As parents, we often feel a strange false sense of security once the day is coming to a close and the kids are tucked in bed. We feel safe knowing the kids alright and the house is locked up tight. You have an awkward comfort in knowing everything will be as it is when you awake the next day. So what happens to that security, that safety, that comfort, when the child you left safely tucked in their bed isn’t there when you go to wake them?
In February 2000, Asha Degree was a nine-year-old girl living in a town not far from Charlotte North Carolina, called Shelby. She was described as a bright, shy, sweet girl. Asha played point guard for her basketball team and was often referred to as the star player. She was an avid reader and was currently reading “The Whipping Boy”. Asha had a 10-year-old brother named O’Bryant, whom she was very close to. Because their parents Harold and Iquilla had very demanding work schedules, Asha and O’Bryant relied on each other a lot and spent a lot of time together. They often stayed down the street with their aunt, but they both also had their own keys to the apartment. Their parents sheltered them from as much as they could, by things like limiting television time and not owning a computer.
Saturday, February 12th, 2000
Asha played in her basketball game for youth basketball league. She was fouled out of the game, and the team subsequently lost the game. She felt awful and responsible for the teams first loss of the season. Asha complained about injuring her leg during the game, but seemed to be fine, and was back to her jovial self by the end of O”Bryant’s game.
Sunday, February 13th, 2000
It was a very cold and rainy day in Shelby. The weather had made the roads a magnet for disaster and a wreck down the street caused a power outage to the Degree home. Unable to give her children a bath without power, Iquilla put the kids down at 8 p.m. and planned to wake them a bit early in the morning. Asha’s father Harold arrived home from his second job around midnight and peaked in and checked on the kids. They were both asleep and safe in their beds. Harold checked on the kids once more before he went to bed at 2:30 a.m. and all was still well.
Monday, February 14th, 2000
Iquilla woke up thinking it was going to be a wonderful day, it was her and Harold’s anniversary. It was Valentine’s Day. She went to wake the kids at 6:30 for their baths, but Asha wasn’t in her bed. She frantically woke the boys and began searching the house. Everything was still secure. It didn’t look like someone broke in. Still not finding Asha, she began calling everyone they knew hoping someone had seen Asha. With no information and no Asha, her parents immediately turned to law enforcement for help. The police were at the apartment within ten minutes. They noticed no signs of forced entry, all of the doors were in fact, still locked. Search dogs arrived with law enforcement, but the rain mixed with heavy winds and freezing temperatures made Asha’s scent hard to track. Asha’s family wasted no time and started going door to door searching for Asha.
O’Bryant said he heard Asha stirring during the night in her sleep (they share a room) and he saw her get up and go to the bathroom. He heard her again shortly after but thought she was rolling over, and he went back to sleep.
Law enforcement discovered her backpack was missing, along with several items of clothing. Did she wake up, pack a bag, and decide to leave? It was a torrential storm during the time she could have disappeared, and she was terrified of storms and the dark. She was also petrified of dogs, and would rarely go out alone. Certainly, that child wouldn’t have chosen to leave at that time. But where was Asha?
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The media was quick to get Asha’s story out to the public. Iquilla pleaded to the public, “She’s my baby just bring her back. If somebody took her or if someone has seen her just bring her back”.
The media exposure brought a few witnesses forward that reported seeing Asha walking down Highway 18. Highway 18 runs north and south through the state. The morning of the 14th, several drivers reported seeing a child fitting Asha’s description walking down the side of the highway. She was described as wearing a backpack and a long sleeve white t-shirt by witnesses. She wasn’t wearing a jacket and didn’t appear to be in distress. It’s important to note that she wasn’t wearing a jacket because the temperature outside around the time she was spotted walking down the highway was just barely above freezing and raining. Why didn’t she have a jacket on?
Law enforcement confirmed the sightings as Asha based on the items confirmed missing from the home. The missing items also included a pair of sneakers, white pants, and a tweety bird pocketbook.
One of the witnesses added that he stopped to see if she needed help and she just ran off into the thicket and vanished. This location was about 1.3 miles south of Asha’s home. That’s quite a walk for a child without adequate clothing in almost freezing temperatures and torrential rain. And if she really did hurt her leg in the game on Saturday, why did she want to walk over a mile on a sore leg?
On the 17th, law enforcement heard of another Asha sighting from Debbie Turner. There was a shed about 100 yards off of HWY 18 used by Turner’s Upholstery. Debbie noticed items around the entrance of the shed on the 15th but didn’t make the connection to Asha until the 17th. Debbie found a green marker, a pencil, and a Mikey Mouse hair bow.
When law enforcement searched the area, they found candy wrappers matching the kind Asha’s basketball team was given for Valentine’s Day. Search dogs were once again brought in, and once again couldn’t pick up on Asha’s scent.
No further signs of Asha were found.
The search was called off after a week and 9,000 man hours. They didn’t even have enough to go on for the FBI to create a working profile. This was an eerily accurate example of “vanished without a trace”.
Nothing new would happen in Asha’s case until August 3rd, 2001, the day her backpack was unearthed. The last sighting of Asha, she was moving south along HWY 18, but her backpack was discovered 26 miles north of Turner’s Upholstery shed, along HWY 18. There was a lot being cleared so construction could begin. A contractor uncovered what appeared to be a black garbage bag with something inside about 50 yards from the highway. Curiosity got the best of him, and he looked inside the black garbage bag to find another black garbage bag, and inside that garbage bag was Asha’s backpack.
Search and rescue combed the area, but they didn’t recover Asha or any further evidence. The FBI took the backpack for forensic testing, however, those results have never been revealed. An inventory of the items found inside Asha’s backpack has also never been confirmed.
In May of 2016, a witness came forward saying that she saw Asha get in a dark green car 70’s model, similar to a Thunderbird or Mark IV, on HWY 18 near the shed. The vehicle has never been located.
In 2017, an FBI team specializing in missing children also started looking into Asha’s case. At the time of that announcement, they also announced they are working on the assumption that Asha is alive.
Just a few weeks ago, October 9th, 2018, The Cleveland County Sherriff’s Office announced two “new possible clues” in Asha’s case. The first item is a library book from Fallston Elementary School “McElligot’s Pool” by Dr. Seuss. The sheriff’s office is asking that anyone who had or knows who had that book around the time of her disappearance to contact them because the library records don’t go back that far.
The second item is a concert t-shirt from The New Kids on the Block, asking that anyone who recognizes the shirt to contact the office. Law enforcement wouldn’t give any further details about the items, or their relevance.
18 years later, and Asha’s family still needs answers and law enforcement refuses to stop searching for them. The Degree family still have the same phone number after all of these years, just in case, Asha might call.
“Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many. The intelligence of a few, perceives what has been carefully hidden.” – Phaedrus
There are multiple rabbit holes you can lose yourself in on the internet searching for theories on Asha’s disappearance. There’s just so little to go on, and nothing in this case, is as it seems, all you can do is speculate. As in every scenario, some theories are better than others.
- That Asha ran away of her own volition. This theory holds a lot of weight. She was spotted by multiple witnesses walking down the side of the highway, alone. She shared a room with her brother, who probably would have heard her packing a backpack, which begs you to wonder if she already had the bag packed and ready to go. Was the shed a meeting spot for someone to pick her up? Which could fit into the “ran away to meet a person of trust” theory. This could also account for her 9-year-old logic thinking she wouldn’t be out long enough to need a coat. She was currently reading “The Whipping Boy”, so did she want to run away to have her own adventure like in the book? Some theorize that she left because she was so down on herself for losing the basketball game, however, everyone says she was back to herself by the end of her brother’s game. Children who run away are typically 12 and older and have significant reasons to leave such as abuse or neglect.
- That Asha ran away and was then abducted. This is another possibility since Asha couldn’t have made it 26 miles north, where her backpack was found on her own, especially without being seen. But, if someone abducted her, why would you preserve and bury the backpack? Why not burn it or throw it in a landfill? Or did the abductor know Asha and they couldn’t bring themself to destroy her belonging? Again, without much to go on, you can make a lot of theories fit and not fit if you try hard enough. There are just so many puzzle pieces missing.
- Donald Preston Ferguson. In 2014 this guy was convicted of sexually assaulting and killing a 7-year-old girl and leaving her body behind an elementary school in 1990. Ferguson was known to be in Spartanburg, which is 38 miles from Shelby. Victimology would put Asha in his preference, but again reaching.
- Hit and run cover up. I think this theory gained popularity because the odds of a 9-year-old getting hit walking down the side of the highway in the dark are pretty high. Personally, unless the driver was the luckiest accidental criminal ever, I feel like the body would have been recovered by now, or there would have been some evidence of it on the side of the road. Also, this theory doesn’t really fit someone being intelligent and resourceful enough to hide a body, but not a backpack.
- Sleepwalking. This theory seems popular because of her not wearing a coat, and her walking a route her bus takes. This is one of my least favorite theories. She wouldn’t have already packed her bag. Sleepwalkers generally perform very routine and basic tasks, and her walking outside in that weather would have certainly woken her.
There is currently a $45,000 reward for information pertaining to Asha’s case. The FBI also created an age-progressed photo of Asha, who would be 28 now. We can only hope that one day soon her family and loved ones will have those answers they’ve been waiting so desperately for.
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