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Cherrie's death official, mother's memory eternal

Friday, November 06, 1998

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

BUTLER -- In the 13 years since she vanished into that place where little girls are always 8 years old and mothers walk forever with huge rips in their souls, Cherrie Mahan's absence has been measured in things missed.

Janice McKinney with a picture of her daughter, Cherrie Mahan. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

She was absent for what would have been her high school graduation in 1994. She wasn't there nine years ago when her brother was born. Yesterday, she missed her own death.

After waiting six years longer than law requires, Cherrie Mahan's mother walked into a courtroom and surrendered to a reality she can barely speak about. Cherrie Mahan is now, in the official books of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, dead.

"This is not over," Janice McKinney said, fairly choking on her words. "We'll always look for Cherrie. If nothing else, she'll always be in our hearts."

There long ago ceased to be any other plausible spot to look for Cherrie. After she stepped off a school bus and never made the remaining 150 yards to her house, police scoured her neighborhood in the Butler County town of Cabot.

Car tracks were photographed. They led nowhere. Fliers blanketed the region. Family friends were asked pointed questions. Janice and LeRoy McKinney, Cherrie's mother and stepfather, were given the obligatory lie detector tests.

The only certainty to emerge was that Cherrie could not be found.

Three months ago, after Janice McKinney decided to hand over to a charity for missing children the $50,000 once intended to reward the person who found Cherrie, she telephoned her lawyer, J. Stevenson Suess. Would he do some final paperwork on the case?

Before she had vanished, Cherrie won a $3,500 settlement from an insurance company after her arm was broken in a traffic accident. The money had been sitting in a bank, waiting for her. Janice McKinney decided the time had come to give that money to the child she can still find, her 9-year-old son Robert, the brother Cherrie never met.

It took 15 minutes for Judge Thomas Doerr to hear McKinney's petition yesterday. He duly noted the bare facts: Cherrie Mahan was born Aug. 14, 1976. On Feb. 22, 1985 she got off her bus along Cornplanter Road in the town of Cabot. After that, she has been neither seen nor heard from, despite a search that stretched across Western Pennsylvania.

With so much evidence of things not seen, Pennsylvania's law holds that, on Feb. 22, 1992 -- after the necessary seven years had elapsed -- Cherrie Mahan died.

What happened to her is anyone's guess.

"I was outside on the porch," LeRoy McKinney recalled yesterday. "I heard the bus comin' down the hollow. I heard the kids gettin' off."

LeRoy McKiney said he was about to go down the 150-yard driveway leading to their place when Janice told him: "No, it's a nice day. Let her walk."

After 10 minutes, LeRoy and Janice McKinney began to worry. He went to the bus stop. All he noticed were some tire prints and utter silence. School mates later told investigators Cherrie had gotten off the bus. In the ensuing months, the only lead anyone had was that a van with a mountain scene painted on its side had been noticed around the neighborhood. It was never found.

Years followed. Janice and LeRoy McKinney tortured themselves with thoughts of what might have happened. Eliminating suspects one by one, police questioned the McKinneys. They questioned friends, too, and some of them fell away.

"I don't know if they were mad," LeRoy McKinney explained. "They just wanted nothing to do with it."

Doerr, a thin, 42-year-old judge with thick, curly hair and wire-rimmed glasses, was noticeably shaken by his own ruling yesterday. He won't comment on any case before him, but does admit to remembering the desperate days in which a community looked for a Cherrie Mahan. His own daughter had been born just two years earlier.

"I'm sorry to see you here, ma'am," he told Janice McKinney, then closed the proceedings.

The statute under which Cherrie was declared dead takes its pedigree from colonial times, when men often went to war or into the woods to hunt and never returned. Common law, passed down from the British, held that, after seven years without any word, the spouse left behind could remarry and society could safely assume the missing one had died.

It became the basis for a popular myth still afoot today: that if a couple lives together for seven years, they are, by default, in a common-law marriage.

A judge can entertain a declaration of death in less than seven years if the missing person was involved in some perilous activity. Suess gave the example of a balloonist who tries to cross the Atlantic and isn't heard from again.

All Cherrie Mahan was doing, though, was what thousands of children do every day: getting off a school bus to walk up her driveway to home. It should have taken five minutes.

Robert McKinney, the brother born four years after Cherrie vanished, was in school yesterday, and thus not on hand to see the sister he never knew declared dead, years after she passed away.

"He doesn't understand, other than he has a very overprotective mother. This child's not going anywhere without me," Janice McKinney said.

There was never a funeral service for Cherrie Mahan, because her mother could never bring herself to do anything but continue to hope, even when hoping was the thing that hurt most, because there was no clear way to stop.

"When people die, you have a body. You kiss 'em in the face, you put them in the ground and you say goodbye," she said. "That's something I never had."

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