The strange disappearance of Asha Degree

When Asha Degree mysteriously disappeared from her North Carolina home in the early morning of Valentine's Day in 2000, authorities were baffled. They still have no idea where she is.

Asha Jaquilla Degree, born on August 5, 1990, vanished on February 14, 2000, at the age of nine, in Shelby, North Carolina, United States.

Asha degree
Asha Degree vanished on Valentine’s Day, 2000. © Image Credit: MRU

The disappearance of Asha Degree

On the night of February 13, an automobile collision occurred, resulting in a power outage in the neighborhoods. An hour before what happened, the children Asha and O’bryant went to sleep in the room they shared.

Harold Degree, the children’s father, arrived from work and when the electricity came back on at 12:30 a.m. he went to check on his children’s rooms and found them both completely sleeping. Before going to bed he double-checked that the children were asleep and confirmed that everything was in perfect order.

Soon after O’Bryant, who was 10 at the time, recalls hearing Asha’s bed creak. He didn’t wake up since he believed she was just changing positions while sleeping. Asha apparently got out of bed at that point, took a backpack she had already prepared with personal belongings, and left the house.

Asha Degree and her brother O’Bryant never traveled far from their apartment despite the fact that they were latchkey children who let themselves in after school while their parents were still at work.

Iquilla awoke at 5:45 a.m. to get the kids ready for school. On February 14, a significant day because it was not only Valentine’s Day but also the Degree’s wedding anniversary this included preparing a bath for them because they hadn’t been able to take one the night before owing to the power outage.

When she unlocked the children’s room door to wake them up before the 6:30 a.m. alarm and send them to the washroom, O’Bryant was in his bed but Asha was missing and Iquilla couldn’t find her anywhere in the house or the garage. She informed Harold that she was unable to locate Asha.

Harold suggested that Asha could have gone to her mother’s house across the street. When Iquilla called her sister-in-law she informed her that Asha was not present there either. Iquilla dialed her mother’s number, who advised her to contact the Shelby Police.

Iquilla went around the neighborhood searching for her daughter. She had called everyone friends, relatives and neighbors, They immediately canceled their plans for the day to assist the police in searching the area. While their church pastor, along with other clergies from the area came to the Degrees’ house to support them.

The police investigation

It was 6:40 a.m and the first policemen had arrived at the scene. According to the police, no evidence of forced entry was found on the house, Asha had only taken her backpack with her when she left. They also searched the area with police dogs but were unable to catch Asha’s scent. At the end of the day, the only thing discovered was a mitten, which Iquilla Degree said did not belong to her daughter.

After canine teams failed to identify a single smell trail to follow, investigators obtained their first leads in the afternoon. A truck driver and a motorist observed her strolling south on Highway 18, wearing a white long-sleeved T-shirt and white leggings between 3:45 and 4:15 a.m. After viewing a news story about her missing, they informed the police.

The motorist stated that he reversed his car because he believed it was “strange for such a young child to be out alone at that hour.” He circled three times before seeing Degree rush into the woods along the road and disappear. It was a rainy night, and when the witness saw it, there was a “raging storm.”

The last sighting of Asha Degree

Asha Degree ran into the woods
Deep dark woods with mysterious thick fog in the evening © Image Credit: Andreiuc88 | Licensed from Dreamstime.Com (Editorial/Commercial Use Stock Photo)

“We’re very convinced it was her,” said county sheriff Dan Crawford, “because the descriptions they gave are consistent with what we know she was wearing.” He went on to say that they both spotted her at the same spot and in the same direction. “That was the last time anyone had a confirmed sighting of Asha,” said Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office Detective Tim Adams.

Candy wrappers were discovered in a shed along the road on February 15, near where Asha Degree had been seen rushing into the woods. They were accompanied by a pencil, marker, and Mickey Mouse hair ribbon labeled as hers. It was the sole evidence of her that was discovered during the first search.

Iquilla noticed that Asha’s room was missing several of her favorite clothing on February 16, including a pair of blue pants with a red stripe.

They spent the following seven days and 9,000 man-hours exploring a two-by-three-mile region where Asha Degree was last seen but came up empty-handed. They also sifted over 300 suggestions, none of which worked out.

The following clue was uncovered after more than a year and a half. On August 3, 2001, construction workers discovered Asha Degree’s bag, while digging an access road along Highway 18 in Burke County, near Morganton, about 26 miles (42 km) north of Shelby. It was encased in a plastic bag.

According to the worker who found it, the backpack included a New Kids On The Block T-shirt and a copy of Dr. Seuss’s McElligot’s Pool. Despite the fact that the book had been checked out of Asha’s primary school library, the finding of the bag yielded no fresh leads. To date, it is the latest evidence found in the case.

The next piece of information in the case didn’t come until 2004. The sheriff’s office began excavating at a Lawndale junction in response to a tip he reportedly got from a county prison inmate. The prison inmate claimed that she had been killed and knew where she had been buried. The discovered bones turned out to be those of an animal.

With promising leads leading nowhere, the Degree family arranged an annual trek from their house to a missing person’s billboard to raise local awareness. They even created a scholarship in her honor.

“This is harder than death because, at least with death, there is closure,” Iquilla Degree told WBTV in North Carolina. “You can go to a graveyard or keep the urn at home, but we can’t mourn and we can’t give up. The only thing we have left is hope.”

In a 2013 interview with Jet, Iquilla Degree regretted that her daughter’s disappearance had not gotten as much public attention as other following cases of missing children because Asha was black.

“Missing white children get more attention. I don’t understand why” she said. “I know if you ask them, they will say it’s not racial. Oh really? I’m not going to argue because I have common sense”.

The FBI stated in February 2015 that investigators from the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office and agents from the State Bureau of Investigation were reinvestigating the case and re-interviewing witnesses. In addition, they issued a $ 25,000 reward for “information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individual or persons responsible for the disappearance of Asha Degree.”

In 2016 the case reopened!

In May 2016, (15 months later) the FBI revealed that their new investigation into the case had generated a possible new track. They revealed that Asha Degree was last seen getting into a dark green Lincoln Continental Mark IV from the early 1970s, or maybe a Ford Thunderbird from the same era, along Route 18.

The FBI reopened their investigation, disclosing that specific lead in 2016 and publishing photos of Asha’s backpack contents in 2018.

The FBI announced in September 2017 that its Child Abduction Rapid Implementation (CARD) team was in Cleveland County to assist with the investigation and to “provide on-the-ground investigation, technical analysis, behavior analysis, and analytical support to learn more about what happened to Asha Degree.” 

In November 2020, another inmate at a North Carolina state, Marcus Mellon, who was convicted of sex offenses against minors in 2014, submitted a letter to The Shelby Star claiming that Asha Degree had been murdered and revealing where she might be found. Investigators interrogated him and another inmate, but no new information was discovered.

“You take any information received very seriously, and we follow it through to the conclusion, regardless of who provides that information,” Cleveland County Sheriff Alan Norman said.

Cleveland County investigator Tim Adams is still hopeful that someone out there knows something that will help Asha Degree. “Everyone in our town was touched by the fact that it was a little child who departed on Valentine’s Day. Shelby’s Sweetheart, because she’s a youngster who is one of our own,” he said.

The strange disappearance of Asha Degree 1
Asha Degree at nine (right) and an age-processed image of her at 30 (left). © Image Credit: FBI/National Center For Missing And Exploited Children

Despite the efforts of the FBI, local police, and the State Bureau of Investigation, as well as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, no definite answers about Asha’s fate have been provided. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recently published digitally aged photographs of Asha as a 30-year-old woman today.

Currently, the FBI is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to her whereabouts. Another $20,000 is being offered by the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office. For Asha Degree’s parents, the hope is that those responsible haven’t done irreparable harm — and that they will have the guts to come forward.

Final words of her mother

“That’s my prayer every night, that God would get into their hearts and let them come forward, because it has to be a burden on them,” Iquilla Degree stated in 2020. “We’re hoping and praying that she’s had a half-decent existence despite the fact that we didn’t get to raise her. She was nine years old at the time, and she will be 30 this year”.

“As a result, we’ve missed everything. But I don’t mind. I wouldn’t care what I missed if she stepped in the door right now. All I want to do is see her.”