17 years and not a trace

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Disappearance of Asha Degree
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Coordinates:
35.34647°N 81.50738°W

Asha Degree

Asha Degree, aged 9
Born August 5, 1990
Disappeared February 14, 2000 (aged 9)
Shelby, North Carolina, U.S.
Status Missing for 16 years, 11 months and 27 days
Height 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)
Weight 60 lb (27 kg)
Parent(s) Harold and Iquilla Degree
Asha Jaquilla Degree (born August 5, 1990) is an African American female from Shelby, North Carolina, United States. In the early morning hours of February 14, 2000, for reasons unknown, she packed her bookbag, left her family home north of the city and began walking along nearby North Carolina Highway 18 despite heavy rain and wind. Several passing motorists saw her; when one turned around at a point 1.3 miles (2.1 km) from her home and began to approach her, she left the roadside and ran into a wooded area. In the morning, her parents discovered her absence. No one has seen her since.[1]

An intensive search that began that day led to the location of some of her personal effects near where she was last seen. A year and a half later, her bookbag, still packed, was unearthed from a construction site along Highway 18 south of Shelby. At the point where she ran into the woods, a billboard now stands appealing for help finding her. Her family now hosts an annual walk from their home to the billboard to draw attention to the case.

While the circumstances of Asha's disappearance at first seemed to suggest she was running away from home, investigators could not find a clear reason she might have done so, and she was younger than most children who do so. They, along with a blogger who has tried to solve the case, have speculated that she might have been abducted instead. The case has drawn national media attention. In 2015 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) joined state and county authorities in a reopened investigation, offering a reward for information that could help solve the case.



Around 8 p.m. that night, both children went to bed in the room they shared. Almost an hour later, the power went out in the neighborhood after a nearby car accident. It was restored shortly after Harold returned from work, around 12:30 a.m. At that time he checked on his children and saw both of them asleep in their beds. He checked again shortly before he went to bed at 2:30 a.m. on February 14, and again saw them both.[4]

Shortly afterwards, O'Bryant recalls hearing Asha's bed squeak. He did not further rouse himself as he assumed she was merely changing positions in her sleep. Apparently around this time, Asha got out of bed, taking a bookbag she had previously packed with several sets of clothes and personal items, and left the house. Between 3:45 and 4:15 a.m., two drivers would later recall seeing her walk south along Highway 18, wearing a long-sleeved white T-shirt and white pants, just north of its junction with Highway 180.[4]

One witness reported seeing her at about 4 a.m., and said that he turned his car around because he thought it was "strange such a small child would be out by herself at that hour". He circled three times and saw Degree run into the woods by the roadside and disappear. It was a rainy night, and the witness said there was a "storm raging" when he saw her.[6][7]




By 6:40 a.m., the first police officers had arrived on the scene. Police dogs called to the scene could not pick up Asha's scent. Iquilla went through the neighborhood calling Asha's name, which she said had awakened everyone by 7 a.m.[5]


On February 17, two days after the search began, candy wrappers were found in a shed at a nearby business along the highway, near where Asha had been seen running into the woods. Along with them were a pencil, marker and Mickey Mouse-shaped hair bow that were identified as belonging to her.[6] It would be the only trace of her found during the initial search. A week later, after 9,000 man hourshad been invested in a search of the 2–3-mile-radius (3.2–4.8 km) of where she had last been seen, flyers posted all over the area and 300 leads ranging from possible sightings to tips about abandoned houses and wells where Asha might have ended up, the search was called off. "We have never really had that first good, substantial lead," said county sheriff Dan Crawford at a news conference. He urged the media to keep the story alive.[10]


From Iquilla's account of what Asha had taken with her, investigators believed the girl had planned and prepared for this departure over the several days preceding her disappearance. "She's not your typical runaway," observed SBI agent Bart Burpeau. Another expert, Ben Ermini of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, noted that most children who run away are at least 12.[7] An FBI agent also pointed to the lack of an issue she might have been running away from, such as a dysfunctional family or poor academic performance. Still, investigators believed that was the most likely explanation for her departure, but that for some reason she either got off track or was abducted.[10]



In August 2001, Asha's bookbag was unearthed during a construction project off Highway 18 in Burke County, near Morganton, about 26 miles (42 km) north of Shelby. It was wrapped in a plastic bag[11]and contained several sets of clothes, including her basketball uniform, and photos of her family.[1][12][13] The FBI took it to their headquarters for further forensic analysis; it has not shared results of that testing. To date it is the last evidence found in the case.[14]





In May 2016 the FBI announced that their reinvestigation of the case had turned up a possible new lead. They disclosed 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 near where she was last seen later that night. It was described as having rust around its wheel wells.[21]

 
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