The Disappearance Of Asha Degree: How A Nine-Year-Old North Carolina Girl Vanished Forever

Published June 17, 2021

Asha Degree's disappearance baffled police when she went missing from her North Carolina home in the early hours of Valentine's Day in 2000. They still don't know where she is.

Asha Degree

National Center For Missing And Exploited ChildrenAsha Degree vanished on Valentine’s Day in 2000.

Asha Degree vanished from her Shelby, North Carolina, home before dawn on Valentine’s Day in 2000. Her parents had tucked her into bed without issue the night before. After midnight, when a nearby car accident left the family’s neighborhood without power, Asha’s father went to check on her and found her still sound asleep.

The events that followed left local police and the FBI at a loss. Asha shared a room with her older brother, O’Bryant. He told investigators he heard her bed squeak in the middle of the night but chalked it up to Asha shifting in the night.

After packing her black backpack with a T-shirt and school library book, Asha stepped outside and walked into the rainy night. Two drivers reported seeing her on the side of North Carolina Highway 18 around 4 a.m. One even turned around to see if she was okay, but Asha ran off into the woods. She has never been seen again.

“After 20 years, I still believe my daughter is alive,” Iquilla Degree said in 2020. “I do not believe she is dead. And I know someone knows something. I’m not crazy enough to think that a nine-year-old can disappear into thin air without somebody knowing something.”

Asha Degree Goes Missing On Valentine’s Day

Born Aug. 5, 1990 in Shelby, North Carolina, Asha Jaquilla Degree was raised by two loving and hard-working parents, Harold and Iquilla Degree. Asha and her brother never strayed far from their apartment, despite being latchkey kids who let themselves in after school when their parents were still at work.

North Carolina Highway 18 Billboard

FBIThe Degree family holds an annual walk from their home to this billboard near the spot where she was last seen.

Asha’s mother would later explain that her daughter was a highly sensible girl. She lived a studious life as a fourth-grader and enjoyed family outings to church. She was wary of strangers and wouldn’t even pet the local dogs.

This made her disappearance on Feb. 14, 2000, all the more baffling. Asha and her brother had been tucked into bed at 8 p.m. A nearby car accident had left the home without power until shortly after midnight, so Harold checked on his kids to find them asleep at 2:30 a.m.

At some point between then and 6:30 a.m., Asha Degree vanished. Iquilla discovered her little girl missing when she went to rouse Asha and her brother for school. The family immediately notified the Shelby Police Department, which found no sign of forced entry. Police noted Asha had taken her bookbag with her.

Investigators received their first leads in the afternoon, after canine units failed to find a single scent trail to follow. Two people called the station saying they had seen a girl matching Asha’s description on Highway 18 around 4 a.m. One of them claimed he tried to approach her, but that’s when the girl bolted into the woods.

“That was the last time anyone had a sighting of Asha that had actually been confirmed,” said Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office Detective Tim Adams.

Police And The FBI Can’t Find Any Promising Leads

The very next day, police found Asha Degree’s hair bow in a nearby shed. They spent the next seven days and 9,000 man hours searching a two-by-three-mile area and found nothing. They also combed through 300 tips, none of which panned out.

T-Shirt And Library Book

FBIAsha Degree’s backpack contained a shirt and a Dr. Seuss book that had been checked out of her school library.

Fortunately, the FBI and North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation had joined hands to help find the missing girl and continued on their quest. Meanwhile, the Degree family hoped appearances on The Montel Williams Show would help, while the national news and even The Oprah Winfrey Show publicized the case.

It took more than a year-and-a-half for the next clue to be discovered. Construction workers unearthed Asha’s backpack on Aug. 3, 2001, while digging an access road in Burke County — 30 miles away. It held a New Kids On The Block T-shirt and a copy of Dr. Seuss’s McElligot’s Pool.

While the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office noted that the book had been checked out of Asha’s elementary school library, the discovery of the backpack didn’t produce any new leads.

The next piece of information in the case didn’t come until 2004, when a prison inmate claimed she had been killed and knew where she had been buried. Investigators followed up only to find animal remains at the site.

Asha Degree’s Parents Try To Raise Awareness

With promising leads turning to dead ends, the Degree family organized an annual walk from their home to a missing person’s billboard to keep local awareness alive. They even established a scholarship in her name.

Harold And Iquilla Degree

FBIHarold and Iquilla Degree have never given up hope.

“This is worse than death because, at least with death, you have closure,” Iquilla Degree told North Carolina’s WBTV. “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.”

Things shifted in 2015 when a tipster claimed to have seen a young girl enter a green Ford Thunderbird or Lincoln Mark IV the night Asha Degree disappeared. The FBI reopened its investigation, announcing that particular lead in 2016 and releasing images of Asha’s backpack items in 2018.

Tips continue to trickle in. In 2020, another inmate at a North Carolina state correctional facility contacted The Shelby Star, saying he had heard someone talking about killing and burying her. Investigators interviewed him and another inmate, but once again turned up no new information.

“You take all information received extremely serious, and we run it to the very end regardless of who provides that information,” Cleveland County Sheriff Alan Norman said.

Where Is Asha Degree?

Cleveland County detective Tim Adams still believes there is someone out there who may have information that will help Asha.

Side By Side Of Young And Old Asha Degree

FBI/National Center For Missing And Exploited ChildrenAsha Degree at nine (left) and an age-processed image of her at 30 (right).

“The fact that it was a small child that left on Valentine’s Day really caught everybody’s heart in this community. She’s been called Shelby’s Sweetheart, because she’s a child that’s one of our own,” he said.

Despite the FBI, local police, and State Bureau of Investigation all working in collaboration with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there remain no definitive answers as to Asha’s fate. Recently, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children released digitally age-processed photos of what Asha might look like as a 30-year-old woman today.

As it stands, the FBI is offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to her whereabouts. The Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office is offering another $20,000. For Asha Degree’s parents, the hope is that those responsible haven’t done irreparable damage — and have the courage to come forward.

“That’s my prayer every night, that God will get into their heart and let them come forward, because it’s got to be a weight on them,” Iquilla Degree said in 2020. “We’re hoping and we’re praying that she’s had a halfway decent life even though we didn’t get to raise her. She was nine years old, and she’ll be 30 this year.

“So we’ve 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.”


After learning about the disappearance of Asha Degree, read about Emanuela Orlandi’s chilling disappearance from the Vatican. Then, learn about 11 mysterious unsolved disappearances that remain unsolved.

Marco Margaritoff
A staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff has also published work at outlets including People, VICE, and Complex, covering everything from film to finance to technology. He holds dual bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a master's degree from New York University.