It was the 22nd of February, 1985, when Janice and Leroy McInney heard the school bus coming up the road just as they did every week day. The couple lived in Winfield Township, Butler County, Pennsylvania, with their 8-year-old daughter, Cherrie Mahan.
Cherrie was known to be a cheerful little girl. She was in the third grade. Leroy wasn’t Cherrie’s birth-father. Her birth father had never acknowledged her or attempted to have any kind of relationship wit her.1
That afternoon – like usual – Cherrie was seen climbing off the bus and heading down the hill towards her driveway. She was wearing Cabbage Patch earmuffs, blue leg warmers and a denim skirt.
The short walk should have only taken a few minutes but Cherrie never arrived home.
Other children on the bus and a neighbour told police that they had seen a blue or green van with a skier and mountain scene painted on the side following the bus from Winfield Elementary School to Cherrie’s bus stop. Another person saw Cherrie walk past the van which was seen parked at the side of the road.
Word of the potential abduction spread quickly throughout the rural community. A search party was assembled and they worked tirelessly through the afternoon, evening, and well into the night. “We drove down the road like madmen. We almost hit Leroy. He was running up and down the road… He kept saying, ‘My little girl’s gone. She’s disappeared.’ He was numb. You could just tell he was numb,” said Kathleen Yates, a neighbour.
Unfortunately, a thick fog fell across Winfield Township and the searchers could barely see further than a few feet in front of them. Over the forthcoming weeks, firefighters and helicopters assisted in the daunting search alongside around 250 volunteers. They combed through the farmland and fields off Cornplanter Road where the family lived. The elementary school became a headquarters and a local grocer donated food for those assisting in the search.
Eventually the FBI was called in to assist in the search yet no clues turned up.
Early on in the investigation, it was theorised that Cherrie had been abducted. “It’s a kidnapping. For what motive, we don’t know. There’s been no ransom note,” said Lt. Francis Walton of the state police. “It’s very frustrating. There’s nothing to point the finger of suspicion at anybody. The last we know of her is she got off the bus. There’s no trace of her at the scene. She just disappeared,” he said.2
By April, neighbours and family had raised $39,000 as a reward for Cherrie’s safe return.3 Local businesses pledged another $10,000 for information about Cherrie’s whereabouts.
There was an intensified nationwide campaign to find missing children and photographs of Cherrie were featured on spaghetti boxes and tucked inside telephone and utility bills. Missing person fliers were distributed which described Cherrie as 4 feet 2 inches tall and 68 pounds with brown hair and hazel-eyes. The fliers also contained a description of the van following the school bus.
Letters and posters were sent to every television station and daily newspaper in the nation. MicroComputers, a Pittsburgh company, donated a personal computer for volunteers to keep track of addresses. They also wrote to prisoners in the area, hoping that one of them would have some information about Cherrie. A local songwriter even wrote a song for Cherrie and several radio stations picked it up and played it on air hoping to generate some tips but to no avail.
“It was like the Earth opened up and she fell in,” said her mother, Janice. While she had accepted that her daughter had most likely been abducted, she refused to let herself consider the fact that she could be deceased. “The longer it goes… If the good Lord feels she’ll be better off with him, he’ll take her,” she said. When Janine had a dream that she found Cherrie wrapped up in a blanket sleeping in her car that was parked in the driveway, she kept the door unlocked every night in the hopes that it was a premonition.4
The case gradually went cold. In 1995, the case was taken over by state Trooper Frank Jendesky. He said that there had been no leads for years but said that they were still treating the case as a stranger abduction. Janice had moved to Mars with Leroy and the couple now had a 5-year-old son, Robert. She would drive Robert to and from school, and even walks him into the building. “It’s every mother’s dream to have a child graduate, go on to college and get married. I’m still hoping for the day she comes home and I can marry her off,” she said.5
In November of 1998, Cherrie was declared legally dead. Her family sought this action so that a trust fund in Cherrie’s name could be transferred to her brother.6 “This is not over. We’ll always look for Cherrie. If nothing else, she’ll always be in our hearts,” said her mother. Shortly thereafter, they donated the $58,000 reward fund to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.7
Then in 2015, cadaver dogs descended on a Winfield property based on something somebody claimed to have seen around the time of Cherrie’s disappearance. A forensic team excavated a mount there but uncovered nothing related to Cherrie or her disappearance. She still remains missing.
- Erie Times-News, 23 February, 1995 – “10 Years Later, Police and Family Still Searching for Missing Girl”
- Daily Breeze, 18 May, 1985 – “Like the Earth Opened Up and She Fell In”
- The Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 April, 1985 – “Photo Caption”
- The Orlando Sentinel, 25 August, 1985 – “The Abduction Neighbors Take to Streets to Find Child”
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 24 May, 1995 – “10 Years of Work to Find Lost Children Anniversary Noted for Good It Has Done”
- Erie Times-News, 2 October, 1998 – “Mother Asks Judge to Declare Daughter Dead”
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 30 October, 1998 – “Missing Girl’s Family Donates Reward