The Disappearance of Asha Degree

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This story takes place on Valentine’s Day in 2000 in Shelby, NC. It’s the story of a family who tucked their nine-year old daughter into bed & the next morning, found that she had vanished, never to be seen again.

Asha Jaquilla Degree was born on August 5, 1990 to mom, Iquilla & dad Harold. Iquilla & Harold got married on Valentine’s day of 1988 & were going to be celebrating their 12th anniversary that year. Their first child, son O’Bryant, was born in 1989 & Asha was born the following year. The family lived in a rented duplex on Oakcrest Drive in a subdivision in a rural area north of Shelby, NC on the western edge of Charlotte. 

Asha was in fourth grade at Fallston Elementary School, loved science & math & was often named student of the week. She was very athletic & played basketball & softball.  When she grew up she wanted to be an author & illustrator & study science & Winston-Salem University. Asha was very close with her ten year-old brother O’Bryant; the two would come home from school, let themselves in & stay close to home, doing their homework while their parents worked. Harold worked second shift as a dock loader in Shelby & Iquilla worked at a piano factory in a nearby town.

During the week, Iquilla would wake the kids at 6:30am before she left for work. The kids got themselves ready, ate breakfast & caught the bus to school on their own. 

The children were raised centered around extended family, church & school & Harold & Iquilla tried to shield them from outside influences. They didn’t own a computer because Iquilla felt that everytime you turned on the TV, there was some pedophile who had lured somebody’s child away via the internet. 

Iquilla described her daughter as highly sensible, shy & wary of strangers. She said that Asha was terrified of dogs & storms & very content to stay within the limits her parents set. Her mom said she was the type of girl who wanted everyone to be happy & for everyone to be her friend.

Valentine’s Day weekend started with an extra day off school on Friday, February 11th. Asha & O’Bryant spent the day at their aunt’s house down the street & then went to basketball practice later that afternoon. On Saturday the 12th, Asha had her first game of the season; she was a star point guard for the team but they lost that day by one point.  Asha had fouled out in the last three minutes of the game. After the game, she copied her teammates as they cried & limped around the court, pretending to be injured. Iquilla stopped Asha, telling her that for one, she wasn’t hurt & two, someone had to lose the game. They said she bounced back & stayed to watch her brother’s game. That night Asha went to a slumber party at her 15 year old cousin Catina’s house. They stayed up late watching Soul Train & Showtime at the Apollo. 

On Sunday, February 13, 2000, Asha was picked up in the morning & the family headed to church. After, they went to a cousin’s house & Asha’s grandma gave her perfume & candies to celebrate Valentine’s Day. After they headed home, around 6:30 that evening, Asha dozed off, exhausted from her sleepover. She was woken by a thunderstorm & headed to the livingroom to watch TV with her family. 

Around bedtime, just before 9pm, a car crashed into a utility pole, knocking out the power in the area. The kids were getting ready to shower at this point, but pushed it to the morning since they were without power. Asha & O’Bryant, who shared a bedroom, headed to bed. At 11:30pm Harold ran out to the store to buy some last minute Valentine’s Day candies; his anniversary was also the next day. Shortly after returning home, he fell asleep on the couch. 

The power came back on at 12:30 a.m. & Iquilla woke Harold & asked him to move their kerosene lamp before heading back to bed. Harold then watched TV until 2:30 a.m., went to check on the kids, finding them both asleep & then he headed to bed. 

Sometime during the night O’Bryant remembers hearing Asha moving around in her bed, thinking she was just tossing & turning in her sleep. He then heard her get up to go to the bathroom; reports differ on whether he heard her return.

The next morning, Iquilla woke up at 5:45am to get the kids up, showered & moving for school. She headed into the kids room before their 6:30 alarm went off & found O’Bryant asleep but Asha’s bed was unmade & empty. She looked next to the bed where Asha occasionally laid if she got up during the night but she wasn’t there either.  She looked around the house, checking in every closet, even looking in the cars but Asha was nowhere to be found.  Iquilla noted that Asha’s book bag & house key were missing. When she let Harold know that Asha was missing, he suggested that maybe she went across the street to his mother’s house. Iquilla called & talked to her sister-in-law but Asha wasn’t there either. She said that this is when she went into “panic mode. I put shoes on & ran outside.” She ran up & down the street, screaming Asha’s name, waking & alerting neighbors in the process.

Harold called the police at 6:39am & the police began their search by 6:45am. Over the next few hours, dozens of officials & volunteers scoured the neighborhood & area. News reporters came & by the evening, the story of missing Asha was plastered all over the TV. Within an hour and a half of the 911 call, canine units found no scent of Asha, likely due to the rain. The Degree home was taped off at 2pm; they found no sign of forced entry. It was unclear if Asha had left through the front or back door. No signs of foul play were discovered. By the end of the day, they had only found a mitten & it didn’t belong to Asha; no winter clothing had been taken from the house.

Asha was believed to be wearing a white shirt, white jeans, white Nike shoes. She had no coat with her, but an inventory of the items she was believed to have taken included:

  1. A black Tweety Bird purse
  2. Candy from her basketball game
  3. Her house key
  4. Clothing: A red vest/black trim, blue jeans with a red stripe on each side, a white nylon long sleeved shirt, a black & white long–sleeved shirt, black overalls with Tweedy Bird on them
  5. Possible: White nightgown she wore to bed that night, her basketball uniform

That afternoon, a 25 year old trucker was eating lunch when he saw Asha’s story on the news. He quickly recognized her as the child he saw walking  in the rain along Highway 18 at 3:30 that morning, about a mile south of Asha’s home. “I seen a little girl walking down the road with her book bag. She had on a little dress & white tennis shoes and her hair was in pigtails. I went back but she never did look up at me. She looked like she knew where she was going. She was walking at a pretty good pace.” 

Realizing it was a child, Jeff stopped & turned his 10 wheeler around, circling three times before the girl ran into the woods & out of sight.

At 4:15a.m. trucker Roy B, a former deputy at the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office was trucking north bound down Highway 18 with his son when he saw someone walking down the road. “It was a small figure wearing light-colored clothing. I thought it was a woman. I couldn’t tell it was a child. I thought maybe it was a domestic violence thing where a woman left the house & was out walking.” Roy placed the sighting 1.3 miles south of Asha’s home. Concerned she could be hit by a vehicle, he sent a message over the CB radio for other truckers to be on the lookout. He didn’t stop & carried on to Chicago where he learned about Asha’s disappearance from a phone call with his wife. The next day, on his return, they went straight to a command post to report their sighting. 

These two sightings were believed legitimate & the SBI (state bureau of investigation) & FBI began to comb a five mile radius around the intersection of Highways 18 & 180.  An air search came up empty & there were no signs of a struggle or a hit-and-run. Driver check points were also set up.

Interviews with Harold & Iquilla showed no suspicion that they were involved; they were exceptionally cooperative in doing anything to help find their daughter. They insisted on polygraph tests which they both passed. 

On February 15, a couple named Rallie & Debbie Turner were asked to search their property; they lived a mile south of the Degree home. They owned a run-down, doorless outbuilding that stood about 300 feet from the road that they used to store supplies for their upholstery business. When the shed was checked, they found a green marker, a 1996 Atlanta Olympics pencil, a yellow hair bow, candy wrappers & a wallet sized picture of a little girl. A nearby neighbor said that his normally barking dogs were quiet the morning Asha disappeared. All items were identified as Asha though no one could identify the little girl in the picture who appeared to be close in age to Asha. 

two people had called the police station saying they saw a girl matching Asha’s description on Highway 18 around 4am. The weather was terrible that night with heavy rain & wind. A truck driver & a motorist saw Asha walking south along Highway 18 wearing a long sleeved white shirt & white pants. They were both taken aback by the sight of a young child walking alone at that hour. After seeing the report of missing Asha, they both called this info in to the police. The motorist said that there was a “storm raging” when he saw her, turned around & circled his car around three times & saw Asha run into the woods by the roadside & disappear. 

A week later, the search was called off after spending 9000 man hours searching the 2-3 mile radius she had been seen in. Flyers had been posted all over the area & 300 leads ranging from possible sightings to tips of abandoned houses & wells she may have ended up in had been explored. County sheriff Dan Crawford said, “we have never really had that first good, substantial lead.” He urged the media to keep the story alive.

At a news conference on February 22, sheriff Crawford said he was going “long-range” with the search for Asha. Both the FBI & NC’s State Bureau of Investigation got involved in their respective databases of missing children. He insisted that they were following everything. 

Noting what Iquilla found missing from the house/what Asha had taken with her, investigators believed she had planned & prepared for this in the days before her disappearance. She is not your typical runaway, being younger than what is typical; age 12 being on the low-end. There were also no family issues noted or problems at school which could have prompted Asha to run away.  Investigators still believed that was the most likely explanation to Asha leaving & that she had somehow gotten off track or was abducted.

On March 14, one month after Asha went missing, her case was featured on the Montel Williams Show, a month later she was featured on America’s Most Wanted though the family was not interviewed. Oprah showed Asha’s picture & information from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

On August 3, 2001, Asha’s book bag & belongings were found during a construction project off Highway 18 in Burke County, about 26 miles north of Shelby, in a different direction from where she was seen walking. It was found double wrapped in black plastic trash bags & appeared to have been buried at the location for some time. The construction worker who found it said that the back pack contained Asha’s name & phone number. The FBI took the bag to examine it for further forensic analysis but the results have not been shared publicly though it was said to have included a pencil case, a sheet of paper & unspecified clothing. To date, it’s the last evidence found in the case. 

A 3 mile long/400 foot wide area where the book bag was found was scoured but only animal bones & a pair of men’s khaki pants were found.

In 2020, the 20th anniversary of Asha’s disappearance, the FBI confirmed that the book bag contained a copy of Dr. Suess’s McElligot’s Pool, a New Kids on the Block t-shirt. The t-shirt didn’t belong to Asha & the book was from her school’s library.

The Degrees have kept Asha’s memory & the case alive in the public’s mind. In 2008 they started a scholarship in Asha’s name, they host an annual walk to raise awareness & money to fund their search. The walk begins at their house & ends at a missing person’s billboard for Asha along Highway 18, near where she was last seen. Originally it was held on February 14th though it was changed to 2/7 in 2015 & 2/6 in 2016 as Harold & Iquilla didn’t want to make Valentine’s Day a somber occasion. 

Pictures of Asha & also pictures created by investigators of what Asha might look like in later years, still line the walls of the Degree house. During an interview in 2013 with Jet, Iquilla Degree said that she felt that Asha’s case didn’t get as much media attention over the years as other cases of missing children because Asha was black. “Missing white children get more attention. I don’t understand why. If you ask them they will say it’s not racial. Oh really? I’m going to argue because I have common sense.” She felt that the case was mostly kept local vs. national. 

In February 2015 the FBI announced that they were re-investigating the case & re-interviewing witnesses. They also announced a reward up to $25,000 for “information leading to the arrest & conviction of the person or persons responsible for Asha’s disappearance.” A community group is offering an additional $20,000 reward. 

In May of 2016, 15 months later, the FBI announced they had found a possible new lead. They said that Asha may have been seen getting into a dark green early 1970s  Lincoln Continental Mark IV or possibly a Ford Thunderbird from the same era along Route 18 where she was last seen that night. It was described as having rust around its wheel wells. 

In September of 2017, the FBI announced that its Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team was assisting in finding out more about what happened to Asha. Since this time, they have conducted about 300 interviews. 

In October of 2018, the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office detectives appealed for more info from the public about two items of interest found in Asha’s book bag; the Dr. Suess book & the NKOTB t-shirt. Investigators feel these are vital clues. 

In November of 2020, an inmate named Marcus Mellon who was convicted of sex criimes against children in 2014 wrote a letter to the Shelby Star claiming that Asha was murdered & he knows where to find her. In February of 2021, it was announced that this led to another dead end. Cleveland County sheriff Alan Norman said, “You take all the information received extremely serious, and we run it to the very end regardless of who provides that  information.” 

Asha’s mom Iquilla told North Carolina’s WBTV, “this is worse than death because at least with death, you have closure. You can go to a gravesite, or if you have the urn at home, but for us, we can’t mourn, we can’t give up. The only thing we got is hope.” 

Cleveland County Detective Tim Adams still believes there is someone out there who may have information that will help Asha. “The fact it was a small child that left on Valentine’s Day really caught everybody’s heart in the community. She’s been called Shelby’s Sweetheart, because she’s a child that’s one of our own.”

Why would Asha run away?

Asha’s disappearance was very unique; in 1999, children age 13 & under made up an estimated 18% of runaways & the majority who did leave came back shortly after their disappearance.  Asha didn’t fit the profile of a typical runaway; she came from a stable & loving family, her parents were happily married & she did well in school. No one close to Asha had ever noted any signs of abuse & she never confide in anyone about issues at home. 

One theory is that Asha was catfished by an adult predator that posed as a child that was seen in the photo found in the shed. Another thought was that she was lured away by a trusted adult under the pretense of making her parents a gift for Valentine’s Day/12th anniversary. Harold said that Asha was never big on Valentine’s Day, didn’t seem excited or mention it. 

Asha’s parents wondered if she was influenced by a book she read in class the week before she disappeared; The Whipping Boy. The story was about a young boy whose only purpose was to take whippings for a young prince until the two came up with a plan to run away from the kingdom at night. During their adventure, they meet new characters though return safely to the kingdom in the end. 

The other thought was that she was still upset about her basketball game loss. Her parents don’t believe this to be true because she was very happy during the sleepover with her cousin on the 12th. Iquilla did say that she continued to talk about the game throughout Saturday night & Sunday. 

When Asha’s brother & friends were interviewed they mentioned that she had shown them a few dollars in her  wallet on February 10th. It’s unknown where  the money came from or if she still had it when she disappeared. 

Local sex offenders had been interviewed as well as anyone who may have had contact with her. An online predator was also explored yet the Degrees did not have a home computer. The FBI created a psychological profile of Asha’s potential abductor though never released it to the public. 

In the summer of 2000, a former classmate of Iquilla’s, 32 year-old Barron Ramsey confessed to being involved in Asha’s disappearance. He said he was driving home with another man from a drug deal when he hit & killed Asha with his car. He said he put her body in the bed of his truck & dumped her body while on a fishing trip at Moss Lake a few days later. Authorities dragged the lake twice & searched Highway 18 for any signs of a hit & run & found nothing. They think he made this story up to get a better deal in a bank robbery case. 

In 2020, Iquilla said that she believes her daughter is still alive, “that’s my prayer every night, that God will get into their heart & let them come forward, because it’s got to be a weight on them. We’re hoping & we’re praying that she had a halfway decent life even though we didn’t get to raise her. She was 9 years old & she’ll be thirty this year. So we 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 is to see her.” This year, Asha would be 32 years old. 

For any tips or information, please call the Cleveland County Sheriff’s office at (704) 484-4788 or CrimeStoppers at (704) 481-TIPS (8477).


  1. Wikipedia: Disappearance of Asha Degree
  2. Ati: The Disappearance of Asha Degree: How a Nine-Year-Old North Carolina Girl Vanished Forever
  3. Reddit: The Disappearance of Asha Degree (part 1)
  4. Reddit: The Disappearance of Asha Degree (part 2 of 2)
  5. Jet: Missing & Black: What Happened to Asha Degree?

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