It was 20 years ago on Friday that Asha Degree, a shy 9-year-old North Carolina girl, went missing in the middle of the night. The spirited fourth-grader's disappearance in 2000 shook her rural community of Shelby and remains an enduring mystery, even as police, the FBI, and her family continue to actively search for clues.
"After 20 years, I still believe my daughter is alive," said Iquilla Degree, who, with her husband Harold, still harbors hope that Asha (pronounced Ay-shuh) might find her way home. "I do not believe she is dead. And I know someone knows something. I'm not crazy enough to think that a 9-year-old can disappear into thin air without somebody knowing something."
The case remains an open investigation, with a local detective reviewing leads-old and new-and FBI investigators from the Charlotte Field Office consolidating and combing through case files for unexplored patterns or clues. Like Asha's mother, investigators believe someone in area may hold the key that could unlock the case.
"We strongly believe that there is someone out there that may have a piece of information that will help her," said Cleveland County Sheriff's Office Detective Tim Adams, who came out of retirement in 2014 to lead the department's probe. In 2015, the sheriff's office teamed up with the FBI and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation in a top-to-bottom re-examination of the case, which has since generated more than 350 leads, including 45 in the past year.
"The fact that it was a small child that left on Valentine's Day really caught everybody's heart in this community," Det. Adams said. "She's been called Shelby's Sweetheart, because she's a child that's one of our own that has gone missing, and we want to find out what happened to her."
What is known from the earliest hours of the investigation is that Asha disappeared from her bedroom sometime between about 2:30 a.m. on February 14, 2000, when Harold checked on Asha and her older brother, and 6:30 a.m., when Iquilla went in to wake the kids for school. There was no sign of forced entry and no promising scent trail for search dogs to follow. That afternoon, investigators received at least two separate reports from individuals who said they saw a young female walking along Highway 18, in the opposite direction of the Degrees' home, around 4 a.m. One person said they went back to check on the girl but she had left the roadway and disappeared into the woods.
"That was the last time anyone had a sighting of Asha that had actually been confirmed," Det. Adams said.
On August 3, 2001, some 30 miles north of the last sighting, construction workers digging an access road for a new home in neighboring Burke County found a book bag that belonged to Asha. Inside was a concert T-shirt featuring boy band New Kids On The Block and a children's book, McElligot's Pool, by Dr. Seuss. Neither belonged to Asha, though the book was from the library at Asha's school, Fallston Elementary. Investigators released images of the shirt and book in 2018, hoping to jog the memories of people who may have helpful information.
The 2015 re-investigation also turned up another possible lead: Asha may have been seen getting into a dark green 1970s-model Lincoln Continental Mark IV or Ford Thunderbird with rust around the wheel wells. The FBI publicly announced the potential lead in 2016 and released images of the vehicle models.
"We encourage anybody out there that if they have 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," said FBI Special Agent Michael Gregory, who is leading the case now for the Bureau. "We will continue to pursue all avenues to find out what circumstances led to her disappearance, and we will continue to pursue this case at all costs."
Working with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the FBI has released multiple age-progressed photos of Asha, including a new version this month showing what Asha may look like now as a 29-year-old. The FBI is offering a $25,000 reward on top of $20,000 set aside by the Cleveland County Sheriff's Office and the community. Three years ago, the FBI deployed its Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team, which spent more than a week on location and generated still more leads and interview prospects.
"Although Asha left her house 20 years ago, we treat it as if it happened yesterday," said Jeanine Merritt, an FBI intelligence analyst who has worked the case since 2014, bringing reams of 20-year-old paperwork from disparate offices and investigations into a single searchable database. "We're constantly accepting new leads. We're constantly sifting through new data."
There are few clues about why Asha left her house on Valentine's Day, which is also her parents' wedding anniversary. If she was upset about her poor performance at a basketball game the Saturday before her disappearance (she fouled out and her team lost by one point), it seemed to have dissipated by the next morning, when the family went together to church and Sunday school. Still, it was a crushing loss for Asha, her mom said, leading Iquilla, Harold, and investigators to wonder if it may have spurred the competitive, intelligent 9-year-old to hatch some unknown plan.
"Apparently, she packed her bag prior to leaving, but the contents-from what we can tell-looked like something a child would pack rather than her parents preparing her for an overnight stay," Det. Adams said.
For Asha's family, prayers and hope have sustained them for the last 20 years, but they need answers. Iquilla appealed directly to anyone who may have been involved in her daughter's fate to come forward and unburden themselves.
"I wouldn't care what I missed. All I want to do is see her."
- Iquilla Degree, Asha's mother
"That's my prayer every night, that God will get into their heart and let them come forward, because it's got to be a weight on them," she said.
Iquilla was seated beside Harold, clutching a photo album full of pictures of Asha.
"We're hoping and we're praying that she's had a halfway decent life even though we didn't get to raise her," she said. "She was 9 years old, and she'll be 30 this year. So we've missed everything. But I don't care. If she walked in the door right now, I wouldn't care what I missed. All I want to do is see her."