WINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Pa. (KDKA) – On a sunny Feb. 22, 1985, 8-year-old Cherrie Mahan got off her school bus on Cornplanter Road and headed to her driveway and her home.
From that day to today, Janice McKinney has been searching face for her daughter Cherrie who never made it up the hill that day to their home.
“It’s a torment, I’ve been tormented since the day she was taken. Is she alive, is she not alive, is she okay, is she not okay, is she with somebody are they taking care of her, are they not taking care of her?”
“Does she miss me, does she want me, does she know me? These things run in my head every single day of my life.”
Janice and her husband Leroy were in their home at the top of the hill waiting for Cherrie to get home so they could take her to a play date with friends.
“We heard the bus come and after five or tens minutes and Leroy said ‘maybe she fell down, do you want me to go check? And I said ‘go check’ and he went down he checked and she wasn’t there,” she says.
The children on the bus, and the bus driver told Janice and Leroy Cherrie did get off the bus.
Janice says, “It’s just what happened from the time she got off that bus to when she headed towards our driveway.”
The police were called and days of searches began.
Cherrie got off the bus that day in her grey coat, denim skirt, white leotard, blue leggings, and Cabbage Patch ear muffs.
“There was nobody that was a stranger to her,” her mom says, “Like if you said her name she thought you knew her. So did somebody know her? Did somebody knock her on the head and drag her into a car, did somebody say ‘hey your mom said we’re to pick you up and get in the car?’ Someday I’m gonna know.”
Now 35 years later, Pennsylvania State Trooper Jim Long says the phone still rings at the Butler Barracks about Cherrie.
“It’s amazing after all these years we still get a lot of inquiries a lot of information, a lot of tips, sometimes we’ll get a couple a week, other times it may go months and we don’t hear anything,” he says.
Children on the bus that day told police they saw a conversion van with a skier painted on the side. Trp. Long says, “There’s been a lot of vans that we looked at. There’s been a lot of vans we actually processed forensically and unfortunately didn’t lead us anywhere.”
Cherrie’s mom doubts the van was even involved.
To understand the depth of this mother’s despair you need to know this: “I got raped and had Cherrie when I was 16 years old and she was ‘IT’ for me. Everything! I never left that house without her, we were always together, we grew up together, she was my life.”
Janice believes there is a connection between her rape, Cherrie’s birth, and eight years later her disappearance “I do, I believe that but I can’t prove anything,” she says.
Janice McKinney says authorities did not believe her rape allegation and Cherrie’s biological father was never charged.
But she does not believe he was involved in her disappearance? “Not him personally but the people that he knows yes.”
Police are aware of McKinney’s suspicions and have told her the man is adamant in his denials. The only thing Trp. Long will say about suspects: “Anybody that was implicated, until we find evidence otherwise, they still would be considered a suspect.”
Likewise, the police say until they have evidence to the contrary, they have to assume there is still a chance Cherrie is alive.
Over the years, there have been frenzied moments of hope. Like the possible sightings of women who could have been Cherrie in Michigan and New Jersey, both were ruled out.
More recently, a woman called the nursing home where Janice works claiming to be Cherrie. Janice says, “They were ecstatic. Oh my God, its Cherrie! Cherrie got found you know.”
Trp. Long says, “It gave us hope that this really was Cherrie, so we looked at pictures with the family and we also took fingerprints and ultimately it was discovered that it was not Cherrie.”
Janice’s reaction: “There are very mean people out there that try to get into the story I guess.”
Another case in point, a handwritten letter that arrived a couple of years ago so brutally specific spelling out Cherrie’s killing and burial. Janice read the letter carefully.
“It was very graphic and cruel to me,” she says.
She gave it to the police and Trp. Long says, “We actually followed up on to the point we were investigating people outside of the commonwealth, the FBI got involved and helped us out. We also went to a property that the letter mentioned.”
Investigators took along cadaver dogs and Cherrie’s mom was right there with them.
Pushing back tears she says, “I just want to be there in case they find her or in case they find just bones I want to be there. I want to see it, I want to know what happened.”
But like all the other leads Trp. Long says, “Unfortunately that letter as a whole hasn’t been very fruitful at this point.”
The pain of the unknown has been hard to handle from the start. In the early years, she turned to drugs to dull the pain and sold everything she had, “just to get another high because that pain was killing me, it was just killing me.”
She thought about suicide and even tried to jump out of the passenger door of her truck on Route 8. Only Leroy’s strong arm and grip kept it from happening.
“I was gonna jump out, cause that car behind us was going to squish me like a bug and I didn’t care,” she says. “Because the only thing that I cared about was taken from me. And I didn’t care what happened.”
But a couple of years after Cherrie disappeared, Janice shook herself out of here spiral of self-destruction and learned what she hopes others will take to heart, the power of forgiveness.
“Without forgiveness, I was eating myself alive,” she says.
TIMELINE: Events Surrounding The Disappearance Of Cherrie Mahan
So she reached deep in her faith and found a way to forgive whoever was involved in Cherrie’s disappearance.
“That’s what gave me peace in my life,” she says. “To forgive somebody that I didn’t know because I was killing myself.”
And even harder, she says she had to find a way to forgive her own mother’s guilt.
“Because I wasn’t there that day. I wasn’t there. Up until that day, I was there every day to pick her up after school. Every single day. And that day I was not,” she says.
“And believe me, any parent who has dealt with an accident…that guilt can kill ya.”
The day Cherrie disappeared, Janice had the day off from work. And instead of picking her up on the way home, she was waiting at home instead.
On her shoulder and near her heart, Janice carries tattoos to remind her of her daughter and every day she prays for the relief of ‘that call’ from the police.
“That would be a blessing to me if they would call me and just say it’s over,” she says.
Janice McKinney is holding out hope that after 35 years someone will have an attack of conscience and come forward with the tip police need.
If you have any information on the disappearance of Cherrie Mahan, contact the State Police Butler barracks at 724-284-8100.