'm dead and gone, but, I don't know, I can't explain it. I just know she's OK."

Still looking for leads

State police have few new leads to report in Cherrie's disappearance from Winfield Township, a rural Butler County community about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh.

"We like to try to get the information out, back into the public's mind on the anniversary," said Trooper Jonathan Bayer. "Hopefully, it might jar people's mind about every little bit of information they might think is insignificant, but is not."

In southwestern Pennsylvania, even perfect strangers know the bare bones of the Cherrie's story, rehashed as it is every five years or so in newspapers and on TV news.

Cherrie, a third grader, got off her school bus just after 4 p.m. The driver of a car saw her get off the bus and nearby saw a blue or green van with a distinctive paint scheme. Because it was a nice day, Cherrie's stepfather, LeRoy McKinney, told police he let her walk a short distance home after he heard the bus. When she didn't show up, he said he went to the bus stop 10 minutes later and saw tire prints -- but no Cherrie.

Bayer said the latest lead in the case came from someone who contacted missing children's center, claiming to know who may have owned a van like that at the time. Police were running down that information on Monday; many similar leads in the past have turned into dead ends.

In the meantime, the police and other agencies try to keep the case -- and Cherrie's face -- in the public eye.

Many Americans have never heard of Advo Inc. But they know all about the white postcards the Windsor, Conn., company sends out along with advertising circulars to some 85 million homes in its partnership with the FBI, the U.S. Postal Service and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"Have You Seen Me"

Cherrie was the first child pictured on one of the company's "Have You Seen Me?" cards, which have reunited 136 children with their families.

"We were honored by the Smithsonian Institution [at its U.S. Postal Museum] a year ago last October and Cherrie Mahan's mom came because she's so sold on our program," said Advo spokeswoman Mary Lou Dlugolenski. "To have here be there to recognize our program, and yet Cherrie is still out there missing, of course it tugs at the heart strings."

McKinney said, "There are so many good things that came out of [Cherrie's abduction]. The Advo cards. The national center was established just a few months before Cherrie was kidnapped. The state police got a ... machine to help make people aware of missing children -- the Amber Alert."

Cherrie's grandmother, Shirley Mahan, 77, is the tax collector in nearby Clinton Township. She didn't plan to run again before Cherrie disappeared, but will retire when her seventh term ends later this year. When she's not collecting taxes, she makes dish towels that she gives away as gifts, to help keep her mind off Cherrie.

"I lost a son when he was 16 [to cancer], but that was 34 years ago, and my husband, I lost him 23 years ago," Mahan said. "But I keep collecting taxes because I need something else to keep my mind on."

"If she's dead, I won't like it, but I'll have to live with it," Mahan said. "I would just dearly like to know if she's alive or dead."




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