Published: Jan 14, 2011 8:47 PM EST
Updated: Jan 14, 2011 5:57 PM EST

PITTSBURGH (AP) - 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.

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."

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," McGraw 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. 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.

McKinney was a 16-year-old single mother when Cherrie was born, and 25 years old when she disappeared. Now 50, McKinney believes what psychics told her a couple of years ago: that Cherrie was kidnapped by someone she knew.

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."

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

"In my heart, when anybody ever talks about her, I have always believed that she was (alive)," McKinney said, "But in my head I knew and just prayed every night that she didn't suffer, that it was quick, it was painless, that they didn't torture her."

McGraw won't say what police believe for fear of derailing the investigation. He wouldn't even say if the person that came forward recently would have been an adult or a child - perhaps another one on the bus? - when Cherrie disappeared. But, he insists, "This information has the Pennsylvania State Police highly optimistic" that they'll solve the mystery.

Police won't tell McKinney who the tipster is, but McKinney is disturbed that the person knew Cherrie. That means the person also likely knew McKinney and likely is acquainted with her grief through countless media stories about Cherrie's disappearance.

McKinney's pain is largely driven by uncertainty.

 "When people die there's that grieving process," McKinney said. "But mine's been going on for 26 years."

 "My husband is a Vietnam veteran and all those men that were missing, you know that they're dead but you never get over it because you've never held them or looked in that coffin and saw that body and so you can never say goodbye," she said.

Even if it's only through a police report or a criminal complaint, McKinney said, "I just wish to know exactly what happened and have something to hold in my hand and say goodbye."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)