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Asha Degree: Shelby's Sweetheart

I'm quite sure if we think hard and look back, we can all remember what it was like to be a kid. Secret plans with friends that your parents could know nothing about, getting mad and thinking about running away with a bag of your favorite toys. As time goes on, it gets more difficult to not only raise kids, but to be a kid. With the advent of the Internet came a whole new world of threats and dangers. Even without it though, danger still lurks around every corner. Sometimes as much as we try to shelter our kids, a wolf in sheep's clothing can still get in the gate. Sometimes as much we guard the gate, they can still figure a way out.

Asha Jaquilla Degree was born on August 5, 1990, to a loving, religiously devout family in Shelby, North Carolina. Her parents, Harold and Iquilla Degree, were very much in love and dedicated to each other and their family. They were married on Valentine's Day in 1988, and just a year later had their first child, a son they named O'Bryant. Another year later, they had Asha and completed their happy little family. The children grew up in a stable, warm, loving home on Oakcrest Drive. This is in a residential subdivision that sits in a generally rural area just north of Shelby. They still had all the comforts of the city nearby, as they lived on the western edge of the Charolette metropolitan area. Their cozy little one-story, ranch-style home was in the perfect setting for a happy childhood.

Asha had a very close knit family that seemed to live close in proximity to one another. They spent a lot of time together and always attended church together on Sundays. The Degree family had a very regimented routine. Harold and Iquilla worked full-time jobs throughout the week, leaving O'Bryant and Asha to let themselves in after school when they got home. The children were expected to either be doing their homework or finished with it by the time they arrived home from work. On the weekends the family had basketball practice and games, as O'Bryant and Asha both played for the youth league at their school. Sundays were devoted to church and family.

Harold and Iquilla did everything they could to protect their children and shelter them from unsavory outside influences. The couple made a well thought-out decision to not have a computer in their home. While this might sound strange today, mind you that by this point it was only the year 2000. Many households did not have computers or access to the internet. Iquilla said of the family's decision in a 2013 interview with Jet, "Every time you turned on the TV there was some pedophile who had lured somebody's child away, via the Internet." Asha and O'Bryant's parents were simply trying to protect their children from predators lurking online.

Asha's mother recalls her being a very cautious little girl that was perfectly content to live within the reasonable boundaries set by her parents. She was a shy child that Iquilla also remembers being "scared to death of dogs." With her cautious, bashful nature and fear of dogs, Iquilla didn't never thought for a second that her daughter would leave the house unattended.

In 2000, Asha was a fourth grade student at Fallston Elementary School. She was just 9-years-old at the time. The spirited little girl was also the star point guard on her little league basketball team. By all accounts, this family was living the American dream within their own safe little slice of heaven in North Carolina. The children attended school while their parents worked daily to earn a living. Their weekends were spent playing ball as their parents cheered them on and with their family inside and outside of church. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about their lives or upbringing.

On February 11, 2000, the children were excited for a three-day weekend. The teachers had meetings that Friday, so kids all over Cleveland County were enjoying a day off from school. Harold and Iquilla still had to work, so the kids spent the day at their aunt's house. It was from there that Asha and O'Bryant would leave for their regular Friday evening basketball practice. Nothing seemed off at all about this day, or the entire weekend. Just another weekend stuffed full with basketball, family get-togethers, and church services.

The following day was like any other Saturday. The family went to watch their children play basketball at Fallston Elementary School, located not far from their home. Asha played as hard as she could, but fouled out before the end of the game. Her team ended up losing their first game of the season, upsetting all of the girls. Asha was among her teammates as they cried and mourned their loss that day. She seemed to get over it quickly enough though, staying to watch her brother's game afterward. Little Asha still had plenty to look forward to that night, with a slumber party at her 15-year-old cousin's house to attend later. The gaggle of about 12 girls there that night were friends and family of Asha's.

Asha was quite tired after the slumber party. The group of girls had stayed up late that night, dancing and watching television. Early that Sunday morning, February 13, her parents arrived to pick her up for church. They attended services as usual and went to a family get-together at Asha's grandmother's house afterward. There, her grandmother passed out Valentine's gifts to all the children. Asha received a bottle of perfume along with some Valentine's candy. The Degree family went home after this gathering, likely to have dinner and get ready for their upcoming Monday.

Asha was still very tired after her long night and big day. She fell asleep very early, at just 6:30 that evening. Due to her falling asleep so early, Iquilla was unable to make sure she got a bath that night. Her bath would just have to wait until the morning. While some reports state that both children were tucked in at 8:00PM, just O'Bryant was tucked in as his sister was already fast asleep. As the children slept, a storm brewed in Shelby that night. Heavy rains and high winds were tearing their way through the area. This storm ended up causing a car accident that knocked out power to the neighborhood from sometime just before 9:00PM until around 12:30AM.

The storm woke Asha up as it raged outside. Reports say that she went to watch television with her parents for a while until returning to bed sometime later. Some reports also state that Harold worked that night, but nowhere in the Degrees' accounts of that night do either of them mention Harold going to work. Other reports say that he went out to get Valentine's candy at around 10:00PM, arriving back home at 11:30. It's also been reported that he didn't leave the house to go shopping until 11:30 that night. Once again, nowhere can it be found that Harold or Iquilla ever stated that he went out that night for Valentine's candy or anything else.

There are people that question Harold going out that night. They wonder why he'd being going to pick up anything so late on such a stormy, blustery night. Just as Nic and the Captain pointed out on True Crime Garage, their children were still at the age to need Valentines to pass out in school. They also pointed out that his and Iquilla's anniversary happens to be on Valentine's Day. If he did go out, which neither I or the brilliant boys in the garage think that he did, he would have a good reason to do so. You don't ever want to come upon the date of your anniversary empty-handed.

Regardless of whether or not Harold left the house that night, at 12:30AM when the power kicked back on, everyone in the Degree family was present in the home. After the power came on, Harold went to look in on the kids. This is something I do after a power outage just to make sure that it hasn't woken my son. He observed both children tucked cozily in their beds, fast asleep. At this time Iquilla had already gone to bed, leaving Harold alone to watch television in the living room until around 2:30 that morning. He checked on his kids again on his way to bed and found them both still sleeping in their room. Some say that it's strange he checked on the kids twice that night. I don't find it strange at all, I check in on my son every time I pass his room.

At some point around 3:00AM, O'Bryant heard his little sister stirring in her bed. He could plainly hear the bed squeak as he lay in his own. He figured that she was simply changing positions in her sleep and didn't rouse himself. He also said that he heard her get up in the night, but thought that she was going to the bathroom. Reports differ on whether or not O'Bryant heard Asha return to the room. What the family would soon learn was that Asha was possibly packing some last minute items before changing clothes and leaving with her backpack. It was later found that she packed two of her favorite outfits, her basketball uniform, and a Tweety-Bird purse.

As the Captain smartly points out on True Crime Garage's coverage of this case, Asha may not have packed the items in her backpack as she'd just had a slumber party after her basketball game the previous night. She very likely changed out of her basketball uniform at her cousin's house, then putting it in her book bag. The extra outfits and purse could've also been packed for that sleepover. Nic agreed, as do I, that it is possible the items were already in the book bag. Although, it is also possible that she packed them. Investigators would come to believe that Asha may have prepared for days before she left.

Reports say that on that Monday morning, Iquilla got up at 5:45 to get Asha and O'Bryant a bath since they'd been too tired the night before. Some reports state that it was due to the power outage that they didn't take their baths Sunday night, but the children were both asleep by the time the power went out. It was at this time that Iquilla noticed her daughter wasn't in her bed. She immediately began checking the house and cars as she alerted her husband. He suggested that she may have ran across the street to her grandmother's, so they called to check. Iquilla's sister-in-law informed her that Asha was not there. After checking with other relatives, Harold called 911 at 6:38AM and officers quickly began arriving at 6:40.

Upon checking it was found that all the doors and windows were locked. Asha, being a latchkey kid, had a house key to let herself in the home after school. It's believed that she locked the door on her way out that morning. Sheriff Dan Crawford was on the scene by 6:42 that morning and quickly called for a K-9 unit to search the area. The press gathered in front of the Degree home quite early that morning, kicking the search off in high gear. By 2:00PM, North Carolina's State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), had arrived as well, immediately taping the entire area off as a crime scene. By the end of that day searchers covering a three-mile wide area would find nothing to lead them to the whereabouts of little Asha Degree.

Immediately, things start moving very quickly. Officers started arriving on scene within just two minutes of the 911 call being placed. News media was at the residence very quickly, interviewing neighbors and reporting the little girl as missing to the entire area. Within four minutes of the 911 call, the Sheriff comes to the scene himself to direct the search. Things looked so hopeful in the beginning with so much help and attention right away. Unfortunately, help and attention would dwindle as quickly as leads in this case.

When the 911 call was placed, Harold mentioned that a neighbor may have seen Asha leaving the house early that morning. There has never been any clarification as to who this neighbor is or if he really saw her. Some point to this as the family trying to set something up, but they have been nothing but cooperative throughout the investigation and desperate to find their daughter. They have even made multiple media appearances and given interviews over the years. This is not behavior typical of guilty people. Plus, police would've interviewed neighbors first and foremost. If she'd been seen that morning, they would know.

The first day of searching had been fruitless, leaving the family with nothing but hope. Even the scent dogs brought in were unable to pick up the little girl's scent. The rain storm the night before had ruined any chances that the dogs could work efficiently. While rain may help scent dogs under certain conditions, wind can hinder them terribly. The storm had strong winds that accompanied the hard rain that night.

Though searchers and scent dogs had been unable to discover anything, the media did manage to turn up two witnesses. These witnesses both saw her walking south on Route 18, just north of Shelby, sometime between 3:30-4:15AM. At the time she was spotted, Asha was near the intersection of Highway 180, wearing light-colored clothes. She was already a mile south of her home, traveling in the opposite direction of her school. Roy Blanton Sr. and his son, Roy Blanton Jr., were on a trucking run from Shelby, heading north on Route 18 traveling to Chicago when they encountered the child. They did not think to call police until they heard the news from Roy Sr.'s wife the next day, as they initially thought that they had seen a woman walking down the stretch of highway. Roy Sr. did alert other truckers on his CB radio to be on the lookout for a pedestrian in light-colored clothing to prevent her from being hit.

Jeff Rupp would be the next trucker to encounter the young child walking down the road in the early morning hours of February 14. He also said that he saw a young girl, wearing light-colored clothing, walking south-bound on Route 18 as he was driving his regular route. During both sightings it was cold outside and still pouring rain from the storm. It's worth noting that Asha had been known to be afraid of storms. Whatever drew her out of the house that morning must have been awfully important. Later that day as Jeff was taking his lunch break, he saw the coverage on the news and immediately called police to report his encounter. He said that he'd rolled his window down, trying to get the girl's attention, but she ran off into a field.

After these sightings came in to police, people living in the area she was last seen in were asked to check their properties. Family and neighbors had already checked their own, hoping to simply find the child injured, but okay. On February 15, Debbie Turner checked her property, as she lived near to the area Asha was last seen. Through her search she immediately found nothing of note. Then she checked the shed sitting on her property. There she found candy wrappers consistent with Valentine's candy Asha had received after her basketball game, a 1996 Olympic Games pencil that belonged to the child, a green marker, a yellow hair tie with a yellow bear that also belonged to the girl, and a picture of a little Black girl that was not Asha Degree. Many reports state that the hair tie found had Mickey Mouse on it, but it did not. Though Debbie Turner wasted no time turning the picture over to police, she didn't immediately turn over the other items, thinking they were just trash left behind by someone else.

Within 36-48 hours of Asha vanishing, the two witnesses were on the scene at Route 18 with Sheriff Crawford pointing out where they had encounter her at. The search was then expanded and all efforts were being exerted to find Asha in this area of Route 18. It didn't take long for candy wrappers to be found. Classmates of Asha's identified these wrappers as being consistent with candy the children had received at school for Valentine's Day. As Hanzel and Gretel had with breadcrumbs, Asha was leaving a trail of candy wrappers. Nothing would be found at the end of her trail, though.

Iquilla finally found that Asha's favorite clothes were missing from her room on February 16. It was at this point that investigators surmised that Shelby's Sweetheart, as she would come to be known, must have planned her excursion for days in advance. The clothing items missing included a pair of blue jeans with a red stripe. Being the same age as Asha, I actually remember going to school with a few girls that also owned blue jeans with a vertical red stripe on the sides.

Flyers were posted everywhere as leads poured in. The 2-3 mile radius she was last seen in was searched for a week, with 9000 man hours dedicated. Police saw a staggering 300 leads quickly pile up as they tried to follow them all. These ranged from possible sightings of the child to tips about abandoned houses she could be in or wells she could've fallen into. Another piece of evidence wouldn't be recovered for more than a year.

On February 20, ground search efforts were suspended. Investigators were still working her case, but her trail on Route 18 had gone cold. It was now time to exert all other efforts in finding out what happened to her. All police had to work with was a picture of a little girl that was not Asha. They took it around to her friends, family, neighbors, and her school. No one could identify the child in the picture. This was the most mysterious piece of evidence in the case.

On February 24, police posted the picture in the Charolette Observer. It was printed under the headline "Do You Know This Girl?" The strange part is that it was printed on the bottom of page 75, this is out of 108 pages. You would think that if you so desperately wanted to identify this mysterious child you would print the picture on the front page. Of course, no one ever came forward to identify the little girl and to this day no one knows who she is. This makes her mystery just as big as Asha's.

Sometime shortly after turning over the picture to police, Debbie Turner began to wonder about the other items found along with it. Originally, she thought that it had to be a picture of Asha, as she hadn't seen one before. When she heard this picture was not of Asha Degree, she decided to turn the other items over to see if they could've belonged to her. No one confirmed if the green marker was her's, but everything else was identified as belonging to the missing child.

Very quickly, the mystery of Shelby's Sweetheart gained national attention thanks to her devoted parents pushing the story. Just a month after she vanished, her family appeared on The Montel Williams Show to bring awareness to her case. America's Most Wanted and The Oprah Winfrey Show also dedicated segments to the lost little girl. To this day, the Degree family holds onto their hope and continues to search and push her story.

It was August 3, 2001, when a construction project off of Highway 18, about 26 miles north of Shelby, uncovered the final clue in her investigation. A backpack was unearthed, wrapped in a plastic garbage bag, with Asha's name and phone number included. The backpack contained a Dr. Seuss book called "McElligot's Pool" and a New Kids on the Block concert T-shirt from the 1989-1990 Hangin' Tough Tour. The book was found to have been checked out from the library at Fallston Elementary School. After her re-investigation was announced by the FBI in 2015, they found that the school could confirm that Asha had not been the student to check that book out. They were also unable to tell investigators who had checked it out as they did not have that information. The T-shirt was shown to Harold and Iquilla, who confirmed that it did not belong to their daughter. The FBI took the book bag and it's contents for forensic testing, but the results have never been made public.

A tip would come in to police in 2004 from the county jail. This tip led investigators to dig at an intersection in Lawndale only to find animal bones. From there the leads stopped coming in and the case seemed to go quiet and cold. Her family has never lost hope though, continuing to keep her story and her memory alive, not only in Shelby, but all over the country.

Her parents established a scholarship in her name in 2008 to go to a deserving local student. They also host an annual walk to raise awareness for her case and funds for her search. The walk begins at the family's home and ends at her billboard on Highway 18, near the spot where she was last seen. Originally the walk had been held on Valentine's Day, the anniversary of her disappearance. Harold and Iquilla said that they didn't wish to make the day a somber occasion for the participants, so they changed the date. In 2015, it was changed to February 7, then in 2016 it was changed again to February 6. Though the couple is still very much in love and dedicated to each other, they no longer celebrate their February 14th anniversary. They say it just doesn't feel right to celebrate anymore.

Over time the attention and dedication originally seen in Asha's case seemed to fade. In her 2013 interview with Jet, Iquilla lamented, "Missing white children get more attention. I don't understand why. I know if you ask them they will say it's not racial. Oh, really? I'm not going to argue because I have common sense." Iquilla is not wrong here. As seen in the Stories of the MMIW series I also write for this blog, white victims are reported on more than victims of other races. In writing this blog so far, I have found that stories of white victims are much easier to come by when searching stories to cover. This oversight can be described as the grossest, as well as the most disgusting.

In February 2015, fifteen years after her disappearance, the FBI announced that some of their own agents would be working with Cleveland County officials and the SBI to re-examine her case. Witnesses were re-interviewed more than a decade later, likely unable to offer near as much after so long. The FBI also announced a $25,000 reward for "information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for her disappearance." A community group also pulled together and offered a $20,000 reward. In September 2017, the FBI made another announcement. They said that their Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team (CARD) would be working with investigators in Cleveland County to assist and "provide on-the-ground investigative, technical, behavioral analysis, and analytical support to find out more about what happened to Asha." They worked with the FBI Charolette employees, Cleveland County Sheriff's Office, and the SBI for 10 days. They say that they also meet "several times a month to go over the latest on the investigation."

Since September 2017, approximately 300 interviews have been conducted. However, in May 2016 the FBI did announce a possible new lead. They said that Asha may have gotten into a dark green early 1970s Lincoln Continental Mark IV, or possibly a Ford Thunderbird of the same era. She may have been seen getting into this car along Route 18. The car was described as having rust around its wheel wells. No further announcements were ever made about this possible lead.

Cleveland County detectives finally appealed to the public for answers about the contents of Asha's book bag found buried off of Highway 18 in October 2018. They hoped that someone could tell them something about where she had gotten the Dr. Seuss book she never checked out or the concert T-shirt that didn't belong to her. No one has ever come forward with any information on these items.

The Shelby Star received a letter in November 2020 from an inmate named Marcus Mellon. Marcus had been convicted of sex crimes against children in 2014 and was still serving out his sentence. He wrote to the paper claiming to know that Asha had been murdered and where to find her body. Due to COVID, there were some delays in getting into the prison to talk to him directly. Many inmate facilities experienced outbreaks of the illness, it's very possible that Marcus Mellon's was one. His story was finally looked into and in February 2021, Cleveland County Sheriff Alan Norman announced that his claim had only led to another dead end.

This is where Asha's case stalled and went cold. Now, 22 years later investigators are no closer to finding her than they were on that cold Valentine's morning in the calm of the passing storm. She would now be 31-years-old. Her billboard on Highway 18 not only features her fourth grade class photo, but an age progressed picture of what Asha would likely look like today. She's listed on the Charley Project's website as endangered missing. Anyone with any information is urged to call the FBI's Charolette office at (704)-672-6100 or your local FBI office.

Iquilla states that God will not allow her to believe that her little girl is dead. A lot can be said for a mother's intuition. In many cases, people held captive for years have been found and brought home safely. It's still entirely possible that Asha may still be brought home as well. Her family continues to hope and pray everyday for her return as they also continue to live in the one-story, ranch-style home that Asha left from 22 years ago. Maybe one day soon the mysteries of what happened to Asha Degree and who the little girl from the photo is can finally be solved. Until then these questions remain a truly tragic and baffling enigma.

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