Over twenty years ago, the town of Shelby, North Carolina experienced a ground-breaking loss. Nine-year-old Asha Degree disappeared from her home on the eve of Valentine’s Day in 2000, sparking a decades-long search with little in the way of clues.

Harold and Iquilla Degree raised their two children the quiet, rural town of Shelby. The parents managed a tight household, and the children were expected to let themselves into their home after school and complete their homework by the time Harold and Iquilla returned. The Degrees also did not keep a computer in the house, a safety precaution to protect their children from the dangers lurking online.

“[E]very time you turned on the TV there was some pedophile who had lured somebody’s child away, via the Internet.”

— Iquilla Degree

Nine-year-old Asha in particular was described as obedient, hard-working, and shy, and reportedly had an intense fear of dogs. The Friday before she vanished, she had fouled during a basketball game and cost her team the win. Though this upset Ashas, she seemed to be getting over it before school on Monday.

On February 13, Harold and Iquilla Degree tucked their children, ten-year-old O’Bryant and Asha, into bed in their shared room at 8 pm. That night, a severe storm raged across Shelby. At around 2:30 a.m., Harold checked on the children after returning home from work. On the following morning, which was Harold and Iquilla’s wedding anniversary, Iquilla entered the children’s bedroom at 5:45 a.m. to wake them for school and discovered Asha’s empty bed.

After searching the home, cars, and checking with other family members, Iquilla and Harold were unable to find Asha. Iquilla’s mother called the police, who arrived on scene at 6:40 a.m. No signs of forced entry were found, and police dogs could not pick up Asha’s scent, which had likely been washed away in the previous night’s storm.

The early hours of the investigation uncovered that Asha disappeared from her shared bedroom somewhere between 2:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. O’Bryant recalled hearing Asha’s bed squeak in the early hours of the morning and believed she was changing positions. Instead, investigators believe that Asha had got out of bed, taken a backpack she had previously packed, and left the home.

After news coverage about Asha’s disappearance aired, the case seemed to gain new leads. Witnesses driving along on Highway 180 the night Asha disappeared reported seeing a young girl wearing all white walking alone in the opposite direction of the Degree home, around 4 a.m. One driver claimed to have gone back to check on the girl, but she disappeared into the woods. The description of the girl’s clothing matched what police knew Asha to be wearing at the time of her disappearance.

“That was the last time anyone had a sighting of Asha that had actually been confirmed.”

— Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office Detective Tim Adams

On February 15, candy wrappers, a pencil, a marker, and a Mickey Mouse hair bow were found in a shed along the highway, close to where witnesses had reported seeing Asha flee into the woods. Some of the belongings were identified as Asha’s, but no further leads were gained from the site.

On August 3, 2001, a construction worker discovered Asha’s backpack off Highway 18, approximately 26 miles away from Shelby. The backpack had been stored inside a plastic bag, presumably to protect it from the elements. Asha’s name and phone number were found inside, along with a library copy of Dr. Seuss’s McElligot’s Pool and a New Kids on the Block t-shirt. Asha’s family claimed that neither belonged to her, though the book had been checked out from Asha’s school. The backpack was sent for analysis, but the information it uncovered has not been released publicly. To date, Asha’s backpack is the final piece of evidence uncovered from this case.

Theories concerning Asha’s disappearance typically take two main approaches:

  1. Asha left the home on her own volition and either was abducted by chance or succumbed to the elements.
  2. Asha was groomed by an adult, lured out, and abducted.

Some theories by internet users read as follows:

“She was groomed by an adult in her life – a family friend, teacher, coach, church leader etc. [added from another comment by the same user: I think what further supports her being lured out of her home was that her parents, while nice and very caring, were strict and pretty controlling…It’s possible that she was feeling too much pressure from her parents, and wanted more freedom and independence than they were giving her. She vented to an adult close to her – coach, teacher, babysitter etc., and they took advantage of that and lured her with the promise of a fun trip away from parental pressure.] They told her to meet at a certain location, which explains why she left in the middle of the night in a storm, why she was wearing all white (so they could find her more easily), and why she packed a bag. Something I’ve also considered is that she may have left with the promise of a road trip or vacation somewhere warm (Disney World maybe? Not too far from North Carolina, warm weather and super appealing for a nine year old), which is why she didn’t pack any winter clothes.”

— Reddit user jjfmish

“I think Asha left her house that night under her own steam…I suspect she was worried about going to school…maybe she was more affected by the basketball game than her parents thought…she desperately didn’t want to go to school on Monday morning. That would explain why, in her mind, she HAD to leave that night despite the awful weather conditions.

After she left the house and ran away, I think one of two things could have happened to her:

  1. A random predator saw her by the highway and abducted her…a complete fluke…the ultimate ‘wrong place, wrong time’ scenario.
  2. She died of exposure somewhere in those woods and her body has never been found…everyone assumes she was abducted because of the bookbag…somebody (with no connection to the case at all) may have found and taken the bag, at some point realized it belonged to the missing girl in the woods, didn’t want to get involved with police…and decided to dispose of the bag without telling anyone.”

— Reddit user kapo350125

Regardless of the events that transpired on February 13, 2000, the Degree family still wishes to bring Asha home.

“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 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.”

— Iquilla Degree

Sources: x x x