SHELBY, NC — Sometime in the early morning hours of February 14, 2000, nine-year-old Asha Degree disappeared from her family home on Oakcrest Drive near Fallston. The young girl was never seen again.
Asha’s parents told police that they last checked on Asha at 2:30 A.M. — and that by 6:30 A.M., she was gone. Sometime during the very early morning hours, for reasons unknown, Asha reportedly packed her bookbag, left her family home and set out on her own along North Carolina Highway 18.
It was raining heavily, and between 3:45 and 4:15 A.M., two drivers saw her walking south along the road, wearing a long-sleeved white T-shirt and white pants. They reported the sighting to police after seeing a TV report about her disappearance.
One person who claimed to see Asha told police that they approached her, but she turned and ran into a wooded area.
Police launched a massive search of the area, and on February 17, candy wrappers, a pencil, a marker, and a Mickey Mouse–shaped hair bow that were identified as belonging to her were found in bushes off of the highway.
A year and a half later, her book bag, still packed, was unearthed from a construction site along Highway 18 north of Shelby.
Investigators first theorized that Asha may have been trying to run away from home, but others have suggested that she may have been abducted, or lured out of the house by someone with plans to kidnap her.
The Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office is still investigating Asha’s disappearance, and Sheriff Alan Norman said that the case was still “extremely active.”
In February 2015, the FBI announced that FBI agents, Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office investigators, and State Bureau of Investigation agents were re-examining the case and re-interviewing witnesses. They also announced a reward of up to $25,000 for information leading to the arrest or conviction of a suspect in Asha’s case.
Every year, her family now hosts an annual walk from their home to the billboard advertising her disappearance to draw attention to the case.
In January of last year, law-enforcement officials believed they might have found a lead in the case when Donald Preston Ferguson, 52, was arrested in South Carolina and charged in connection with the death of seven-year-old Shalonda S. Poole, whose body was found in 1990 behind an elementary school. Officials said that they were investigating the possibility that Poole could have been involved in Asha’s disappearance.
In May 2016, the FBI announced that their reinvestigation of the case had turned up another possible new lead — and said that Asha had been seen getting into a dark green early 1970s Lincoln Continental Mark IV, or possibly a Ford Thunderbird, along Route 18 near where she was last seen.
Asha’s mother, Iquilla Degree, told the Shelby Star that the family believes that Asha is still alive.
She keeps hope alive, she says, by hearing stories of women and children being found after being missing for long periods of time, and with her faith in God.
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Main photo: Asha Degree [Wikimedia Commons]