Asha Degree was a normal nine year old girl; a fourth grader at Fallston Elementary School in Shelby, North Carolina she lived with her parents and older brother. Asha's parents, Harold and Iquilla Degree, married on Valentine's Day in 1988, and within two years added two children to their family, O'Bryant, born in 1989, and Asha in 1990. Harold and Iquilla Degree raised Asha and O'Bryant in a 2 bedroom house on Oakcrest Drive, located in a residential subdivision in a rural area north of Shelby, and on the western edge of the Charlotte metropolitan area.
Both parents had decent jobs near the house, and they both put a lot of effort into giving their children a good life. Asha's parents kept her and her brother busy with school, church, and extended family; her parents also tried their best to shelter and protect their children, going as far as not owning a computer so the children wouldn't have access to the internet.
Asha's mother would later comment in a 2013 interview with Jet,
"Every time you turned on the TV there was some pedophile who had lured somebody's child away, via the Internet."
Iquilla said Asha handled this well, her mother noted she was shy and cautious, and seemed content staying within the boundaries created for her. Years after Asha's disappearance her mother would say, "She was scared to death of dogs. I never thought she'd go out of the house."
But that's exactly what would happen on Valentine's Day in 2000, when Asha was just nine years old.
The weekend before Asha went missing was an extended weekend for the children; Cleveland County School District was out of school that Friday, February 11th. Asha's parents had to work, so the children spent the day nearby at their aunt's house. In the afternoon on Friday both children attended their respective basketball practices, which took place at their elementary school. Asha was the star point guard of her team, and participated in a game with the team that Saturday, February 12th. The team experienced their first lost of the season that day, and Iquilla remarked her daughter was very upset by this. Asha actually fouled out of the game, and her mother remembered her crying after the loss. Sunday, February 13th, the children attended church and then had dinner at a relative's house. After dinner the children returned home and went to bed around 8 pm. Harold Degree told police nearly an hour later there was a bad car accident in the area that knocked the power out in the neighborhood. The power would be out until 12:30 am that morning, at which time Harold describes checking on the children, who were asleep in the bedroom they shared. Harold says he sat up until approximately 2:15 am, and before going to bed he says he checked in on the children again. Asha's father says both times he checked on the kids that night they were both asleep in their beds.
The next morning Iquilla would wake early, at 5:45 am and start her morning routine, which included getting the kids up and ready for school. Soon after waking Iquilla noticed the back door was slightly open. This alarmed her and she ran to the door and looked outside, onto their backyard. Iquilla said she observed a plastic lawn chair leaning up against a fence in the back corner of the yard; it appeared someone used it to climb over the fence. Her first instinct was to check on the children, and upon reaching their room she realized Asha was not in her bed. She yelled for her husband, and searched the rest of the house. Harold suggested maybe she walked across the street to his mother's house, however Iquilla called all the family member's in the area and no one had seen her. When they found no sign of her inside or outside of the house Asha's parents contacted the police department and reported her missing at that time. By 6:40 am that morning the first police officers would arrive at the Degree home. Police were quick to investigate, concerned about her age and the weather conditions the night before. Police brought in K-9s to assist in the search, however, they were not able to pick up Asha's scent.
Sometime later that day police were able to connect Asha's disappearance to several emergency calls for service made the night before. Turns out, several people saw Asha the night she went missing.
At least 2 motorists called police and asked for assistance, concerned the girl was walking in the middle of the night alone along Highway 18. It was raining heavily and extremely cold that night. One of the motorists told police he circled back around and tried to approach Asha to make sure she was ok, but as he did this she ran off into the woods next to the highway. Police found fresh footprints in the mud, small enough to belong to Asha, in the very spot the motorist said he last saw her. There they also found candy wrappers, a pencil, marker, and a Mickey-Mouse shaped hair bow in a shed at a nearby business along the highway. These items were identified as belonging to Asha. Oddly, among the items there was also a photograph of a young African American girl, around the same age as Asha, who has never been identified. These were the only pieces of evidence police found in the initial search.
February 16th Asha's mom searched through Asha's room. Her mother noted Asha's favorite clothing was missing, including a pair of blue jeans with a red stripe. It appeared Asha had packed a backpack before she left the house the night she went missing.
Police's reaction to this was that she was a runaway, however after talking to her family and friends they couldn't find a motive for her running away from home. Her home life was relatively normal, people described her as a happy girl, and the Degrees as a loving family.
The backpack Asha took with her that night was found over a year after her disappearance. The backpack was actually uncovered at a construction site, it was wrapped in plastic and buried along the same highway Asha was last seen walking along. Her mother was able to identify most of the items, but said some of the items in the backpack did not belong to Asha.
It's unclear if police were able to get any DNA off the backpack, or if they ever found any other pieces of physical evidence.
Police were also never able to say with certainty why Asha left her house that night. It's clear she waited for her parents to be asleep, its also clear she had some type of plan in mind; packing the backpack seems to indicate she was planning on being gone for at least a little while. But, what would lure a shy nine year old girl out of her house at 4 am, and prompt her to walk through the rain and freezing cold; alone? Something had to make her want to leave her house that night…or someone. Without access to the internet, if someone was in fact responsible for luring her out of the house that night, that person would have had to know Asha in real life. Perhaps a predator befriended her, without the knowledge of her family or friends, and convinced her to run away with him?
Maybe Asha was a victim of human trafficking, and she thought she could trust the people she was meeting that night?
Maybe Asha had a secret no one knew that made her believe running away was her only option?
There's no way to say for certain what happened to Asha Degree; which means there's still no answers for her parents, who 22 years later don't know if their daughter is out there somewhere, still alive.
If you have information about what happened to Asha Degree this is still an open investigation. Please contact the Shelby Police Department, or the FBI, with any information.
Asha Degree - 9 years old (Left) Asha Degree - Age Progressed Image (Right)
(Left) Items Found In Asha Degree's Backpack in August 2001
(Right) Car That Was Identified As Possibly Being Involved In Her Disappearance
Asha Degree - 9 years old, 4th Grade