At the age of nine, Asha Degree went missing. It was one of the most bizarre cases the police had ever seen and remains unsolved to date.
Asha had apparently packed her bookbag, left her family’s house north of the city early on February 14, 2000, and started walking along neighboring North Carolina Highway 18 in the pouring rain and strong wind for an undisclosed cause. Multiple passing drivers observed her, and at a point 1.3 miles (2.1 km) from her home, one turned around and approached her.
At that moment, she fled the roadside and rushed into a wooded area. Her parents found her missing from her bedroom in the morning. Since then, no one has seen her.
During a thorough investigation that day, some of her personal belongings were found close to the place of her last sighting. Her still-packed bookbag was discovered at a building site on Highway 18 north of Shelby in Morganton a year and a half later. A billboard asking for assistance in finding her is currently located at the spot where she ran into the woods. Every year, her family organizes a walk from their house to the billboard to raise awareness of the case.
Although Degree’s absence first appeared to indicate that she was fleeing her home, detectives were unable to determine a compelling cause for Degree to have run away, even though she was younger than most children who do so. Authorities concluded that Degree had been abducted after leaving the house years after she vanished.
The matter is receiving national media coverage. In 2015, state and county law enforcement agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reopened the case and offered a reward for information leading to its resolution.
Who Was Asha Degree?
In the small, close-knit community north of Shelby, North Carolina, the Degree family lived sheltered from the tumultuous world beyond their home. Harold and Iquilla Degree, a loving couple who had bound their lives together on a Valentine’s Day in 1988, raised their two children, O’Bryant and Asha, in a house nestled on Oakcrest Drive, a peaceful refuge in the midst of the tranquil countryside on the western fringe of the Charlotte metropolitan area.
Both parents held regular jobs in the vicinity, providing for their family and instilling a sense of discipline and responsibility in their children. The Degree household was a haven of domesticity, where O’Bryant and Asha, with keys to the house, spent their afternoons after school.
Their parents trusted that by returning home, the children would either be diligently immersed in their homework or gleefully free from it, as typical kids should be.
The Degrees held firm to the belief that their children should be insulated from the dangers lurking outside their cozy cocoon. Their lives revolved around extended family gatherings, Sunday sermons at the church, and the confines of their school.
A computer was conspicuously absent from their home, and buying one was out of the question. And when turned on, the TV served as a stark reminder of the perilous world beyond their doorstep. Iquilla recalled the constant stream of news stories, each one more frightening than the last, of predators luring innocent children away through the treacherous corridors of the Internet.
Asha, in her own quiet way, adapted to this insular life. She was a cautious, reserved child, content within the boundaries her parents had set for her. Timid and unassuming, she harbored a deep fear of dogs and rarely ventured outside the safety of their home. With its unpredictable dangers, the outside world seemed like a distant nightmare.
But in the heart of February 2000, Asha, a fourth-grader at Fallston Elementary School, was approaching a long weekend with her usual innocence. Her parents had to work on a day when the Cleveland County Schools were closed, so Asha and O’Bryant spent the day at their aunt’s house, just a stone’s throw away.
From there, they ventured to their youth basketball practices at the school, basking in the camaraderie of their team.
The following day, Asha’s basketball team, where she shone as the star point guard, faced an unexpected setback, losing their first game. Asha had fouled out, her eyes glistening with tears alongside her teammates, but she appeared to rebound from the disappointment and watched her brother’s game with quiet support.
Then, as night descended on February 13, the Degrees returned home after a day of activities. Around 8 p.m., the children retired to their shared room, nestled together as they drifted into a peaceful slumber. But the tranquility was soon shattered.
An hour later, an accident in the vicinity plunged the neighborhood into darkness, cutting the power supply. It was a brief interruption, and the lights returned at 12:30 a.m.
Harold, concerned for his children, checked on them during the night. At 2:30 a.m. on February 14, he saw both Asha and O’Bryant resting soundly in their beds, or so he thought. Shortly after, O’Bryant, a ten-year-old with no inkling of the sinister turn the night would take, heard Asha’s bed creak, dismissing it as a common occurrence.
Unbeknownst to anyone, Asha had decided to embark on a journey that would confound the minds of those who loved her. In the predawn hours, she rose from her bed and silently gathered a bookbag she had prepared earlier, filling it with clothes and personal items. With a sense of purpose known only to her, she left the warmth and safety of her home, stepping out into the stormy night.
Between 3:45 and 4:15 a.m., a truck driver and a passing motorist spotted a figure on Highway 18. A small child, dressed in a long-sleeved white T-shirt and white pants walked along the road. This was no ordinary sight at such an early hour, and the motorist turned his car around, circling the area three times. What he witnessed next would haunt him: Asha Degree ran into the woods, disappearing into the darkness just as a storm raged around her.
The ominous events of that night set into motion a series of events that would grip the Degrees in a nightmare of uncertainty. The following morning, Iquilla awoke, ready to prepare the children for school. When she entered their room, her heart stopped. O’Bryant lay in his bed, but Asha was gone, vanished into thin air, leaving behind only her absence and a perplexing void.
Panic coursed through the Degrees as they searched for their daughter, turning their home and family cars inside out, finding nothing but silence. In desperation, they called Harold’s mother across the street, who confirmed that Asha was not there.
With a sinking feeling, Iquilla realized the depths of the mystery they were facing, and she swiftly dialed the police.
The disappearance of Asha Degree would become a haunting enigma that left a community bewildered and a family torn apart, their lives forever altered by the inexplicable vanishing act of a child who seemed to have slipped through the cracks of reality.
The Cops Arrive and Start the Search for Asha Degree
The dawn of February 14, 2000, began a relentless search for young Asha Degree. By 6:40 a.m., the first police officers had descended upon the scene, where the Degrees’ world had crumbled in the darkness of that stormy night. The arrival of police dogs, equipped with their keen sense of smell, did not yield any trace of Asha’s scent, as if she had been swallowed by the night she had disappeared into.
Desperation fueled Iquilla’s efforts, and she took to the neighborhood, calling Asha’s name with an urgency that reverberated through the stillness of the morning. By 7 a.m., the entire community had been stirred from its slumber, awakened by her pleas for help.
Friends, family, and neighbors united, canceling their plans for the day to join the police in scouring the area in search of the missing child. The pastor of their church and other clergymen arrived at the Degrees’ home, their presence offering solace in the face of an unthinkable ordeal.
As the day progressed, the search bore little fruit. All that had been discovered was a single mitten, a clue that failed to pierce the shroud of uncertainty. Iquilla Degree, with a mother’s intuition, noted that it did not belong to her daughter. Curiously, there was no indication that Asha had taken any winter clothing from their home. The community’s collective effort, driven by love and concern, had yet to yield answers.
Local news reports served as a catalyst for potential breakthroughs, prompting the two drivers who had witnessed Asha walking along the road in the early hours of that morning to come forward with their accounts. One of them, whose approach seemed to have startled Asha into fleeing the woods, shared the details of that eerie encounter.
On February 15, a glimmer of hope emerged when candy wrappers, along with a pencil, a green marker, and a yellow hairbow identified as Asha’s, were found in a shed at a nearby business along the highway, close to the spot where Asha had been seen vanishing into the forest. These tantalizing discoveries offered a thread of connection to the missing girl, and they were the first tangible trace of her during the initial search.
Within the shed, a photograph of an unidentified Black girl of Asha’s age surfaced, further deepening the mystery.
A troubling revelation came to light on February 16, as Iquilla Degree realized that Asha’s favorite clothing, including a pair of blue jeans with a distinctive red stripe, was missing from her bedroom. The discovery intensified the sense of foreboding as the search for the young girl grew increasingly dire.
Despite the tremendous collective effort, a week later, the search was called off. Nine thousand man-hours had been invested in scouring the 2 to 3-mile radius of the area where Asha had last been seen. Flyers bearing her image had been posted throughout the region, and 300 leads, ranging from possible sightings to tips about abandoned houses and wells, had been pursued with diligence.
The sheriff of Cleveland County, Dan Crawford, somberly addressed the media, admitting the profound difficulty of the case: “We have never really had that first good, substantial lead.” He implored the media to keep the story alive, hoping that, somewhere in the shadows, the answers that had eluded them might someday come to light.
The Long Search for Asha Degree
As days turned weeks and weeks into months, the search for Asha Degree became puzzling. On February 22, 2000, Cleveland County Sheriff Dan Crawford, determined to leave no stone unturned, declared that the investigation would go “long-range.” The gravity of the situation was evident as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) became deeply involved.
Asha’s name found its place in the missing children’s databases. Though the agencies had exhausted their search efforts around her home and the route she took that fateful night, they maintained a relentless pursuit of answers, following every lead, no matter how faint.
Asha’s mother, Iquilla, had provided a chilling account of the items Asha had taken with her. It suggested a level of planning and preparation unusual for a child her age. Asha was not a typical runaway, investigators believed, as the statistics indicated that children who ran away were typically older, closer to 12.
A deeper examination of her life revealed no glaring issues or reasons that might drive a child to flee, such as a dysfunctional family or academic struggles. Despite the statistics pointing toward a runaway scenario, the circumstances of her departure raised suspicions. It was as though she had ventured off course or had been abducted, leaving behind a trail of uncertainty that defied easy answers.
The media picked up the story, thrusting Asha’s case into the national spotlight. A month after her disappearance, the Degree family appeared in a desperate plea for information and assistance, on various television shows, including The Montel Williams Show, America’s Most Wanted, and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Then, on August 3, 2001, a glimmer of hope flickered in the darkness. Asha’s bookbag and various items associated with her were unearthed during a construction project along Highway 18 in Burke County, near Morganton, approximately 26 miles north of Shelby.
The bookbag, wrapped in a plastic bag, bore Asha’s name and phone number, and the FBI took it for further forensic analysis. Regrettably, the results of this testing were not shared with the public, leaving more questions than answers. To this day, these discoveries remain the last evidence found in the case.
The bookbag contained a copy of Dr. Seuss’s “McElligot’s Pool” and a T-shirt depicting the band New Kids on the Block. Strangely, neither of these items appeared to have belonged to Asha before they were found in her bag. The book had been borrowed from the library at her elementary school.
Despite the occasional glimmers of hope, other leads would prove to be dead ends. In 2004, acting on a tip from an inmate at the county jail, the sheriff’s office initiated a dig at an intersection in Lawndale. However, the bones discovered turned out to be from an animal.
Undeterred by the relentless passage of time, the Degrees remained steadfast in their mission to keep Asha’s memory and the case alive in the public’s consciousness. In 2008, they established a scholarship for a deserving local student in her name, a testament to their unwavering love for their daughter. They also initiated an annual walk, beginning at their home and culminating at a missing person’s billboard for Asha along Highway 18, near the place she was last seen. Pictures of Asha, real and age-progressed by investigators, still adorned the Degree house, a reminder of a child who had vanished.
Iquilla Degree expressed her frustration in a 2013 interview, lamenting that her daughter’s disappearance had not received as much media attention as some cases of missing children, perhaps due to Asha being Black. She questioned the disparity in media coverage, highlighting that “missing white children get more attention,” and expressed her bewilderment at the perceived racial bias.
In February 2015, the FBI, the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office, and the State Bureau of Investigation announced a re-examination of the case. They reinterviewed witnesses and offered a reward of up to $25,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for Asha’s disappearance. A community group supplemented this with an additional $20,000 reward.
Fifteen months later, in May 2016, the FBI disclosed a possible new lead. Asha may have been seen getting into a dark green early 1970s Lincoln Continental Mark IV or a Ford Thunderbird of the same era along Route 18, close to the location of her last sighting, later on, the night she vanished. The vehicle was described as having rust around its wheel wells.
In September 2017, the FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment (CARD) team arrived in Cleveland County, joining local law enforcement to support the investigation. They offered their technical and behavioral analysis expertise, aiming to uncover more about the mystery surrounding Asha’s disappearance. Since then, local agents and investigators have conducted approximately 300 interviews, each a potential piece in the puzzle.
In October 2018, detectives from the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office appealed to the public for information regarding two items found in Asha’s bookbag: the Dr. Seuss book “McElligot’s Pool,” borrowed from her school library in early 2000 and a New Kids on the Block concert T-shirt. These items were identified as crucial clues, and investigators hoped they might bring fresh insights into the case.
In November 2020, a letter written by an inmate named Marcus Mellon, convicted of sex crimes against children in 2014, claimed to have knowledge of Asha’s murder and where to find her. The revelation brought a glimmer of hope, but in February 2021, Sheriff Alan Norman announced that Mellon’s claims had led to yet another frustrating dead end.
The case remains unsolved.
Next, read about the Radium Girls, the poor young women who were betrayed by large organizations. Then, about the Disturbing Keddie Cabin Murder!
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