Shelby, NC

On Valentine's Day 2000, a 9-year-old girl packed her bag and snuck out. Then, a bizarre discovery was made.

Fatim Hemraj
Asha DegreePhoto byMysteries Unsolved

Harold and Iquilla Degree got married on Valentine's Day, 1988. They had their son, O'Bryant, in 1989 and their daughter, Asha, in 1990. Since the siblings were only 11 months apart, they were very close and even shared a bedroom in their apartment on Oakcrest Drive in Shelby, North Carolina.

Asha was in the fourth grade at Fallston Elementary and the 9-year-old was a star player on the school's youth basketball team. She was described as a shy, bright girl with a lighthearted sense of humor.

The Degrees maintained a somewhat sheltered household. There were no cell phones or computers in their home. Asha and O'Bryant only went to school, church, and basketball games. They spent the rest of their time with their paternal grandmother, who lived across the street. The children each had their own key to the apartment as Harold and Iquilla often worked late into the evenings.

On February 12, 2000, Asha played in a basketball game at her school. She received a foul and her team ultimately lost for the first time that season. Asha blamed herself and was seen crying with her teammates. However, she returned to her bubbly, cheerful self later that evening.

On February 13, the Degrees took their children to church followed by a visit to their grandmother's home. There was a power outage that evening, and Iquilla put the kids to bed by 9 pm, their usual bedtime.

Harold returned home from his second job at 12:30 am on February 14. He checked on the kids and they were both asleep. He checked a second time at 2:30 am, before heading to bed himself. Shortly after Harold left, O'Bryant heard the springs in his sister's bed creak. He looked up and saw Asha standing in the room, wearing a white nightgown. He didn't think much of it and went back to sleep.

February 14, 2000, wasn't just Valentine's Day. It was also the Degrees' 12th wedding anniversary, and the day their youngest child, and only daughter, left their home, never to return.

At 6:15 am that morning, Iquilla went to O'Bryant and Asha's bedroom to wake them up for school. O'Bryant was asleep in his bed, but Asha's was empty. Iquilla searched the entire apartment but Asha was nowhere to be found. Frantic, she woke Harold up and told him that Asha was gone. Harold assumed that Asha went across the street to her grandmother's but she wasn't there, either. The Degrees reported Asha missing at 6:39 am. Sadly, she was never seen or heard from again.

There were no signs of forced entry and the door to the apartment was locked. An investigation quickly revealed that Asha left her home voluntarily; she planned it for at least a day and packed it ahead of time. It's unclear whether someone lured Asha outside on that frigid, February morning.

It was determined that Asha took her backpack and some of her favorite clothing which included a pair of blue jeans with a red stripe down the side, black sneakers, a long-sleeved top with purple lettering, a red vest with black trim, and a long-sleeved black and white t-shirt. Asha also took a Tweety Bird purse and her house key. She left the apartment wearing her white nightgown as a t-shirt, pants, and sneakers. Despite a freezing rain storm, Asha was not wearing a jacket.

Investigators believe Asha left her home sometime between 2:30 and 3:15 am because two witnesses saw her walking along Highway 18 a mile away between 3:30 and 4:15 am.

Trucker Jeff Ruppe saw a young child walking in the rain at approximately 3:45 am. He noticed that she wasn't wearing weather-appropriate clothing and became concerned. When Jeff turned his car around and attempted to talk to Asha, she ran into the woods. Another trucker reported that he saw a child walking along the highway at around 4:15 am. Both sightings were deemed credible because the witnesses correctly identified Asha's clothing: a white nightgown.

Scent-sniffing dogs were immediately deployed in the area, however, they could not track Asha's scent due to the rain storm that occurred during the early morning hours of February 14.

On February 17, authorities canvassed the area and asked for permission to check a property belonging to a woman named Debbie Turner. She owns Turner's Upholstery, located just 100 yards from where Asha was last spotted. When Debbie learned of Asha's case, she handed over some items she had discovered in her shed on the 14th. That day, Debbie found a green marker, a pencil, and a Mickey Mouse hair bow belonging to Asha inside the doorway of her shed. Since Debbie didn't know about her disappearance at the time, she thought nothing of it and kept the items aside.

Debbie also found several candy wrappers; more were found along Highway 18. They were linked to Asha because several teammates said that they had each received that specific candy in Valentine's Day gift bags after their last basketball game. Unfortunately, the discovery didn't lead to Asha.
The t-shirt and book found in Asha's backpack and the vehicle that she may have gotten intoPhoto byThe CW

Nearly a year and a half later on August 3, 2001, a construction contractor named Terri Fleming discovered a black garbage bag at a work site 26 miles away and turned it into the authorities. Inside the bag was a second garbage bag. Inside that bag was Asha's backpack, which had her name and home phone number written on it. Inside the backpack was a New Kids From The Block t-shirt and McElligot's Pool by Dr. Seuss. According to the Degrees, the shirt did not belong to Asha, however, the book had been signed out from the library at her school, Fallston Elementary.

In 2016, investigators revealed that witnesses may have seen Asha get into a dark green vehicle; either a 1973 Lincoln Mark IV or a 1973 Ford Thunderbird with rust around the wheel wells.
Age-progression photo of Asha Degree at 29Photo byNCMEC

The search for Asha Degree continues. Today, she would be 32 years old.

If you have any information contact Cleveland County Sheriff's Office at 704-484-4822.

A $45,000 reward is available.

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