- Associated Press - Sunday, January 16, 2011

PITTSBURGH | A new tip about an 8-year-old girl who was the first child featured on the “Have You Seen Me?” direct-mail advertisements leaves little hope that she is still alive after nearly 26 years but provides the best chance yet of determining what happened to her, state police said.

Cherrie Mahan was last seen stepping off a school bus in 1985. Later that year, she was featured on the first “Have You Seen Me?” mailings by Advo Inc., a company since acquired by Valassis Inc. of Livonia, Mich. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, more than half of 2,100 children pictured on the fliers have been found — including 150 directly by tips generated by the fliers.

But not Cherrie.

Trooper Robert McGraw said he’s optimistic that’s about to change.

Trooper McGraw said new information has come from someone “who would have known Cherrie” and that it “has the potential to lead us to a known specific actor or actors.”

Trooper McGraw won’t say who walked into the state police barracks in Butler or even when it occurred.

“Their information has the potential to be crucial,” he told the Associated Press. “This is more specific information than has been brought to our attention in a long, long time.” He said the new information makes it “highly unlikely that she is alive.”

What little is known about Cherrie’s disappearance has been oft-repeated by newspapers, TV and radio stations.

A motorist saw her get off the bus on Feb. 22, 1985, near a bluish-green van with a skier painted on the side. As the bus stopped to allow traffic to pass, the van disappeared, and so did Cherrie. Her stepfather found only tire prints at the stop 50 yards from their home in Winfield Township, about 25 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

Through the years, most leads have involving alleged sightings of the “skier van” or of Cherrie herself — some fueled by age-enhanced drawings that police have issued periodically. Trooper McGraw said the latest information “is not like another sighting of Cherrie or another tip about the van.”

Cherrie’s mother, Janice McKinney, keeps Cherrie’s 2010 age-enhanced likeness on her desk at a Pittsburgh-area retirement community where she heads the housekeeping department.

Mrs. McKinney was a single mother when Cherrie disappeared. Now 50, Mrs. McKinney believes what psychics told her a couple of years ago: that Cherrie was kidnapped by someone she knew.

Mrs. McKinney told the AP that the psychics told her the kidnapper was “not like somebody that was her best friend or anything, but like somebody Cherrie had talked to once or had seen once. My daughter wasn’t shy. She was friendly. … She would talk to you if you talked to her.”

Trooper McGraw has told Mrs. McKinney that her daughter is unlikely to be alive. Mrs. McKinney has come to terms with that idea, intellectually at least.

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