WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
Asha Degree was a 9-year-old child who went missing on February 14, 2000. I didn't write about her case back in February, but wanted to include her mysterious, heartbreaking story, so I'm using her birthday. Today would be her 30th birthday.
In the early morning of February 14, 2000, the 9 year old packed he backpack and left her family's home in Shelby, North Carolina, walking down a nearby highway despite rain and wind. A passerby saw her and turned around, trying to approach her, but she left the roadside and ran into the woods. Her parents noticed she was missing the next morning.
An intensive search began for the child. It took a year and a half to find the first clue, her book bag, still packed, buried in a construction site along the highway. At the spot where she was spotted going into the woods, a billboard stands, still appealing for help finding her. Her family still hosts an annual walk from the home to the billboard to maintain attention around the case.
Though it obviously seems like she was running away from home, no one could agree on why she would do such a thing. This has lead investigators to believe she may have been abducted, instead.
BACKGROUND AND DISAPPEARANCE (1)
On Valentine's Day 1998, Harold and Iquilla Degree married. They had a son the following year, and their daughter, Asha, was born the following year. They lived in a rural area of Shelby, North Carolina. The parents worked regular jobs, so the children would let themselves into the home after school and start on their homework.
The kids had many influences in their live that was centered around their family, church, and school. However, the outside world didn't always break into the Degree household. They did not have a TV, as Iquilla said that every time she turned it in, it was about some pedophile luring children away on the Internet. She chose to keep such a negative influence out of the house.
Asha was a 4th grader at the nearby elementary school, going into a three day weekend. Because they had Friday off and the parents were still working, Asha and her brother, O'Bryant, stayed at their aunt's house. The next day, Asha's basketball team, of which she was a star player, lost their first game and Asha had fouled out. She was upset, crying about the outcome, but eventually got over it.
On Sunday, February 13, the kids went to church from a relative's house and then came home. They went to bed at 8 PM in their shared bedroom. The power went out about an hour later from a car accident nearby. When the power returned, Harold checked on his kids (around 12:30 AM) and saw them both sleeping. He checked again at 2:30, and they were both sleeping soundly.
Shortly after their father's final check, O'Bryant, who was 10 at the time, said he heard Asha's bed squeak, but assumed she was just changing positions in her sleep. But she wasn't. She was getting out of bed, grabbing her backpack that was previously packed with various outfits and personal items, and left the house.
Between 3:45 AM and 4:15 AM, a truck driver and motorist saw the child walking along Highway 18. They both reported the sighting to the police after seeing the report of her disappearance. The motorist said he turned around, obviously thinking a 9-year-old walking down the freeway at 4 AM to be a little bit odd. He circled the area 3 times and then saw Asha run into the woods. It was storming when he saw her.
Iquilla woke up at 5:45 AM to get the kids ready for school. It was a big day for the Degree's: not only was it Valentine's Day, but it was also their wedding anniversary. But when she opened the door to the kid's room, the date became an anniversary for something else. She looked everywhere, calling everyone she could be with, but no one had seen her. She panicked and called her mother, who told her to call the police.
The police were on the scene with dogs by 6:40 AM. Iquilla went through the neighborhood screaming her daughter's name. Friends, family, and the surrounding community cancelled their plans to help look for her. During the search, nothing was found. However, when a report of her disappearance was aired on the TV, the 2 drivers who had seen her called the police, providing them some guidance.
On February 15, candy wrappers and a pencil, marker, and Mickey Mouse hair bow were found in a shed, which belonged to Asha. It was the only trace of her found. The next day, Iquilla realized that all of Asha's favorite clothing was missing for her bedroom. Flyers were posted all over the area and 300 leads were followed, but the search was called off when it amounted to nothing.
Based on Iquilla's account of what was taken from her room, investigators believed it was a planned departure, but admitted she wasn't a typical runaway. She was not in the age range, and didn't really have the type of dysfunction that most runaways have.
On August 3, 2001, Asha's book bag was found wrapped in plastic during a construction project off of Highway 18, about 26 miles north of Shelby. It was wrapped in a plastic bag. In the 19 years since, no other evidence has been found.
The Degree's work hard to keep her memory alive and in the public mind. In 2008, they created a scholarship in her name. They host an annual walk for awareness and money for the search. Iquilla still believes her daughter is alive, out there somewhere. But she believes the media lost interest and hasn't covered her case as much as is necessary because she was a black child.
One user on Reddit details 3 possible theories as to what may have happened to Asha.
The first is that she left on her own accord, technically, but not really by her own choice. The user suggests she was groomed by an adult in her life, such as a family friend, teacher, coach or church leader. They told her to meet at a certain location at a certain time, which would explain why she left in the middle of the night during a storm. Perhaps they told her they'd be taking her somewhere fun, and to leave without her parents knowing.
Other users agree, thinking that the grooming was the most likely scenario. As a 9-year-old, someone you trust telling you they're going to take you on a trip or something may just sound enticing enough to go out in a storm in the middle of the night. However, there are 2 holes in this theory, for me. The first is that, she didn't have an alarm. If she was supposed to meet at a certain time, how would she just happen to wake up at 4 AM with no alarm? And secondly, why would their direction be for her to walk down the highway alone, knowing that she may be seen (or stopped?) And, she ran into the woods, perhaps skewing their meeting location. It would make much more sense for them to pick her up in her neighborhood, or far closer to home than she was spotted. She wasn't wearing a raincoat or umbrella - did she expect a car to be closer? And when it didn't show, she just kept walking?
The second proposed theory is that she was sleepwalking. The theory actually practically makes sense, but it has some holes. The user proposes she woke up and thought it was time for school, so she started putting things in her bag and left the house. When the witness kept turning around, she got spooked and realized she was on the freeway, so she turned and ran. Then, she died of exposure or foul play or an animal attack. However, her family would likely know if she was a sleepwalker. Packing outfits would be strange if she thought it was time for school. And, I would imagine if she was asleep and she walked outside into pouring rain, she would wake up.
A user spun off of this theory, thinking that maybe while she was sleepwalking, someone hit her with their car and hid her body somewhere, burying her belongings to hide the evidence. There are still some holes in the sleepwalking theory, but this seems like it is at least plausible.
The last theory is that she left on her own accord, wanting to go on an adventure like a kid in one of the books she was reading at school. However, Asha was terrified of dogs and wasn't known to be a super brave child, so leaving in the middle of the night and walking down the freeway in a storm seems like a long shot. Another user subscribes to the belief that she did leave on her own accord, but because she did something that she thought she was going to get in trouble for (broke something or lost something) and felt she had to leave.
Another person added their thoughts to this theory, partially because the most popular grooming theory just didn't make sense. Who would have groomed her that the police wouldn't question? What lure do you use to get a child out of the house in the middle of the night in a storm? Why would an abductor have her walk over a mile down the street, and why would you trust such a young kid to find her way accurately?
They think that she didn't want to go to school the next day, perhaps because of the game she felt her teammates felt she was responsible for, or for another reason. They believed she felt like she just had to leave, despite the conditions. And after she ran away, a random predator saw her and kidnapped her, or she died somewhere in the woods and died. They believe that the book bag could have been found by a random person who didn't want to be implicated in the crime and buried it as to not leave a trace.
But regardless of why she left the house, she never came back. If she left to meet someone, on her own free will, or while asleep, her back pack was found wrapped in plastic, buried. She definitely met foul play, regardless of if it was planned or an attack of opportunity.
This one is a tough one. I think a sleepwalking accident or a close family friend grooming her are the most likely scenarios. One user suggested that, if it was a coach, he lured her by saying he was going to take her somewhere to practice basketball so she could stay on the team after her loss over the weekend. As a 9-year-old who didn't want to lose her spot on the team, maybe she'd throw caution to the wind. But honestly, there are still so many holes. Wouldn't they have questioned anyone she was close with? And what's with the candy wrappers and such in the shed? I don't know. It seems like she expected someone to come get her, but they didn't. And perhaps found her, or met up with her, later.
I'm not unconvinced of the sleepwalking theory, either, to be honest. I think her being out there and getting hit by a car seems at least plausible. Someone hitting a child and panicking, burying her things and hiding her body is something that a reasonable person may do. But her things in the shed kind of throw this off. Stress can bring about sleepwalking, and her parents seemed to be kind of strict, along with a heartbreaking sports loss, could have pushed he over the age.
I genuinely just don't know on this one. Someone packing up their things and leaving on their own accord, in most cases, would lead you to believe they were running away to start a new life. But she wasn't just someone. She was a child, a good child, with a loving family and a life she appeared to really like. Happy 9-year-olds don't just pack their bags and leave their house without a trace in the middle of the night during a huge storm. Something has to lead them out there.
But really, we can speculate about what happened forever, but it doesn't change the fact that she is gone. Her parents and brother lost their beloved daughter and sister and may never know why. And not only is she gone, but they live with the glimmer of heartbreaking hope that maybe one day she will walk back through the front door she left so mysteriously that February night.
Today, Asha Degree would be 30 years old. She may have stayed on track as an excellent student and basketball player, or switched her interests throughout her life. But she was a sweet, kind child who is now memorialized on a billboard near where she ran into the woods in the cold and the rain, never to be seen again.
Happy birthday, Asha. I wish love and peace to your family, making it through another birthday without you there to celebrate. I hope wherever you are, you are okay.