The Strange Disappearance Of 9-Year-Old Asha Degree

The North Carolina fourth grader left her home in the middle of the night and was last seen walking alone down a dark highway around 4 a.m.

In the early hours of Feb. 14, 2000, a 9-year-old North Carolina girl strapped on her backpack and slipped out of her family’s rural two-bedroom duplex apartment. To this day, no one knows why she left — or where she went.

At around 4 a.m., two motorists — one driving a truck, the other a car — said that they saw the girl walking on the highway about 1 mile from her home. When one driver turned around to check on her, he said she ran into the woods.

That was the last time fourth grader Asha Degree was ever seen. But in the days and months that followed, several bizarre clues only compounded the mystery in a case that investigators still believe they can solve.

Asha Degree disappeared on Feb. 14, 2000.
Asha Degree disappeared on Feb. 14, 2000.
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

Asha’s Disappearance

Asha is believed to have left home sometime after 2:30 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 14, a Monday, when her father said he saw her and her brother asleep in a bedroom that the siblings shared. Shortly afterward, her brother, 10-year-old O’Bryant Degree, heard her bed squeaking but quickly fell back asleep. When their mother went to wake up the children for school at around 6:30 a.m., Asha was gone.

The apartment’s doors were locked, and there was no sign of forced entry.

Minutes later, her father called 911. Within hours, authorities and volunteers were conducting a massive search of the area, near the small town of Shelby in Cleveland County, about an hour’s drive west of Charlotte.

Despite the cold and rainy weather, Asha walked out into the pitch darkness without her coat. She was believed to be wearing a white shirt, white jeans and white sneakers, which her family noticed were among the clothes that were missing.

The motorists who had seen the girl walking south at around 4 a.m. on Highway 18 — toward Shelby and the opposite direction of her school — each contacted the authorities later that day after hearing the news that Asha was missing.

The truck driver characterized the weather as a raging storm when he saw the girl, and a contemporary news article described the morning of their search as being hampered by rain and fog. It seems inexplicable that the girl would venture out coatless, carrying only her backpack and a Tweety Bird purse.

A photo of Asha at 9 years old was used to create an age-progressed image of what she might look like decades later.
A photo of Asha at 9 years old was used to create an age-progressed image of what she might look like decades later.

The Basketball Game

Police early on ruled out Asha’s family as suspects. By all accounts, theirs was a happy home. Her father, Harold Degree, was a dockworker, and her mother, Iquilla Degree, worked for a piano manufacturer. They lived about 3 miles north of Shelby, and the children attended Fallston Elementary School, about 5 miles north of their home. School officials told investigators that Asha was a little shy but an “outstanding student.”

Like her brother, Asha loved sports, and she was a star point guard on her peewee basketball team. On the Saturday before she disappeared, Asha fouled out of a game and blamed herself for the team’s first loss of the season. She was crying and upset, but her parents said that she was in good spirits again when she attended her brother’s basketball game a few hours later.

Still, investigators have always considered whether her disappointment over the game was a factor in her possible decision to run away.

Weeks after Asha’s disappearance, her team won its league’s championship title and gave her family a trophy naming her the Fallston Bulldogs’ most valuable player.

Belongings In A Shed

On the morning of Feb. 15, an upholstery business owner saw some peculiar things inside the doorway of her toolshed: a white Atlanta 1996 Olympics pencil, a green marker and a Mickey Mouse hair bow.

Police determined that the items all belonged to Asha. The shed was located about 100 yards west of the spot on Highway 18 where the truck driver saw Asha. At that spot, investigators found wrappers for the kind of candy that her parents said she had at home.

The shed owner found something else near Asha’s belongings: a wallet-sized picture of another young girl. Asha’s family didn’t recognize her and, despite the picture being shared widely by news outlets, no one has ever come forward to identify her.

Despite searches on foot, horseback and with dogs, the shed was where the trail for Asha ended, investigators said.

Eighteen months later, a sinister finding deepened the mystery and all but confirmed that Asha had been a victim of foul play.

The Backpack Discovery

On Aug. 3, 2001, construction worker Terry Fleming unearthed a black and beige backpack 25 miles north of where Asha was last seen and less than 50 yards off Highway 18. Inside it was Asha’s name and her family’s home phone number. Other contents of the bag were not released until much later, and Fleming told reporters that authorities had asked him not to disclose any other details about what he had found.

A nearby resident, however, told the local Shelby Star newspaper that the backpack had been found wrapped in a plastic bag. In an October 2010 profile, “Good Morning America” reportedly said that it had been wrapped in trash bags.

Investigators confirmed that the backpack belonged to Asha but have not addressed the reported plastic wrapping.

Authorities later determined that Asha had packed ahead of time, taking with her blue jeans bearing a red stripe, a white long-sleeved shirt and a black pair of overalls.

After the backpack was found, Cleveland County Sheriff Dan Crawford said it no longer appeared that Asha was just a runaway.

“[The backpack] was thrown out by a moving car,” he told the Star. “It’s highly likely now that this has involved foul play.”

The backpack was sent to the FBI for further testing.

The Dr. Seuss book “McElligot's Pool” from Asha’s school library and a New Kids on the Block concert T-shirt that her mother said didn’t belong to her were found in her backpack.
The Dr. Seuss book “McElligot's Pool” from Asha’s school library and a New Kids on the Block concert T-shirt that her mother said didn’t belong to her were found in her backpack.

An Unknown Book And T-Shirt

In 2018, authorities shared pictures of “two items of interest” found inside Asha’s backpack: the Dr. Seuss book “McElligot’s Pool” from Asha’s school library, and a New Kids on the Block concert T-shirt that her mother said didn’t belong to the girl. Investigators are continuing to ask the public for information about the items, and have not said whether DNA or other testing has yielded any significant results.

A Possible Car Sighting

In 2016, authorities shared information from a tipster that someone matching Asha’s description might have been seen getting into a “distinctive vehicle” along the highway where she was last seen. They described the car as an early 1970s-model dark green Lincoln Continental Mark IV or Ford Thunderbird, with rust around the wheel wells.

They posted pictures of two similar-looking cars, but so far authorities have not confirmed whether they still consider the lead to be viable.

Dead Ends

A 2004 tip led investigators to dig for evidence related to Asha’s case in an area about 10 miles northwest of Shelby. They found bones, which were later identified as belonging to an animal.

In 2020, the Shelby Star received a letter from a man claiming to know how Asha had been killed and where her body had been buried. After interviewing the man, who was serving a prison sentence for sex crimes against children, investigators deemed his claims to be meritless.

Unsubstantiated Rumors

Speculation about Asha’s disappearance is rampant online. Many theories, however, are based on unverified reports or conflicting witness statements. The Degrees’ accounts of when family members went to sleep and woke up on the night she vanished have been the subject of scrutiny on social media — but again, authorities have repeatedly said that they are not considered suspects in the case.

One unusual event that night has contributed to the speculation about the timeline: In the family’s neighborhood, a car crashed into a utility pole and caused a power outage in the area. The power was restored within hours, however, and investigators have never suggested that the event had any significance in Asha’s disappearance.

Not A Cold Case

Investigators emphasized in an FBI video update last month that Asha’s case remains active and they believe it can be solved.

Cleveland County Sheriff Alan Norman said that advances in technology will help investigators crack the case.

“We actually have things that aid us now that we didn’t have 24 months ago, much less 24 years ago,” Norman said.

Asha’s parents haven’t spoken publicly about their daughter’s disappearance in recent years, but in 2020 her mother said that she still believed her daughter was alive.

“We’re hoping and we’re praying that she’s had a halfway decent life anyway, even though we didn’t get to raise her,” Iquilla Degree said in a video shared by the FBI. “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.”

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