Asha Jaquilla Degree (born August 5, 1990) went missing at the age of nine 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.
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 north of Shelby. At the point where she ran into the woods, a billboard now stands appealing for help finding her. Her family hosts an annual walk from their home to the billboard to draw attention to the case.
While the circumstances of Degree’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 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.
On Sunday, February 13, the children went to church from a relative’s house and then returned home. Harold Degree went out to work his second shift job at the nearby PPG Industries plant in the afternoon. 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.
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., a truck driver and a motorist saw her walking south along Highway 18, wearing a long-sleeved white T-shirt and white pants, just north of its junction with Highway 180. They reported this to police after seeing a TV report about her disappearance. The motorist 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. County sheriff Dan Crawford said, “We’re pretty sure it was her because the descriptions they gave are consistent with what we know she was wearing.” He added that they also saw her at the same place, heading the same direction.
Iquilla awoke at 5:45 a.m. to get the children ready for school. On the morning of February 14, an important day since it was not only Valentine’s Day but the Degrees’ wedding anniversary, this involved drawing a bath for them as they had not been able to take one the night before due to the power outage. When she opened the children’s room to wake them up before their 6:30 alarm and call them to the bath, O’Bryant was in his bed but Asha was not, and Iquilla was unable to find her in the house, nor in the family cars. She told Harold she could not find their daughter. He suggested Asha might have gone over to his mother’s house across the street, but when Iquilla called there her sister-in-law said Asha was not there. “That’s when I went into panic mode. I heard a car next door … I put shoes on and ran outside.” Iquilla called her mother, who told her to call the police.