Twenty years ago, nine-year-old Asha Degree disappeared. She left her Shelby, North Carolina home in the middle of the night. Nobody knows why she left or where she went. After decades of searching, the most recent evidence of her disappearance is from 2001.
How have we gotten no closer to Asha’s location after 20 years? And why did the FBI decide to re-open the case in 2017? Read about the missing person case that has puzzled people for decades. What happened to Asha Degree?
An Otherwise Normal Day
February 13th, 2000, was a Sunday and standard weekend for the Degree kids. Asha (pronounced AY-shah) was a fourth-grader at Fallston Elementary in Shelby, North Carolina. She looked forward to Monday, which was both Valentine’s Day and her parents’ anniversary.
That Sunday, Asha and her brother O’Bryant went to church and her aunt’s house for lunch. Then, they went home. Meanwhile, father Harold Degree went to his job’s second shift at PPG Industries plant. Nothing seemed off until the children went to bed.
The Night Of The Disappearance
At 8:00 p.m., Asha and O’Bryant went to bed in the room they shared. An hour later, the power went out from a nearby car accident. But the children would not have known that because they were supposed to be asleep.
At 12:30 a.m., Harold returned home from work. He checked on his kids and saw them sleeping. Two hours later, he checked on them again, and they were still in their beds. This was the last time he ever saw Asha.
Leaving In The Middle Of The Night
That night, ten-year-old O’Bryant heard Asha’s bed squeak. He assumed that she was moving around in her bed and didn’t wake up. However, Asha had actually gotten up to pack her belongings.
For some reason, Asha had decided to pack a backpack and leave her home that night. Nobody knows why she did this. She grabbed a bookbag that she had previously stuffed with clothes and personal belongings before leaving around 3:00 a.m. The Degrees never saw her again.
Unable To Find Their Daughter
On the morning of February 14th, mother Iquilla Degree woke up at 5:45 a.m. She drew a bath for her kids before waking them up for school. But when she entered her children’s room around 6:30, she saw O’Bryant, but not Asha.
After searching the house and the family cars, Iquilla could not find Asha anywhere. She asked her husband, who suggested that Asha could have gone to her grandmother’s house across the street. But her relatives did not see her.
Iquilla recalls going into “panic mode.” She ran outside to search for her daughter and called all of her relatives. Her mother–Asha’s grandmother–told Iquilla to call the police, and she did.
Ten minutes after Iquilla woke her kids, the police arrived at the Shelby home. Police dogs searched for Asha but could not find her scent. Police found no sign of forced entry, leading them to believe that Asha left of her own free will.
The Massive Search
While police searched, Iquilla ran around the neighborhood, shouting for her daughter. By 7:00 a.m., most neighbors had woken up and knew what was happening. Many dropped their plans to help the Degrees with their search. The pastor and clergymen of the family’s church drove over to help as well.
By the end of a long day, the only possible sign was a lost mitten. Iquilla confirmed that the glove did not belong to her daughter. After all, Asha didn’t take any winter clothes from her home.
Running Into The Forest
As the police questioned witnesses on February 14th, several drivers confessed that they saw Asha. Truckers said that they saw a young girl with a backpack walking down Highway 18. This was close to the Degree house, and it bordered a long stretch of woods.
One driver spotted Asha along the highway around 4:00 a.m. When they turned around to talk to her, she ran into the woods. “That was the last time anyone had a sighting of Asha that had actually been confirmed,” said Detective Tim Adams.
A Decades-Long Missing Person’s Case
In 2017–seventeen years after Asha went missing–the FBI re-launched the case. They posted an age-progression photo of what she might look like at age 26. They also released images of the last pieces of evidence they have: a t-shirt and a Dr. Seuss book.
Police have not found evidence of Asha’s disappearance since 2001. Yet, they still search relentlessly for her. How is this possible? And what small signs did Asha leave behind for investigators?
Signs Of Asha In An Abandoned Shed
On February 15th, Debbie Turner was driving her tractor near a shed outside of Highway 18. She noticed some odd items near her tires. Suspecting that these items related to Asha’s disappearance, she called the police.
There, police found an abandoned shed with fresh candy wrappers. They also saw a pencil, a marker, and a Mickey Mouse-shaped hairbow. Iquilla confirmed that these items belonged to Asha, which means that she stopped by the shed at some point.
A Photo Of Another Little Girl
The abandoned shed also contained some mysterious items. Debbie Turner, the owner of Turner Upholstery, found a wallet-sized photo of a girl in the shed. But the girl wasn’t Asha.
Harold and Iquilla Degree asserted that they did not know the girl in the photo. Employees at Fallston School also didn’t know her. Why would Asha carry a picture of a random girl? Or was someone else in the shed too? The FBI filed this photo as evidence.
A Search That Led Nowhere
The search for Asha continued for over a week. Friends and family spent 9,000 hours searching for Asha. They posted flyers all over Shelby and examined every inch of the forest.
Police received over 300 tips about Asha, ranging from abandoned houses to wells where she may have ended up. They dismissed most suggestions as unreliable. Because they never received another confirmed sighting, police called off the search after one week. But they urged the media to keep reporting the story.
What Was Her Motive?
The biggest issue with Asha’s disappearance is the lack of a clear motive. Her family insists that she had a happy life. She was popular at school, received stellar grades, passionately played sports, and had a supportive circle of friends.
On February 12th, Asha’s basketball team lost their first game of the season. Asha was the point guard, and she fouled out. Although she felt sad, she quickly recovered, and her parents didn’t think much of it.
Was Her Life Too Sheltered?
After her disappearance, Asha’s parents were extensively interviewed and cleared as suspects. However, some people questioned her sheltered upbringing. The Degrees never even owned a computer to save their children from predators, Iquilla said in a Jet interview.
Although her parents were strict, Asha was happy. The Degrees describe Asha as “very shy” and “scared to death of dogs.” Why would she leave her home in the middle of the night? Where did she try to go?
“Not Your Typical Runaway”
SBI agent Bart Burpeau said that Asha was “not your typical runaway.” Although she planned her escape well in advance, the FBI still cannot find a reason why. Most children run away to avoid a dysfunctional family or school life, but as far as we know, Asha had neither.
Most children run away at age 12, according to missing children expert Ben Ermini. At age nine, Asha was unusually young to slip out at night. Why did she do it?
The Worst Night To Leave
On the night that Asha left, Shelby suffered from heavy rain. The power outage caused the town to be darker and colder than usual. Nine-year-old Asha picked the worst night to go out on her own.
According to Detective Adams, Asha’s bag “looked like something a child would pack rather than her parents preparing her for an overnight stay.” However, police also believe that Asha had planned this trip for several weeks before finally sneaking out.
Asha May Have Planned To Leave Earlier
When investigators interviewed students of Fallston, some kids mentioned that Asha was saving up money. She reportedly stored her savings in her Tweety Bird purse. Investigators believed that Asha planned to leave in advance, possibly that Thursday.
According to the Degrees, Harold usually worked late on Thursday and Friday nights. But for some reason, his schedule changed and he had to work the night shift on Sunday. Perhaps Asha decided to leave on the night that her father worked late.
The Search Went National
During the month after Asha disappeared, the search expanded. Both the FBI and North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation got involved. Asha’s case appeared on Oprah, The Montel Williams Show, and America’s Most Wanted.
The FBI encouraged viewers to send them leads if they have any. But even with the exposure and amateur sleuths tackling the case online, most of the leads turned into dead ends. However, police found another bit of evidence over a year later.
The Last Physical Evidence
On August 3rd, 2001, construction workers found the last bit of evidence in Asha’s case. They were digging for a new road in Burke County, 30 miles north of the previous sighting. They found Asha’s bookbag wrapped in a plastic bag. It had been buried for some reason.
The worker who found the bag saw Asha’s name and phone number inside of it. He gave it to the police, who analyzed it. The results have yet to be revealed publicly.
Any Clues In Her Bag?
Inside Asha’s bag was a concert T-shirt for the boy band New Kids on the Block. There was also Dr. Seuss’s book McElligot’s Pool. Although Asha didn’t own that book, it was from the library of her school, Fallston Elementary.
These were the last pieces of evidence from Asha’s case. In 2018, police released photos of the T-shirt and book, hoping to jog peoples’ memory. The bookbag doesn’t tell us much other than that Asha was in the area.
But Did These Clues Help?
The FBI published images of these clues online. They searched for library resources about McElligot’s Pool, but records at Fallston Elementary School Media Center did not go back that far. If anyone had information about checking out this book, they said, please come forward.
They also requested information about the New Kids on the Block shirt–if anyone owned the shirt or knew someone who did. If the FBI received information, they did not announce it publicly.
Asha Didn’t Take What Her Parents Said She Took
On February 16th, 2000, Iquilla realized that Asha took her favorite clothes with her. She told the police what Asha’s packed clothes looked like. According to her, Asha took another outfit and a Tweety Bird purse. The backpack revealed a shirt, but no jeans, purse, or other supplies that Asha reportedly took.
On top of that, some of her other belongings–such as her Mickey House bow and markers–appeared in the shed near the highway. Why did she empty part of her backpack in one spot?
The First New Lead After 14 Years
Although the Degrees fought to keep Asha’s memory alive, it has been a struggle. Interest in the case declined as new evidence did not appear. But in 2015, a new lead re-launched the investigation.
Witnesses claimed that a young girl got into a dark green vintage car. It was either a 1970 Lincoln Continental Mark IV or Ford Thunderbird, and it had rust on the wheels. The FBI believes that this girl may have been Asha.
Re-Launching The Case
With this new lead, the FBI re-opened the case. In 2016, they published photos of what the vehicle may have looked like. The FBI offered a $25,000 reward for anyone with confirmed evidence about Asha, along with a $20,000 bonus from the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children published age-progressed photos of Asha. These photos predict what Asha may look like around age 30 to help people locate her.
Keeping Asha’s Memory Alive
Asha’s parents, Iquilla and Harold, have fought to keep her memory alive. Every year, they host a walk to commemorate her disappearance. It begins at the Degrees’ home and continues to Highway 18, where Asha disappeared into the forest. The walk raises money to aid the search.
Speaking of the highway, a billboard of Asha alerts everyone who drives by. In 2008, the Degrees created a scholarship in Asha’s name. They continue to partake in interviews in hopes that Asha will return.
A Town Tore Apart
Asha’s disappearance has tormented the citizens of Shelby. Residents call her Shelby’s Sweetheart, and they hope that she will return one day. “She’s a child that’s one of our own that has gone missing, and we want to find out what happened to her,” said Detective Adams.
Every Valentine’s Day, residents join the Degree family to walk where Asha did. The case has remained open for 20 years, and it has yet to be solved.
New Developments In 2017
In September 2017, Asha’s case received more support. The FBI sent the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment (CARD) team to Shelby. Their mission was to “provide on-the-ground investigative, technical, behavioral analysis, and analytical support to find out more about what happened to Asha.”
While at Shelby, CARD met with North Carolina officers to discuss the case. They conducted over 300 interviews with family, friends, and potential witnesses. They offered a $45,000 reward for any accurate information on the case.
Someone Out There Has Information
Although Asha has been missing for 20 years, investigators believe that someone out there has the answers. They continue to present the disappearance to the public. In 2014, Cleveland County Sheriff Tim Adams came out of retirement to help bring Asha back home.
Michael Gregory, an FBI Special Agent on the case, asserts that “any information—no matter how small or minor it may seem—it might be extremely crucial to further us getting one step closer to Asha.”
Her Parents Believe She Is Still Out There
“After 20 years, I still believe my daughter is alive,” said Asha’s mother Iquilla. “I’m not crazy enough to think that a 9-year-old can disappear into thin air without somebody knowing something.”
If Asha is alive, she would be 29 today. Her parents regret that they couldn’t raise her. “We’ve missed everything, but I don’t care,” Iquilla said. “If she walked in the door right now, I wouldn’t care what I missed. All I want to do is see her.”