MysteriYES

A comedy mystery podcast in which two friends discuss a weekly mystery.

MysteriYES- The Disappearance of Asha Degree

Today’s story, while incredibly fascinating and mysterious, is also really sad. The phenomenon of missing children is considered by most people to be among the most tragic occurrences in our society, and what’s even worse is when a missing child is not recovered and their ultimate fate is never determined. That’s precisely what we’re going to be talking about in today’s episode.
Asha Degree was nine years old when she disappeared from her home in Shelby, North Carolina on February 14, 2000. She was born August 5, 1990 to her parents, Harold and Iquilla Degree. She had an older brother named O’Bryant, and the family lived in a residential subdivision on the north side of Shelby. In all the pictures I can find of Asha, she has a huge grin, bright smiling eyes, and a different hairstyle in each picture. She looks just like every child should look: happy, healthy, and safe.
The Degree home was a very sheltered one, as Asha and O’Bryant were limited in their interactions with others outside of school, church, and family. I read in a couple places that the family didn’t even own a computer. This cloistered lifestyle didn’t really bother Asha, as she was a shy, timid, compliant girl who was also described as an avid reader who was afraid of dogs.
Asha disappeared in the early morning hours of the Monday after a three-day weekend from school. Fallson Elementary School—where Asha was a fourth-grader—was closed for the day on Friday, February 11 due to Presidents’ Day. Harold and Iquilla still had to work though, so O’Bryant and Asha spent the day with an aunt who lived nearby, before each going to their respective basketball practices.
The next day, Saturday, both O’Bryant and Asha had basketball games. Asha’s team played first, and they lost, their first of the season, which, considering it was February and pretty late in the season, is impressive. Asha—the team’s star player—fouled out. After the game, her parents said she was visibly upset, crying with the rest of her teammates. Her parents also said that she seemed to get over it fairly quickly as she watched O’Bryant’s game.
On Sunday, the family went to church, and spent much of the day with a relative who lived nearby. In the afternoon, Harold had to go to work, from which he didn’t get home until 12:30 am. That evening, Iquilla said that Asha was laughing and talking with her family, and that they thought everything was fine. Asha and O’Bryant shared a bedroom, and they went to sleep around 8 pm on Sunday night. At 9 pm, the power in the house was knocked out due to a car crash that happened nearby. The power came back on around 12:30 am when Harold got home. At that time, Harold checked in on his two children, who were sleeping peacefully in their beds. He checked in on them again before he went to sleep himself at 2:30. Again, he saw both Asha and O’Bryant, fast asleep in their beds. This would be the last time anyone in Asha’s family ever saw her.
It was sometime after Harold went to bed at 2:30 when O’Bryant heard something like a bed squeaking. He assumed that this was just Asha rolling over in her sleep, and therefore didn’t bring himself all the way to full consciousness. O’Bryant went back to sleep before he even realized that his sister had gotten out of bed.
Once out of bed, Asha got dressed and grabbed a backpack that she had packed sometime previously. Then she left her house, locking the door behind her with the key she usually kept in her backpack. By all accounts, it seems that Asha left her house of her own accord.
Later, two different truck drivers reported that they sighted Asha walking south along Highway 18, about a mile south of her house, dressed in a white t-shirt and white pants. Highway 18 was a rural road that would have been incredibly dark at that time, having no streetlights and very little traffic at that time. Now, I haven’t been to North Carolina in twenty years, but I did drive on some rural highways in Kansas in the middle of the night a few years ago, and they are unbelievably dark and really pretty scary. It kind of feels like you’re floating in space because it’s so dark, and it’s really odd that Asha was walking alongside such a dark highway.
Anyway, one of the witnesses stated that there was a “storm raging” and that there was torrential rain along with very cold temperatures, meaning that Asha’s white t-shirt and pants were completely inappropriate attire for the weather.
One of the drivers who saw Asha stated that he found it “strange such a small child would be out by herself at that hour,” and so he circled around three times to try to pull up beside her to pick her up. He had to circle three times so he could find her, and when he did find her, she ran away into the nearby woods, never to be seen again.
At 5:45, back at the Degree household, Asha’s mother Iquilla woke up so that she could get her kids up and ready for school. Shortly before 6:30, Iquilla went into her children’s room to wake them up, and that’s when she found that Asha was not in her bed. Iquilla checked all the other rooms of the house, as well as the family cars, and still could not find Asha. Harold suggested that Iquilla check to see if Asha was at her grandmother’s house across the street. Iquilla called, and Harold’s sister, who also lived with Asha’s grandmother, stated that Asha was not there.
That’s when Iquilla and Harold realized that something very bad was happening. Iquilla called her mother, and Harold called 911. Officers responded to the Degree house around 6:40 am. They brought police dogs with them, but the dogs were unable to pick up Asha’s scent.
Meanwhile, Iquilla and other family members went out into the street and began screaming Asha’s name. Police joined the search, combing through the nearby area for any sign of the girl along with family, friends, and neighbors of the Degree family. Meanwhile, members of the clergy spent the day with the family, comforting them in what was a horror they never expected they’d have to endure—particularly not on the day of their 12th wedding anniversary.
During the whole first day of searching, the only piece of physical evidence that was found was a single mitten, but according to Iquilla, the mitten couldn’t have belonged to Asha because no winter clothing was missing from the house. However, local news coverage of the disappearance did turn up the witnesses who saw Asha walking along Highway 18 early that morning.
The search for Asha continued over the next week. On February 17th, three days after Asha’s disappearance, some evidence of Asha was finally found. Along Highway 18 near where Asha was last seen and about a mile from her house, there was a business called Turner’s Upholstery. In a shed belonging to Turner’s Upholstery, the police found some candy wrappers, a pencil, a marker, and a Mickey Mouse-shaped hair bow. It was determined that these items belonged to Asha, and they were the only trace of her found during that initial search for her. Police searched the surrounding area further, but found no other evidence of what happened to Asha.
The police searched the three mile radius surrounding Asha’s house for a week. After 9,000 man hours, however, the search was called off. In explanation, Shelby County Sheriff Dan Crawford said, “We have never really had that first good, substantial lead.” And while the physical search for Asha ended, the investigation continued. The FBI and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation joined the investigation and added Asha to their database of missing children. Flyers had been posted all over the area, and police had some 300 leads to follow up on. Some of these leads were potential sightings of Asha, while others were about abandoned houses or wells where Asha could be hiding.
Asha’s disappearance presented an interesting challenge for investigators. While it seems pretty clear that Asha did leave the house on her own, she did not fit the typical profile of a runaway. Most runaways are at least twelve years of age or older when they take off, and they are fleeing some sort of real or perceived issue, such as abuse or neglect in the home, failure to meet parents’ expectations, or some other personal crisis. However, on the surface, this did not appear to be true of Asha, as she seemed to have come from a good family and to have been a well-functioning part of the system.
Regardless of why Asha had left her house, though, investigators did believe that she had left on her own. They figured that she either left with some ultimate destination in mind and gotten lost, or that she had been abducted sometime after leaving home. The only trouble was, they couldn’t seem to find any evidence that would lead them to believe one way or another.
On August 3, 2001, almost a year and a half after Asha disappeared, the backpack she had taken with her was found during a construction project along Highway 18, about 26 miles north of Asha’s hometown of Shelby. This was particularly puzzling, since Asha was last seen walking a mile south of Shelby. The bag, which was easily identifiable as Asha’s because it had her name written on it, was double-wrapped in trash bags and buried underground. Inside of the backpack were pictures of her family, her basketball uniform, a pair of jeans, black tennis shoes, a long-sleeved white t-shirt, a red vest, a long-sleeved black and white shirt, and black overalls with Tweety Bird on them.
Now, I had managed to stay pretty emotionally disconnected from this case until I read about the Tweety Bird overalls they found in her backpack and the Tweety Bird purse that was missing from her bedroom. While this is a fascinating mystery, I was reminded that Asha is still a person, a beautiful little girl, who was afraid of dogs and apparently loved Tweety Bird. It sucks to imagine what could have happened to such an innocent member of our society.
But anyway, near where the backpack was found, police also found some animal bones and a pair of men’s khaki pants, but a further search of the area turned up no additional evidence related to Asha’s case. The FBI took the bag with them and conducted forensic analysis on it, but these results have not been publicly released due to the need to maintain the integrity of the case. Because of the discovery of the backpack, though, foul play became suspected as the reason for why Asha never resurfaced after leaving her house. Since then, no physical evidence has ever been discovered.
Over the years, police would receive several tips that developed into leads, but none of them ever materialized with actual evidence, although in 2004, police did a dig at an intersection near Lawndale, South Carolina, hoping to find Asha’s remains. They found more animal bones, but nothing related to Asha’s case. The trail was cold again.
While Asha’s disappearance is considered a cold case, the Degree family has worked hard to keep Asha’s case, and her memory, alive. The family has appeared on The Montel Williams Show, Oprah, and America’s Most Wanted, and they are still regularly featured in their local news. In 2008, the family established a scholarship in Asha’s name, and each year they host a walk from their house to the place along highway where Asha was last seen. There, a billboard still stands, marking the last time Asha was seen, and reminding passing motorists that the little girl—now a grown woman—is still missing. Asha’s mother, Iquilla, still believes that Asha is alive somewhere, and she fully expects her daughter to walk through the front door of their house, which is still the same house from which Asha walked away sixteen years ago.
In January of 2014, a man named Donald Preston Ferguson was arrested in South Carolina for the 1990 rape and murder of seven-year-old Shalonda Poole behind an elementary school in Greensboro, North Carolina. Because Shalonda was murdered just a two hour drive from where Asha was last seen, and because, as victims, the two girls were similar in type, Ferguson became a suspect in the Asha Degree case. An article by the Gaston Gazette from February of 2016 reported that this theory had led to a dead end, but I wasn’t able to figure out why.
In February of 2015, the FBI announced that investigators from the FBI, the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office, and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation were going to re-open the Asha Degree case and re-interview all the witnesses. A reward of $25,000 was offered for “information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for her disappearance,” while a community group offered up an additional $2000 reward on top of that.
On May 25, 2016, the FBI announced a new possible lead—that Asha may have been seen getting into a dark green early 1970s Lincoln Continental Mark IV, or perhaps a Ford Thunderbird from the same time period. The witness who came forward stated that they may have seen her getting into this car along Highway 18, near where she was last seen. At last report, investigators were attempting to sift through all registered vehicles of that kind in the state, with the caveat being that, after sixteen years, finding the person who owned this specific one back in 2000 could be a very difficult task.
That is the most recent news we have on the disappearance of Asha Degree.
Just one more thing I want to note before we jump into theories: There is a WordPress website called findingashadegree.wordpress.com that is run by a Charlotte, North Carolina woman named Wendy Hughes, who is completely unconnected to the case. From what I can tell by examining the website, Hughes is a well-intentioned woman who is doing an absolutely terrible job of helping to find Asha by completely discounting every possible theory that isn’t her own sensational—if implausible—theory. Plus, Asha’s mother Iquilla calls it a website filled with “half-truths” and doesn’t take it seriously. Therefore, since the most important person in the case besides Asha says it’s rubbish, I’ve decided not to include any information from that website. However, I’d encourage you to check it out on your own. It’s still pretty interesting, even if it is a bit pretentious and quixotic.
So Willy, do you want to give your thoughts or reactions to the case before I lay out some of the main theories?
The first theory is that Asha was abducted and potentially murdered. Some people think that Asha was coaxed out of her house by someone she knew, or that she left her house on her own and ran into a pedophile while out in the night. Evidence in support of this theory is that the FBI believes she got into a car with someone, and that her backpack was found buried 26 miles north of her house, even though she was last seen a mile south of her house. It’s possible that Asha was taken by her abductor to the shed belonging to Turner’s Upholstery, where the abductor could have given her candy to establish a semblance of rapport with her. There are some issues to this theory, though. For those who think she was lured out, there are issues with just who could have lured her out? As I mentioned earlier, Asha lived a very sheltered life, and the family didn’t have a computer, so the possibility of meeting someone online is out of the question. Responses to this issue would be that perhaps a teacher, a coach, or a minister could have lured her out, but to me, this still seems unlikely. After all, why Asha, of all children? Why choose the girl who comes from such a protective home? Surely some other children would have been easier targets for luring. For those who think she left of her own choosing and happened upon a bad dude, my question is, how often do pedophiles hang out along unlit rural highways in the middle of a driving rainstorm? Probably not often, and if they do, the odds of one doing it on the exact night, at the exact time, and in the exact spot that Asha was out and about are ludicrously small.
The second theory is that Asha did leave home on her own—for one reason or another—and succumbed to the elements of nature. It is thought that when the driver circled around a few times and she was last seen running into the woods, it was because she became scared that the driver was trying to nab her, and so she went to hide. While in the woods, she may have gone into the shed near Turner’s Upholstery to get out of the rain, and then later continued on her way before eventually succumbing to the elements. I think this is a more likely theory than the abduction theory, but I still have a few major issues with it. First off, how come her remains weren’t found? If Asha did succumb to the elements, then her body would probably have been left somewhat out in the open and probably visible to searchers. That area was scoured for a week straight, not to mention sixteen more years of searchers or hikers or whoever, and yet, no trace of her remains were found. Plus, if she had died in the woods a mile or so south of Shelby, how on earth did her backpack end up 26 miles north of Shelby?
The third theory I came across isn’t a great one, but I’ll talk about it briefly. This one basically suggests that perhaps Asha was sleepwalking. However, her bag had been meticulously packed, her front door was locked, and she made it a mile south of her house in a pretty vicious and cold rainstorm. This doesn’t sound like something a sleepwalker would be able to accomplish.
The fourth theory is the theory that I personally believe is most likely, although I didn’t see much about it as a possibility in my research. I’ll describe it along with some other elements of the case that I think make it the most likely explanation for what happened to Asha.
I believe Asha left her house of her own accord, not to run away for good, but to have an adventure, perhaps inspired by The Whipping Boy, the book she read with her class at school, which is a book about two boys who run away from their home and go on a whimsical adventure together. While this may sound drastic unrealistic, I can distinctly remember being a child and reading books or watching movies that inspired me to have similar adventures of my own, often disengaging from reality and common sense to experience a more feral thrill than that of late twentieth century childhood.
Perhaps being conscientious of the need to know where she’s headed and how to get back home, I believe Asha purposefully walked south along Highway 18, which her mother stated was her bus route to school. I think that, when that one driver circled around a few times, Asha ran into the woods to hide. While there, she found the Turner’s Upholstery shed and decided to go inside and get out of the rain for awhile. Then, perhaps having some sort of end goal in mind, she must have eventually left the shed to keep on trekking.
While continuing her hike along Highway 18, I think Asha may have either crossed the road or maybe simply wandered into it and—due to the low visibility caused by the storm and the darkness of the rural highway—was hit and killed by an oncoming car. The driver, probably horrified by what had happened and not wanting to deal with the consequences of it, disposed of both Asha’s body and her backpack. And, while her backpack has been found, her body is still out there, hidden only God and the driver who hit her know where.
Like all the other theories, this one has issues. For example, how could a little girl without a raincoat make it a full mile from her house in the rain and cold? That’s a good question—I’m not sure. Maybe she was just that dedicated to reaching her end goal?
Or what about the FBI’s announcement that Asha may have been seen getting into a car? I have a few thoughts on that. Just because Asha may have been seen getting into a car doesn’t mean she actually did. An even if she did, perhaps she was overwhelmed by the weather and did accept a ride from someone. This doesn’t mean that she couldn’t have been let out of the car a few miles down the road and then gotten involved in a hit-and-run.
Honestly, none of these theories are perfect, and we may never know what actually happened to Asha Degree. I hope, like the Degrees believe, that she is alive somewhere and will come home eventually, but for me that’s hard to believe. I think somebody does know something, and I just hope that person comes forward—or already has come forward—to discuss with investigators what they know, so that way Asha’s case can be solved once and for all.
If you know something about what happened to Asha, or you think someone you know does, please tell someone. Tell your local authorities, or the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Department, or the FBI, or the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, or even the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And if you know anything about any other missing children, tell someone. Don’t be a dweeb.