Asha Degree

For this true crime write-up I’m going to be doing another missing person’s case. A nine year old girl named Asha Degree vanished from her home in Shelby, North Carolina on February 14th, 2000, and there have been no credible sightings of her since the early hours of that morning. What makes this case so complex is that all indications point to her leaving her house, alone and of her own volition, on a cold, stormy night in a torrential downpour (I think this is the North Carolina equivalent of what would be a winter blizzard here in Michigan). The temperature that night was around 34 degrees Fahrenheit or 1 degree Celsius. Asha was known to be a timid, well-behaved child who disliked storms and the dark, making the circumstances all the stranger.

This case is reasonably well-known in true crime circles, but not quite at the point where it is well known outside them. It does still seem to be remembered in Shelby, and obviously, it still influences the lives of Asha’s family. I’ll admit right up front that I do not have a strong opinion on what happened to Asha. There are some theories that I find highly unlikely and others that I find feasible, but I have my problems even with each of the feasible theories. In the conclusion, I’ll present the evidence for and against the most likely theories.

The Background and Timeline

I’m going to start with the weekend leading up to Asha’s disappearance, on Friday, February 11th. At this time, Asha Degree was nine years old and lived with her parents (Harold and Iquilla) and her ten year old brother, O’ Bryant. There was also an aunt and other family members that lived nearby in the neighborhood. Asha was a good student and she and her brother both played on basketball teams. Almost everyone described her as a sweet, shy kid who would ask her parents for permission before even letting her aunt inside the house. According to their parents, O’ Bryant and Asha had a fairly sheltered existence. The family did not even have a computer or internet access at the house, and the kids’ lives centered around family, school, basketball, and church.,

That Friday was a teacher workday, so the kids did not have school although they later went to basketball practice. Because their parents both worked, Asha and her brother spent most of the day with their aunt. The next day, February 12th, they each had a basketball game. Asha’s team suffered their first loss of the season, and everyone said that the kids were upset by this but seemed to have cheered up later. After Asha and O’ Bryant’s games, they returned home with their parents for the rest of the night. February 13th was a Sunday, so the family attended church, then had lunch with the kids’ aunt and grandmother. The next day would not only be Valentine’s Day but also Harold and Iquilla’s anniversary. During this whole time, Asha acted completely normal and happy. She went home with her mother and brother while her father went to work on Sunday afternoon, and neither Iquilla or O’ Bryant noticed anything unusual about Asha’s behavior that evening. The weather was getting stormy, and at some point the power went out in the neighborhood (it’s somewhat debatable exactly when it went out). The kids could not take their normal baths that night, so Iquilla sent them to bed in the bedroom they shared, and then went to bed herself.

Asha’s father Harold returned from work at 12:30 am, and the power was back on by then. He checked on the kids, finding them both sleeping in their room. It’s uncertain if he left the house again to pick up some Valentine’s Day candy, or if he had done this on the way home from work and remained in the house after returning. Either way, he checked on the kids again at about 2:30 am and went to bed.

At some point during the night, O’ Bryant says that he saw his sister get up and go to use the bathroom, then come back to the room. At some later point he heard her moving around in her bed, but nothing unusual. Some sources say this was also around 2:30 am, but I’m a bit uncertain of the ability of a drowsy 10-year old to know what time it was, when it’s unknown if there was even a clock in the kids’ room. O’ Bryant fell back asleep and did not wake up until his mother got him up in the morning.

By then, Asha had disappeared, as had her school backpack.

Iquilla had awoken around 5:45 am and gone to get the kids up and washed before school at 6:00 am. Finding Asha’s bed empty, she searched the house, then woke up her husband. They contacted Asha’s aunt and grandmother to check if she might have gone to see them, and began searching outside around the car and house. Deeply worried now, Iquilla called the police, who arrived around 6:40 am. Search dogs were brought in, but they were unable to get a scent trail, most likely due to the heavy winds the night before. Also, although tracking dogs do have a scary good sense of smell, the fact that the three other people who shared a house with Asha and probably had very similar scents on their clothing were present may have been a confounding factor.

The next stages of the investigation were focused on searching the neighborhood and examining the house. The door had been locked and there was so sign of forced entry. Later, it was discovered that some items of Asha’s clothing were missing. I have always assumed this to mean that more than one day’s worth of clothing were missing, and was not just the clothes she would have left in.

By the evening of February 14th, the story was being circulated in the media, and two people who had been driving on nearby Highway 18 early in the morning independently reported strange sightings. They each claimed to have seen someone that could have matched Asha’s description walking south along the highway between 3:45 and 4:15 am. The person they saw was carrying a backpack and wearing a long-sleeve white shirt. One driver was concerned enough that he turned around and went back to check on her, but she ran away from the road into a lightly wooded area. Many people have called this testimony into question, pointing out that eyewitness accounts are not exactly reliable, especially when coming from people driving along a poorly lit road at night in a heavy rainstorm. I think that this should be taken into consideration, especially with regard to the times of the sighting. However, I don’t think we can dismiss this evidence either, since the two separate accounts matched each other and were consistent with the missing items from the house.

There was another piece of evidence discovered the next day, February 15th, which adds a bit more weight to the sightings. The owner of Turner’s Upholstery discovered a young girl’s belongings near the entrance to a shed owned by the company. The shed was a short distance from Highway 18 and very close to the second sighting location. Items recovered from the shed included a hair bow, green maker, pencil, candy wrappers, and–according to one early report-a small photograph of an unidentified young girl. The candy wrappers were consistent with candy that Asha and her teammates had been given at their basketball game, and more wrappers of this type were found along the stretch of Highway 18 where drivers had claimed to see Asha.

I’ll be discussing the reported photograph–probably the case’s most WTF detail–shortly. For now, I’ll say that there is simply too much evidence that dovetails with the sightings to ignore them, however strange they seem.

The next major event in the case would not happen until over a year later, in August of 2001. Asha’s backpack was discovered, double-wrapped in garbage bags and buried in an empty lot that was being cleared for housing construction. The spot was just off Highway 18 and 26 miles north of where Asha was last seen. The area was searched intensively, but nothing relevant to the case turned up. Other than the fact that the backpack did belong to Asha, nothing about the contents have been confirmed.

To date, there has only been one other major piece of information released, if you want to call it that.  At some unknown point, a witness claimed to have seen Asha getting into a “dark green car with rusty wheel rims.” Considering it was dark, the witness was presumably driving, and Asha would have been getting into the passenger seat and largely blocked from view by the car, this level of detail seems strange. If there is any validity to this information at all, it seems more likely that someone knew a person that drove a car like this and, rightfully or not, suspected them of involvement.

Thoughts and Theories

I’m going to go over a few of the theories that I find unlikely but that nevertheless come up in discussions of this case. It has been suggested that Asha simply wanted to run away, possibly due to an adventure story her class had been reading at school. Most people are dismissive of the idea that she had any plans to run away for a long period of time, myself included. Asha was usually a cautious child, and by all accounts her home life was sheltered and peaceful. Plus, going by what was reported missing from the house, she didn’t pack that many things. So, there’s really nothing that convinces me she was seriously running away. However, I should add that young kids do a lot of strange things on impulse that are not serious. I think it’s easy to forget just how readily even normal, well-behaved kids can get bizarre ideas in their heads and sometimes act on them. They just don’t typically do them in cold, pouring rain if they can help it

It’s been suggested that the reason Asha left her home at such an odd time was that she was sleepwalking. I thought this theory was implausible when I first heard it, but now I just think it’s unlikely. It becomes a little more likely than it sounds when you consider some of the things that kids have reportedly done while sleepwalking. So it’s possible. However, I don’t want to spend too much time on this one because a). Asha had never been known to sleepwalk and her brother shared a room with her, and b)., it seems unlikely that someone could stay asleep after stepping into the cold air and rain.

Of course, there is always a possibility of some kind of family involvement.  Maybe I’m being a little unfair here, but in some true crime discussion groups it’s becoming the new, edgy thing to hint darkly that Asha’s family “knows more than they’re saying.” Now, from a law enforcement perspective, I do understand why the family needs to be thoroughly investigated. And it is true that there was some confusion as to the timing of events the night before Asha disappeared. Yet, from everything I’ve read, the family was thoroughly investigated soon after the disappearance, and there was nothing indicating deception on the part of the parents, and no hint that Asha was being abused at home. The now-adult O’ Bryant, who walked home from school with Asha, shared a room with her, and generally seemed to have a very good relationship with her, has never given any indication that something happened to Asha at the home that night. And if Asha did fall victim to some kind of accident while in the family’s care, there are easier ways to escape blame then orchestrate such an elaborate scenario. While I think it’s possible that Asha had left before her father checked on the children at 2:30 am that night (it was dark, he was trying not to wake them, and if he saw his son, he may have assumed Asha was in her bed as well), I’m inclined to dismiss the family involvement theory entirely. 

The next three scenarios are ones that I tend to find more plausible given the circumstances.

Abduction by a stranger: As is fairly self-explanatory, this is the theory that Asha left home for unknown reasons and was picked up by a predatory stranger. I don’t have much to add to this theory, only to say that a.) it’s completely possible, and b.) there’s nothing that strongly points that way, either. Asha was wary of strange people and situations, and if the second witness statement holds any water, she was consciously avoiding passing traffic. The road was apparently not heavily traveled, but many predators commit crimes of opportunity, and Asha would have been obviously vulnerable on such a stormy night.

Luring and abduction by someone known to Asha: This is a very tempting theory, and there are days when I find myself thinking it is the most likely (but not all days!) After all, it resolves a lot of unanswered questions. Asha was careful, obedient, and shy around strangers, so it would make sense that she would only leave her home under the direction of an adult she trusted. And the dual question of why she left and what happened to her is neatly answered if she left to meet her ultimate abductor. It remains a strong possibility in my mind–usually stronger than the stranger theory–but I still have some problems with it.

This “groomer” has become the dark matter of this case–no one seems to be able to describe them very well or guess at who they might be, yet their presence is necessary to hold this theory together. (Actual physicists will probably object to the analogy, and I’m open to discussing it later).

Abducting Asha in the middle of the night seems like a very odd choice, and even though she was in the company of her family or brother for most of the day, it still seems like they would have arranged something easier that Asha would have been less likely to balk at. Yet, my real issues with the theory are not so much logistic as that no possible suspect has ever been named for this role. It’s been nearly twenty years at this point, during which the family and law enforcement have been able to do little but consider possible suspects. This person would have had to have been very close to Asha, close enough that they could trust her not to spill the plan to her brother, friends, or parents. To the best of our knowledge, Asha was only ever at one of few places, and almost never completely unsupervised. These were: at home or at the home of relatives in the neighborhood, school, basketball, and church. The adults she would have had contact with would have been well-known to her parents, friends, and classmates.  Losing a child under such traumatic circumstances isn’t known for boosting someone’s sense of trust, and Asha’s parents could be forgiven for becoming suspicious of people they knew. And still no actual names mentioned? No one that abruptly left the area or cut off contact after Asha’s disappearance? Likewise, no one in Asha’s rather limited circle of adult interaction has since committed a similar crime or tried to? Now, I know a child predator might also be deft at avoiding suspicion, so it’s not implausible that something like this still happened. Ultimately, I still accept this theory as one of the more likely ones, but it would seem more solid to me if Asha’s groomer/abductor was less of a ghost.

Accidental death and hiding of the body: This theory often gets a lot of criticism in mystery discussions (sometimes to a level of scorn that should really be reserved for those involving alien abduction), and I’m certainly not set on it or think that it’s something that happens terribly often, but to me it doesn’t seem all that unreasonable. After all, if we start at the other end of the scenario and I told you that a child had been struck and killed by a car while walking along a highway at night, you would be saddened to hear this but not mystified because this is exactly how pedestrians are struck by cars. Given the circumstances I find it entirely possible that this happened to Asha. The only complexity is that someone actively hid her body and possessions–although apparently not in the same place. Some people have tried to dismiss this whole idea by saying there would have been signs of Asha being hit by a car, but I’m not sure about that–after all, how many sections of roadside were actually searched? Not all collisions leave a lot of blood, and items left behind might never have been found or linked to her. It was raining heavily for parts of the night, washing away potential evidence, and cars come in to repair shops with dents and damage from innocent causes all the time. To summarize, I don’t especially lean towards this theory, as it’s not really something that happens often, but I don’t think there’s overwhelming evidence against it, either.

As previously stated, I don’t really have a ton of strong opinions on this case. However, there are a few basic things that I take away from it.

  1. Asha left the house on her own for unknown reasons. She traveled away from her home in the opposite direction of her school but following her bus route. At some point she was at the Turner’s upholstery shed, and she may have returned to the highway after that. During the most of the walk and in the shed, she was snacking on candy.
  •  For whatever reason, Asha believed that she had to leave on that particular night. Otherwise, I think she would have waited for better weather. Possibly, it was something she had previously agreed upon with someone else, or it may have been related to Valentine’s Day. That day was also her parents’ anniversary, leading some to theorize that someone had lured her away with the idea of planning a surprise for Harold and Iquilla. To gauge the solidity of this idea, we would need to know how many people actually knew the anniversary date and how aware of it the kids were. I mean, I doubt I even knew my parents’ anniversary date at that age, but every family is different.  One other possibility that occurred to me is that she may have wanted to get to one of her school bus stops early to visit one of her classmates who got on the bus at that point, but that’s total speculation.
  • I believe another person was involved in her decision to leave the house. Note the deliberate vagueness of this wording: this person may or may not have had anything to do with her ultimate disappearance, and may or may not have even known that Asha was leaving her house with the intent of meeting with them. The reason I lean this way is partly related to that already discussed–if no interests other than her own were involved, I think Asha would have left under better conditions–and also because Asha is consistently described as the type of kid who would be more likely to do something out of the ordinary only if she believed she was obeying or helping someone else by doing so. I don’t completely rule out that she could have decided to leave for a short period of time on her own–kids be strange, after all–but it would be quite out of character for her.
  • I think another person was involved in her ultimate disappearance and definitely in the concealment of her belongings (possibly but not necessarily the same person behind her decision to leave). I have seen different interpretations of way the backpack was wrapped up and disposed of the way it was. Some people theorize it was a kept as a “trophy” by a serial predator. Others believe that the care with which it was disposed of indicates remorse for whatever happened to Asha. After all, the person could have burned it. All of these are possible, but I think simplest explanation is the most likely–whoever had it wanted to be rid of it quickly and not associated with Asha, regardless of what role they played in her disappearance. If that person lived with or near other people, they may not have wanted to be seen burning it or have a family member find it in their house, and so concealed it in the bags and got rid of it at the earliest opportunity. The double-bagging could mean many things, but it might be nothing more than the backpack being heavy enough to rip through one bag.

And that’s it. That’s basically all I feel even slightly confident in saying. There are some loose ends I want to address, as they don’t fit neatly into one theory or another but do provide some fuel for further speculation. The first is the photograph that was supposedly found in the shed. This detail has been mentioned in one article, and then becomes curiously absent from the narrative. The picture is described as that of an unidentified young girl, not Asha, and it’s uncertain if the picture even belonged to her. An interesting theory that has arisen as a result of this is that someone lured Asha out using the little girl or her picture as bait, perhaps as a “pen pal” pretending to be the other child. This is very intriguing, although it still leaves open the questions related to the grooming theory described above. Side thought: If all the items in the shed were Asha’s, is it possible she got the pencil and marker out with the intent of leaving a note in the shed on the back of the picture?

The second concerns the backpack (again). Investigators have been cagey about its condition and contents, but my question is, should it have shown significant external or internal water damage if Asha carried it over at least a mile in a downpour? For all I know, it was made from a waterproof material, but if not it seems like there should have some sign that it had been soaking wet at one point, even if it had dried out before being buried. As convoluted as the rest of this theory becomes, a completely dry bag does lend some credence to the idea that Asha got into a car closer to home and spent little if any time outside on her own. This would make more sense for an abductor than to meet Asha someplace far from home, and it is possible that the Highway 18 witnesses either didn’t actually see her or that Asha escaped from her abductor for a short period of time. The evidence collected at the shed, however, becomes even more difficult to explain.

The last thing I want to address is the significance of the last reported sighting of Asha and the apparent time she spent at the shed. This case is often discussed in terms of Asha walking along Highway 18, but if the second driver’s sighting is accurate, and Asha really was at the shed after that point, then the Highway might not actually be her last known location. It’s difficult to know what order these events happened in, but if she was scared away from the main road by the trucker she may not have returned, and instead traveled along backroads. If that’s the case, then whatever happened to her might have happened some distance from Highway 18. If she had a certain destination–someone’s house, or a meeting point–she may even have reached it.

Please let me know your own thoughts on this case. I would really welcome some additional insights.

Best wishes,

L.R.

Resources

This is a detailed, long-running blog that covers the case. It includes several links to additional material and maps of the area where Asha was last seen. This site heavily promotes the “Asha was groomed” theory, and ultimately, I don’t agree with a lot of the conclusions. Not because I’m completely dismissive of the grooming theory, but because this site grants Asha’s hypothetical abductor with an unbelievable amount of calculation. Also, as a caveat, I believe that Asha’s family has referred to this site as containing “half-truths.” I am not sure exactly what this comment was in reference to, but it could have something to do with the unverified backpack contents.  Nevertheless, I respect the amount of dedication and research that has gone into it and I suggest everyone take a look: https://findingashadegree.wordpress.com/

Asha’s Charley Project Page

If you’re interested in pursuing this case further, I recommend looking at some of the many reddit threads devoted to the case. I would check out this one first. It looks at some of the original source material and breaks down many of the misconceptions that have accrued on Wikipedia. It also wrestles with the disputed timeline of the evening before Asha vanished, which I honestly did not have the patience to get into here.

As always, I recommend the Trace Evidence take.

This is a fairly heavily discussed case, and there are several good articles and Youtube videos that I did not cite here but that will come up in a quick Google search.

I originally published this article a few years ago on a wordpress.org site that I no longer maintain. Since then, there have a been a few developments in Asha’s case. Tips have been given to law enforcement, although none of these have been definitively substantiated. Images have also been released of the backpack contents, which include a T-shirt and a book checked out from Asha’s elementary school library. This is detailed in this article.

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