For a family, the disappearance of a child is one of the worst things they can imagine – a fear they try to prevent from coming true at all costs. However, that’s just what happened to the Degree family, whose daughter Asha went missing one February night in 2000.
On February 14, 2000, Asha Degree quietly left her home in Shelby, North Carolina, in the small hours of the morning – which would be the last time she was at her home.
Asha took a few outfits and other items with her, and left the house without having told anyone what she was doing and where she was going – stealing away in the silence of early morning. Since then, Asha has been missing, with her family remaining unaware of her whereabouts.
Asha’s father, Harold Degree, got home from work at 12:30am going in to check on Asha and her brother, O’Bryant, in their room. Harold found both children sleeping, and left them in peace.
Harold would check their room one more time, at around 2:30am and, seeing that they were still asleep, went to sleep himself – content in the knowledge that his children were safe. Little did Harold know, that would be the last time he saw Asha.
Noises in the night
During the night, O’Bryant heard the noise of Asha getting out of her bed, in order to go to the bathroom. When she came back into the room, O’Bryant once more heard Asha’s bed squeak, assuming that she was getting back into bed.
When he heard more noise from the bed, O’Bryant simply thought that Asha was moving around in her sleep. However, it would later turn out that this was Asha getting her things together to leave.
The light of morning
When the new day came, it was an exciting one. It was Valentine’s Day, as well as being the wedding anniversary of Harold and Iquilla, Asha’s parents. Iquilla went to wake up her children around 6:00am – but was surprised by what she saw.
O’Bryant was sleeping soundly in his bed, but Asha was nowhere to be seen. This was no cause for panic at first, as Iquilla simply assumed that Asha was downstairs already. When she could not find Asha anywhere however, Iquilla started to worry.
Looking all around
Iquilla looked for Asha all around the house, but could not find her anywhere. Beginning to panic, she told Harold that she could not find Asha anywhere, and he suggested that she might be at her mother-in-law’s house across the street, prompting Iquilla to go over there immediately.
However, when she asked her mother-in-law, she said that Asha was not with her, and she had not seen her. Asha was missing, and still is – despite years of intensive searching, she has never been found.
No good reason
The most baffling thing about Asha’s disappearance for the police was that they could not find any good reason for Asha to want to run away from home. She was doing well academically and was popular at school, she had a good home life and relationship with her family…
There was nothing to cause such distress that she would want to leave. What’s more, Asha was a few years younger than most children who run away from home, further confusing the question of why she would have left.
When Iquilla did not find Asha at her grandmother’s house, she began to search around the neighborhood, calling out for her. Before long she had woken up the neighbors, who asked what was wrong.
Having been called by Iquilla, the police then arrived, and the search began in earnest. The Degrees, their neighbors, and the police all went out looking for Asha, but were unable to find her. Nonetheless, a news report went out that day about her disappearance, asking for any information people might have.
As a result of this report, the police were contacted by two separate people who thought they had seen Asha on the morning of her disappearance. Two drivers had each seen a young girl, who they now assumed to be Asha, walking by the side of the road of Highway 18, at around 3:45 to 4:15am.
One of them, noting how odd this was, drove by once or twice and tried to speak to Asha. However, when they tried to do so she ran off into the woods.
Looking in the right direction
Armed with this information, the police embarked upon a search around the area that Asha had been seen running into the woods. Searching a shed next to a business close by on the highway, the police made another discovery.
They found a pencil, candy wrappers, and a Mickey Mouse hair bow that Asha’s parents confirmed belonged to her. The police had encountered their first major piece of evidence, and they at least knew that they were now looking in the right area.
Calling it off
After a week, with no progress in the case and no sign of Asha, the search was called off. An unbelievable 9,000 man-hours had been put into searching a radius of about three miles around where she had last been seen – but had turned up nothing.
The county sheriff, Dan Crawford, said that the main problem with the case was that they simply lacked any substantial leads as to Asha’s whereabouts. Nonetheless, he asked the media to continue shining a light on the story.
Proving their innocence
As is naturally the case with a disappearance as mysterious as this one, the Degrees were briefly suspects in the case. It was, after all, suspicious that Asha had gone missing totally without anyone seeing her.
However, she had been seen by the road, and her items were found there too. What’s more, the Degrees undertook polygraph – lie detector – tests, and all of them passed without incidence. As such, they were soon dismissed as suspects.
Casting a wider net
When the local search was called off, Sheriff Crawford announced on February 22 that the search would be expanded beyond the local area. He revealed the State Bureau of Investigation and the FBI would each be opening a case on Asha, and putting her on their list of missing children.
It was hoped that, with a much wider radius and the resources of both the FBI and SBI, the search might turn up new leads and Asha might even be found.
As per Sheriff Crawford’s suggestion, the Degrees were determined to keep media focus on the story high, making media appearances to raise awareness of Asha’s disappearance. The family went on ‘The Montel Williams Show’, a talk show hosted by Montel Williams, to appeal for any information people might have, and to ask them to keep a look out for Asha.
In addition, segments about Asha’s disappearance were featured on both ‘Oprah’ and ‘America’s Most Wanted’. It was hoped that keeping the story in people’s minds could lead to new leads.
A happy life
There was, as far as the police could see, nothing in the Degree family life to make Asha want to run away from home. Harold and Iquilla were slightly more strict in what they allowed the children to interact with…
Most of all refusing to have a computer in an effort to keep them safe – but by all accounts their life together was extremely happy. Asha loved her parents and the life that they led together – which made her running away all the more mysterious.
An upsetting incident
As far as anyone could tell, Asha was also perfectly happy at school. She was well-liked by her teachers, had several good friends, and was friendly with numerous others, and was academically and athletically engaged.
The only recent thing that had gone wrong was during a basketball game two days before her disappearance, in which Asha had fouled and cost her team the game. She was very upset about the incident – but nonetheless this was still not a likely reason for her running away.
Over a year later, on August 3, 2001, a new piece of evidence in the case was discovered. On a construction site off Highway 18 in Burke County, North Carolina, workers found a book bag that had been wrapped in plastic bags and buried.
Upon examination, the bag was found to contain Asha’s name and phone number. 26 miles north of Shelby, the latest remnant of Asha’s disappearance had been found. Despite the discovery of this new evidence, it did not provide any new leads in the case.
Maintaining her memory
Although the Degrees have not yet had their daughter return to them, they have been determined to keep the memory of Asha going strong, and have engaged in several activities to make sure that she is not forgotten.
For instance, in 2008, the Degrees set up a scholarship in Asha’s name, designed to be awarded to a local student who has proven themselves to have promise and determination. In setting up this scholarship they hoped to offer a student the chance at success that Asha did not have.
Walking the walk
In an effort to keep the case going, the Degrees also hold a walk every year, in an effort to raise awareness and money. The walk begins at the Degree home, and concludes at the spot where Asha was seen running into the woods – where a billboard now stands appealing to anyone who might have information regarding the case.
The aim of the walk is twofold – to keep Asha’s name present in people’s minds, and to raise money to keep the investigation into her disappearance going.
Holding out hope
Despite the difficulties they have been through, and the fact that she has been missing for 19 years, the Degrees will not give up hope that they might see Asha again one day. They are determined to find her, and still expect to be reunited with her.
In accordance with this they have even utilized age progression technology to render an image of what Asha might look like now – in the hope that someone might see her and recognize her nowadays.
Taking another look
In 2015, 15 years after the search had been called off, it was announced that the case would be reopened, and Asha’s disappearance looked into again. The Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office, along with the SBI, announced their intent to interview witnesses and potential witnesses again, and go over the evidence once more.
In addition, they revealed that they would be offering $25,000 in reward money for anyone who had information on Asha’s whereabouts, or information that would lead to a conviction.
In May of 2016, for the first time in 15 years, new potential evidence was unearthed in the Asha Degree case. After speaking to potential witnesses, the police discovered that Asha might have been seen getting into a dark green Lincoln Continental Mark 4 – or possibly a Ford Thunderbird – from the 70s somewhere along Route 18.
This, the first new lead in years, prompted the police to appeal to the public for information if they recalled seeing this car around the time of Asha’s disappearance.
Getting more help
Having been working on the case since 2015, the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office announced in 2017 that they would be receiving more help with the investigation. It was revealed that the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team from the FBI was in Cleveland County, and would be helping to conduct the investigation.
The team has mostly been reviewing evidence and interviewing people – speaking to around 300 people since September of 2017.
After seeming to not find any new evidence for the longest time, the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office announced that they had new items of interest in the investigation into Asha’s disappearance.
They revealed that they were looking for information from anyone who had a copy of ‘McElligot’s Pool’ by Dr. Seuss and lost track of it around the time of the disappearance – or anyone who had or knew somebody who had a t-shirt from a New Kids on the Block concert tour.
Making sense of things
No matter how much new evidence is found or how many leads are chased, it’s hard for the Degrees to understand exactly what happened to Asha, and why. For seemingly no reason at all they lost their daughter that morning, and they’ve been unable to make sense of why it happened ever since.
All they can do is keep the memory of Asha present in people’s minds, hope that the investigation turns up new leads, and hope beyond hope that they might still be reunited with Asha.
One of the hardest things for the Degree family is the lack of closure available in the case. Asha’s parents constantly maintain the faith that they will find Asha and she’ll be able to return to her family – but this only makes the complete lack of a result even more painful.
They desperately want to know what happened to their daughter, but as the years go by it seems less and less likely that they’ll ever get a definitive answer.
On the case
Despite the fact that it’s been over 20 years since Asha’s disappearance, and leads are thin on the ground, the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office is determined to do the utmost to solve the case.
In fact, the sheriff’s office even keeps one detective on the case at all times, examining the facts and keeping an eye out for any leads of information. The Degrees are immensely grateful for the dedication that the sheriff’s office has displayed in trying to solve the case, despite how difficult it’s been.
A concerned neighbor
Asha’s disappearance was an unmitigated tragedy, but the Degrees were presented with a silver lining in the form of support from the community. The people of Shelby have stood by the Degrees all these years, comforting them and offering aid.
One man, Ron Dorsey, has gone above and beyond in doing his part for the Degrees. It was Dorsey who created the image of Asha as she would look years later in an effort to aid searches, and he continues to put up notices to keep Asha in people’s minds.
The Degrees were hoping during the initial search that Asha’s disappearance would capture the public’s imagination – and this has certainly been the case.
Even today, people are intrigued by Asha’s case, with numerous online posts, true crime podcasts, and even entire websites dedicated to spreading Asha’s story and solving the mystery. The Degrees hope that this work may eventually turn up a new lead or new information that could help to finally close the case once and for all.
One of the most puzzling aspects of Asha’s disappearance is exactly why she left home – given that there seemed to be no good reason for her to run away. Some people think that an explanation may lie with a book she had recently read at school – ‘The Whipping Boy’ by Sid Fleischman.
The book concerns two boys who run away from home before eventually going back – and it’s thought that Asha could have been attempting something similar, only to have met with misfortune along the way.