Even some 25 years after she disappeared from a bus stop in Butler County as an 8-year-old, people still think they see Cherrie Mahan.
One tipster called to say she was on a social networking site. Another said she was working at a Toys R Us in Buffalo, N.Y.
Police follow up on the leads, which are written up, and when they don't pan out, they're stuck in cardboard boxes. Cherrie's case fills more than seven boxes, which hold thousands of pages documenting hundreds of tips -- of hopes raised then dashed.
Now, new information from a person of interest could solve the mystery, said state police Trooper Robert McGraw, who inherited the case -- and the boxes -- last summer.
Mr. McGraw characterized the break in the case cautiously.
"Basically, there's been an individual who's come forward and they have the potential to be crucial to this investigation in the future," he said.
He did not say how state police plan to proceed with the new information and declined to offer any specifics about it.
He would not say who the person was, if the person indicated whether Cherrie was alive or dead or even when the person came forward. The case is sensitive, he said, and he's kept her family in the dark as well.
Cherrie's mother, Janice McKinney, said she knows to be careful in her optimism.
"I don't want to get my hopes up, but this could be an answer to all of our prayers," she said haltingly.
Mr. McGraw also is hoping a CNN special on Cherrie's disappearance, due to air sometime soon, will revive interest in the case.
"One person ... may hold the key to the entire investigation," he said. "Some information from the general public may bring resolution to her entire family."
Cherrie vanished Feb. 22, 1985, after getting off of a school bus in Cabot, a small town in Butler County. She never made it the 150 yards home from the stop.
Troopers tracked a lead about a van with a painting of a mountain scene on its side panels that had been seen around the neighborhood, but the van was never found. They gave her parents polygraph examinations and interviewed friends. When no obvious leads developed, a national direct mailing company, ADVO, plastered her visage on postcards with the question "Have you seen me?" The cards were mailed to thousands of households around the country. She was the first missing child to be featured in the program.
Leads streamed into police by the thousands, but none panned out.
One of the last solid leads that was developed was in 1994, when police questioned a Massachusetts man who was accused of abducting and killing a child and of attempting to abduct another child. He was ruled out as a suspect when police confirmed he was in New York the day of Cherrie's disappearance.
ADVO featured her again in another mailing in 2000 with a computer-generated photo showing what she might look like as a 23-year-old, but again no solid leads came in.
Ms. McKinney said police apprise her when they're making headway on a lead and think it could be promising. But she said she can't even remember the last time it happened. Mr. McGraw is the third or fourth investigator she's dealt with, she said.
"He's very optimistic [of this lead]," she said.
Ms. McKinney admits that her hope that her daughter is alive has worn thin over the years. In November 1998, Cherrie was declared legally dead by a judge.
"It would beyond my wildest dreams if she was still alive and I could hold her and tell her everything that I've missed, but that's my heart talking," she said. "My mind's saying 'Janice, wake up, smell the coffee. If she was alive she would have come home.' "
And as the years dragged on, her sense of loss has only been compounded. As she watched a niece grow up and graduate from high school, then go onto college and get married, she thought of Cherrie. Today, her daughter would be 34.
"Those are things that I will never have with my daughter," she said. "It breaks my heart."
It's the mystery that tortures her most.
"I can't even explain to people what a killer that is," she said, "After 26 years I just truly just want some closure. ... I pray every night that God lets me know what happens so I don't have to torment myself anymore."
In the end, she is comforted by her faith.
"I've always felt that Cherrie's OK," she said. "I just don't know if she's dead or alive. I put it in the Lord's hands."
Moriah Balingit: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2533.