2010-02-25 / Local & State

Pa. Girl’s 25-Year-Old Case Lends Hope To Others

By DAN NEPHIN ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Cherrie Mahan was 8 when she vanished from a bus stop near her home. A picture of the smiling, brown-haired girl would be the first featured on direct-mail fliers like those now sent weekly to tens of millions of U.S. homes with a simple message – Have You Seen Me?

Monday marks 25 years since Cherrie disappeared in western Pennsylvania. And although she’s never been found, the fliers are credited with helping to recover 149 other missing children, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

“It emphasizes the point that somebody out there knows,’’ said the center’s president, Ernie Allen.

The idea for the fliers came after advertising executive Vincent Giuliano, who worked for marketer Advo Inc. in Windsor, Conn., saw a 1984 television movie about the 1981 murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, who had been abducted from a Florida shopping mall.

The next day, Giuliano and employees talked about the show and the idea of putting pictures and a hot line number on their mailers began to form. Giuliano was so moved that he arranged to meet Adam’s father, John Walsh, an advocate for victims of violent crime, who put him in touch with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va.

“I felt I had to go out and meet him. That’s what pushed me,’’ said Giuliano, now senior president of government relations at marketing company Valassis Inc., which bought Advo.

Cherrie was chosen for the first flier, in May 1985, because there were enough details about her case that the center figured someone had to know something, Giuliano said.

The third-grader got off her school bus the afternoon of Feb. 22, 1985, in Winfield Township, a rural Butler County community 20 miles north of Pittsburgh. A motorist saw Cherrie get off and noticed a bluish-green van with a painting of a mountain and a skier on it behind the bus. But as the bus stopped to allow traffic to pass after driving down the road a bit farther, the van had disappeared.

Cherrie’s stepfather told police he had let her walk the short distance home because it was a nice day. When she didn’t arrive, he went to the bus stop 10 minutes later and saw tire prints – but no Cherrie.

Giuliano said it’s “so bewildering’’ that someone who knows something about the case hasn’t come forward. Telephone calls to Cherrie’s mother, Janice McKinney, for this story weren’t returned.

While Cherrie’s case serves as a sober reminder that not every missing child is found, the flier program has had success – and gives hope. More than half the 2,100 children featured on the fliers have been found through other means, such as police investigations or other groups posting pictures of them.

Abby Potash, a 60-year-old suburban Philadelphia mother, knows the fliers can help.

Her ex-husband, Steven Fastow, disappeared with their 10- year-old son, Sam Fastow, in July 1997 after a weekend visit. At first, she thought perhaps there had been an accident. She called police and Steven Fastow’s family: No one had heard from them.

Days later, she found his Hackensack, N.J., apartment bare, except for some trash.

The father and son, meanwhile, traveled under aliases, burning through the boy’s college fund. Potash said her son was told she was dead and he was forbidden to talk about his life.

Around the holidays that year, an Advo flier bearing their photos arrived at the Texas home of Steven Fastow’s cousin, who recognized him on it and called Potash to offer help.

In March 1998, Fastow called his cousin. He wanted to visit.

The cousin told Fastow to call back the next day, and she contacted the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which contacted the FBI. When Fastow called again, the cousin said her husband would meet him at a restaurant. Instead, the FBI arrested Fastow, nine months after Sam’s abduction.

Sam was the 99th child recovered because of the fliers.

“I owe them my life,’’ Potash said. “My son, too.’’

Potash now works for Team Hope, a program run by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children offering support to missing children’s families.

“I don’t want that to happen to anyone else,’’ she said.

Fastow pleaded guilty in New Jersey to a charge of contempt for interfering with a custody order and spent more than a year in prison followed by three years of probation.

Allen, the center president, said some of the stories that have come from the flier program are almost so implausible that people would think they’re made up.

– In 1999, a law student vacationing in Roatan, Honduras, befriended a father and daughter. When he got home, he saw the girl’s image on a flier and called the hot line. The FBI found the girl, who had been taken by her father two years earlier.

– In March 1990, a San Francisco woman befriended and photographed a 6-year-old boy on a beach while vacationing in Mexico. That November, a flier arrived at her home with a picture of the boy, who’d been missing since June 1988. She contacted the center, and the boy was reunited with his mother, Allen said.

“The amazing thing about this program is that its success is predicated on average people doing average things and simply paying attention,’’ he said.

The nonprofit center also distributes pictures at Walmart stores and has a cadre of retired law enforcement experts who help with investigations.

By 1990, the recovery rate for missing children was 62 percent, but now, partly because of the fliers and new technology such as Amber Alerts to spread information quickly, it’s 97 percent, Allen said.

“But the ones you don’t find, the ones that don’t come home, are the ones that haunt you forever,’’ he said. “Cherrie and Janice will always have a special place in our heart. And we don’t close these files.’’

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