Asha Jacquilla Degree was born on 5 August 1990, a second child to parents Harold and Iquilla Degree, who had welcomed Asha’s brother O’Bryant just a year previously. Asha and her brother spent their childhood living in a house on Oakcrest Drive in Shelby, North Carolina, and they shared a bedroom in the modest home. In 2000 Asha was 9 years old, and as their parents both worked, the children were often coming home from school to an empty house. Their parents trusted them to do their homework before they got home from work. Asha was a happy child, who was quiet and well-behaved at school. She was afraid of dogs, the dark and thunderstorms, and she was a keen team basketball player. She attended the Fallston Elementary School where she was in the fourth grade. The schools in Cleveland County were closed on Friday 11 February 2000, meaning that the children were able to enjoy a 3 day weekend. Unfortunately, both of Asha’s parents had to work that day, but she and her brother spent the day at their aunt’s house, before attending their respective basketball practices which were held at their elementary school. On Saturday 12 February 2000, both children participated in basketball games, and disappointingly, Asha’s team lost the first game of the season. While Asha was upset about this, she cheered up enough to watch her brother play, and it did not appear to have overly bothered her the rest of the weekend. The following day, the family attended church as was their normal weekend routine.
Asha Degree prior to her disappearance.
On Sunday evening, Harold was at his second job on an evening shift, so Iquilla put Asha and O’Bryant to bed around 8pm. The weather had taken a turn for the worst, with heavy thunderstorms causing a car to crash in the neighbourhood, knocking the power off. Harold finished his shift and arrived home around 12.30am on Monday 14th February 2000, and thankfully, by this time the power had been restored to the house. Harold checked on O’Bryant and Asha, and finding them both asleep in their beds he decided to stay up and watch some television before heading to bed himself around 2.30am. Sometime during the early hours of the morning, O’Bryant wakes up and hears Asha’s bed creak. Assuming she is just rolling over, or perhaps returning from the bathroom, O’Bryant doesn’t turn around to check what she is doing and falls back to sleep.
Iquilla awakens early on Monday, the day of her and Harold’s 13th wedding anniversary. As the power was out the night before, she draws her children an early bath at around 5.45am before going into the bedroom to wake them. When she finds only O’Bryant in his bed asleep, she begins to panic. The first thing she does is wake her husband, before they call his mother who lives across the street to check if she has seen Asha. When Harold’s mother confirms that Asha is not there, Iquilla calls the police who arrive at 6.40am, by which time the friends, family and neighbours of the Degree’s are frantically searching for Asha. Without any clues to go on, it appears that the 9 year old girl got out of her bed, packed her schoolbag with clothes, and left in the middle of a thunderstorm without even a jacket. Where was a young girl who was afraid of the dark going in the middle of the night, alone?
The Search for Asha
The search for Asha was well underway by 7am on Monday 14th February 2000, and law enforcement had brought in a K-9 unit within an hour of Asha’s parents reporting her missing. Reports were quickly aired on TV, and this lead to callers who stated they were travelling on Highway 180 in the early hours of the morning. One driver who called law enforcement stated that he believes he saw Asha on the side of the highway at approximately 4am, in the middle of a huge downpour wearing just a pair of white shorts and a white tee shirt. Another driver called law enforcement after hearing the television report of Asha’s disappearance, and he stated that when he saw the child by the highway, he circled his truck around and drove up beside her, but this seemed to spook the child and she ran off into the woods beside the highway. I feel as though it’s important to note here that no police calls were made about a young child on the highway alone, in the thunderstorm, in the middle of the night, until after the report was released the following morning. If these drivers really did witness Asha walking alone without a coat in the rain at 4am, why did no one call law enforcement? This questions haunts me and seemingly everyone else who knows of Asha’s case.
As noted above, K-9 units were deployed to assist in the search for Asha within a few hours of the child being reported missing. K-9 units are crucial when searching for a missing person. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the weather conditions during which Asha disappeared were actually beneficial to the K-9 dogs. This is because the extra moisture in the air caused by heavy rainfall actually carries the scent further, thereby making it easier for dogs to pick up the scent of a missing person. However, in this instance there was no scent of Asha picked up by the dogs at all, which is most unusual. It was as though Asha had disappeared without a trace.
As one driver reported that Asha ran into the woods, law enforcement conducted a thorough search of the area on 17th February 2000. Law enforcement discovered a small shed within the woods, inside which they found a Mickey Mouse hair bow, some candy wrappers and some markers. The hair bow was positively identified by Iquilla and Harold as belonging to Asha. Law enforcement also found a wallet-sized photograph of a little girl. This photograph was shown to Asha’s parents along with the other items, but they did not recognise the young girl. Newspapers printed the photograph, urging anyone who knew the child to contact the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office. To this day, the identification of this young girl is unknown. If Asha was present in the shed on the night she vanished, did this mean that she had the photograph in her possession? If her parents did not recognise the photograph, then how did Asha know the child? Who had given her the photograph? These questions remain unanswered 20 years after her disappearance. Although the discovery of these items in the shed appeared to be a substantial finding, the trail for Asha seemed to cease at that shed. Law enforcement at the time publicly stated that they believed that Asha was present in the shed that evening, but no further details were released to the public. Both Harold and Iquilla agreed to polygraph tests, which is standard practice in the United States, and both Asha’s father and mother passed. Since their introduction to American courts in 1935, polygraphs have been a source of controversy between lawyers and the public alike. I personally do not believe that much weight should be placed on polygraph results, given the possibility of inaccurate results. For me, polygraphs are essentially no more than a ‘lie detector’ test, based on the stimulus of a person when answering questions. As I have discussed in many of the cases which I write about, everyone reacts differently to stress, loss and grief, and therefore to allow into evidence the results of a test which is based on the physical reactions of a person who is asked probing questions, seems absurd to me. It is also worth noting that courts throughout America, including the US Supreme Court have rejected polygraph ‘evidence’ due to the inherent unreliability of the tests. However, given that both of Ash’a parents passed the polygraph, I have included this information to allow the reader to draw his own conclusions on this point. The search for Asha continued without any further leads, but her parents continued to spread information about Asha’s case. They appeared on popular tv shows such as America’s Most Wanted and the Oprah Winfrey Show. Unfortunately this did not lead to any further leads.
Photograph of the unidentified young girl which was found in the shed in the woods.
Suddenly, in August 2001, there appeared to be a break in the case. Law enforcement released information that Asha’s book bag was found partially buried at a construction site near Morgantown. This is approximately 26 miles from Shelby, where Asha was reportedly last seen alive, running into the wooded area by the Highway. Her book bag was wrapped in two plastic trash bags, almost as though someone wished to preserve this evidence from the harsh outdoor elements. Within Asha’s book bag were several sets of clothes and family photos. I have read several reports which state that Asha’s name and telephone number were located in her backpack, but to my knowledge this has not been confirmed by law enforcement. Also located near the backpack were some animal bones, and a pair of men’s khaki trousers. The backpack was sent for forensic testing, but as the investigation is still ongoing, no results have ever been released to the public. The surrounding area was thoroughly searched by law enforcement, but no further leads were publicised. Shortly after the discovery of the backpack however, law enforcement confirmed that they believed foul play was involved, and that Asha’s disappearance was considered a criminal matter.
Items found in Asha's book bag. The book was confirmed as belonging to Asha's elementary school library.
Asha’s Case in 2021
I have followed Asha’s disappearance for years, and it is one of the cases which I most frequently search online, in the hope for an update. I hope that Asha is alive and will one day be reunited with her family, but as is common knowledge, sadly the longer which children are missing without being located often points towards a macabre ending. This year, an inmate called Marcus Mellon wrote a letter to an American newspaper stating that he had information about Asha, and knew that she was murdered. He claims to know how this occurred, and the town in which she was killed. It is worth pointing out that Mellon has been incarcerated since 2014 for crimes against children in Cleveland County, and is currently housed at Alexander Correctional Institution where he is serving his 14 year sentence. However, US inmates often have ulterior motives for providing information of open cases to law enforcement, as they can negotiate a ‘plea deal’ to allow them an early release if the information leads to the arrest and subsequent conviction in an unsolved case. Therefore, I would stress that this information is to be taken with a pinch of salt. The FBI reported that 45 tips were submitted in the Asha Degree case in 2020 and that the case remains active.
Age progressed digital photo of how Asha may look as an adult.
If you search this case on the internet, you will be inundated with a multitude of theories as to what happened to Asha. I have listened to numerous podcasts, read countless articles and delved into the deepest archives of web-sleuthing forums and I am still uncertain as to what my theory is. If you have read my previous posts, you will be familiar with the format of my articles, in that I usually have a rather certain theory. This case however continues to perplex me, and for that reason I have listed a few common theories below.
A run away is obviously one of the first scenarios which law enforcement consider when investigating a missing persons case. However, runaways are considered to be children aged 12 years old and above, and Asha was only 9 years old which is very young for a child to decide to run away from home. By all accounts, it appeared as though she was a happy child with a safe and stable home life. Why would she run away in the middle of the night? However, many online forums note that her class were reading ‘The Whipping Boy’ by Sid Fleischman. The overall plot of the novel involves two young characters who run away and are then kidnapped. Many forums draw parallels between this storyline and Asha’s disappearance, but I feel this is rather a stretch.
Other theories suggest that Asha was kidnapped from her home. Personally, I believe this is rather unlikely, given that her family were all in the modest home when she vanished. unless Asha left the bedroom she shared with her brother, how would a kidnapper have snatched her without waking O’Bryant? Further, how would a kidnapper have snuck the child out of the house without alerting her mother and father? This seems highlighly unlikely to me.
Unfortunately, I believe that Asha most likely left the house of her own accord that fateful night. She had her book bag packed with clothes, which suggests that she had planned to leave the home for a few days/nights. However, I am at a loss as to what would compel a 9 year old child to leave her safe home in the middle of the night during a thunderstorm without telling anyone where she was going. I think Asha was meeting someone, but who is unclear. It is to be noted that this was 2001, and computers and online predators were not such a high risk to children as they are today, and the Degree family did not own a computer. Unfortunately, I think that if Asha left the home to meet someone, it is most plausible that it was someone she was introduced to through her family or through school, as it is difficult to comprehend how a 9 year old child met anyone else.
If you have any information regarding the disappearance of Asha Degree, please contact the FBI Charlotte office on 704 672-6100 or the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children on 1-800-THE-LOST.