10-Year-Old Vanishes into the Night

At a construction site in Burke County in August 2001, a worker clearing the lot to build a new home found a black bookbag and Tweety Bird purse filled with clothing, hairbows and other childhood treasures.

The next day, police were scouring the area, about 13 miles north of the Cleveland County line, with cadaver dogs, searching for the body of a 10-year-old girl.

No one knows for sure what happened the night Asha Degree disappeared. Witness reports seem to suggest that she left her home in the early hours of the morning and set out walking down Highway 18 in Shelby, dressed all in white with a black bookbag on her back and a Tweety Bird purse in her hands.

Whether she was alone that night, what made her leave home, who may have crossed her path and caused her harm – numerous questions remain.

One thing is clear: when her parents woke up on Valentine’s Day in 2000, their wedding anniversary, Asha was nowhere to be found. Harold Degree, her father, was the last person to see her alive when he checked on her at 2:30 a.m. February 14. She was asleep in her bed.

Later that day, police launched a community-wide search for the young girl. Two motorists reported seeing her walking down the highway around 4 a.m.

“A truck driver that was driving down Highway 18 in the wee hours of the morning… reports that he saw a young black female, gives the clothing description, walking down Highway 18 as he’s traveling down that road to make his delivery,” said John Kaiser, special agent for the State Bureau of Investigation. “I don’t know that it was ever confirmed that that’s her, but it’s always been believed that that had to be her.”

Kaiser was assigned to the case in 2004 right out of the SBI Academy. He had been a police officer in Gastonia when Asha Degree went missing and had seen some media coverage of the case.

But when the case file landed on his desk, he was shocked by the amount of tips that continued to come in, years after Asha disappeared. False alarms that Asha’s body has been found have occasionally come in. And yet, the case remains unsolved.

“Until you can bring me evidence that says 99.9 percent that these are her remains or this is her body, I am not going to believe that she’s dead,” Asha’s mother, Iquilla Degree, told NC WANTED. “I don’t believe that. All we have is hope. Everything else, people can take away from us, but they can’t take our hope away… She’ll be 18 this year, maybe she thinks she’s been adopted or something… maybe she’ll start looking for us.”

Asha would have graduated from high school this year.

“This was not the first child to be lost in America but you see it on TV, and you feel sorry for the parents, you have empathy for them. But when it happened to us, for everybody around us, it was almost like it happened to them,” Iquilla said. “This is Cleveland County. Stuff like this doesn’t happen in Cleveland County.”

And the county has engaged itself in the search, keeping the case in the public eye, reporting any possible clue to police.
Kaiser avoids speculating on what happened to Asha until the right tip comes in.

“The theories that have been put forth by the people involved in this case and by the citizenry in Cleveland County are numerous and one seems as incredible as the next one seems plausible,” Kaiser said.

In the mean time, he is working hard to follow up on every lead and hopes for the right person to come forward with information that will close this case.

If you have any information about the disappearance of Asha Degree, call NC WANTED toll free at 1.866.43.WANTED (1.866.439.2683) or click on "Report a Tip" Your identity can be kept confidential.

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