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Missing 8-Year-Old on Utility Bills, Spaghetti Boxes

April 21, 1985 GMT

CABOT, Pa. (AP) _ Cherrie Mahan, an 8-year-old third-grader wearing Cabbage Patch earmuffs, blue leg warmers and a denim skirt, vanished Feb. 22 after getting off a school bus 75 yards from her rural home north of Pittsburgh.

″It was like the earth opened up and she fell in,″ said her mother, Janice Mahan McKinney.

But now pictures of the brown-haired, hazel-eyed girl are appearing on spaghetti boxes and being tucked inside telephone and utility bills as part of an intensified campaign nationwide to track down some of the 1.5 million children reported missing every year.

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The apparent abduction of Cherrie Mahan has drawn a tremendous outpouring of support from both neighbors and strangers eager to help find the 4-foot-2, 68-pound girl.

She was last seen by three chums who stepped off the bus with Cherrie at 4:10 p.m. that day. They remember her walking past a blue van with a skier traversing a mountain painted on its side.

Neighbors have raised $39,000 in reward money for Cherrie’s safe return, and a local business pledged an additional $10,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

National networks that deal with missing children have helped distribute thousands of fliers bearing the girl’s picture and an artist’s composite of the blue van.

State police and 250 volunteers, backed up by bloodhounds and helicopters, combed the farms and fields off Cornplanter Road where the McKinneys live. The FBI also joined the search. No trace of her has been found.

″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,″ Walton said.

Although no one actually saw Cherrie enter the blue van, the only clue is that vehicle, which had tailed the bus.

″It’s the only thing we have to go on at this point. Finding it is critical,″ said Cpl. Kenneth Wakefield of the state police.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, D.C., about two-thirds of the 1.5 million children reported missing each year are runaways or ″throwaways,″ youngsters unwanted by their parents.

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Of the remaining 500,000, 95 percent are abducted by a parent or relative. Strangers kidnap 4,000 to 20,000. No statistics are available on how many are later found, but these are ″easily the toughest″ abductions to solve, according to Jay Howell, executive director of the National Center.

The center was founded last year with a two-year grant of $3.4 million administered by the Justice Department.

It has a toll-free telephone number, computer banks, six former law officers to track down leads and a network to put pictures of missing children on everything from milk cartons to matchbook covers and grocery store bags.

Two months before she disappeared, Cherrie Mahan was fingerprinted at school as part of a program that several states have adopted to discourage abductions and speed the identification of children found.

″We need a national solution to this problem,″ said Howell. ″You’ve got to have a public display of pictures of missing children. It helps. It works.″

Thanks to the national groups, Cherrie’s picture has been printed on boxes of Prince Spaghetti and distributed with telephone and utility bills. About 10,000 fliers with her picture and 3,000 with a color print of the van are being sent around the country by truckers.

The Chamber of Commerce in neighboring Armstrong County sent details to 1,600 other chambers nationally. And students at an area elementary school wrote 230 letters to send to relatives and friends outside the area.

Also involved in the search for Cherrie is Child Find, a non-profit network founded in 1980 and dedicated to locating missing children. Child Find is headquartered in New Paltz, N.Y., and has 65 chapters nationwide.

A group of 31 volunteers, calling themselves the Friends and Neighbors of Cherrie Mahan Reward Fund, collected $39,000 for the girl’s safe return. If she isn’t found within 18 months, the money will be used to start a local Child Find chapter.

″We’ll do whatever it takes to get her back,″ said Kathryn Yates, organizer of the reward fund. ″If we don’t give up, if we just keep trying, we’ll find her. She’ll come home. I won’t accept anything less.″

The reward money may be the best chance at uncovering clues, officials say.

″Some of these perverts would turn in their own mother for that kind of money,″ said Patty Colberg of the Child Find chapter in nearby Kittanning.

Police have questioned the girl’s natural father but say he is not a suspect. The 24-year-old mother and her husband, Leroy McKinney, 35, a postal employee, have been given routine lie detector tests.

Cherrie had planned to stay with a friend that Friday night. As third graders are prone to do, she dawdled and joked with her friends before walking away, according to Debbie Burk, a neighbor who waits in her car at the bus stop daily for her two children and another child.

″I sat in the car and watched the kids get off. They played for a while. I made sure Cherrie had walked past the car, then I drove away. I caught a glimpse of the blue van in the mirror. It was right behind me. My son saw the van, too,″ said Mrs. Burk.

Bloodhounds were unable to pick up Cherrie’s trail past the point where the blue van had stopped. Students said the van had been trailing the bus, but no one saw the Mahan girl get in, police said.

She had to walk about 25 yards to her driveway, then another 50 yards up a hilly, winding, unpaved lane to her family’s mobile home.

The McKinneys moved into the mobile home only eight months ago. ″It seemed like a great place to raise kids,″ said McKinney.

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Eds: The number for the National Center is 1-800-843-5678; the number for Child Find is 1-800-431-5005. The Friends And Neighbors of Cherrie Mahan can be reached at Cabot Post Office, Cabot, Pa. 16023.