Cold Case Explorations

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The Strange Disappearance of “Shelby’s Sweetheart” Asha Degree

This case has remained unsolved for 23 years, 9 months, and 22 days.

It’s been over 20 years since 9-year-old Asha Degree went missing from her Shelby, North Carolina (NC) home in the early morning hours of Valentine’s Day, 2000. By all accounts, Asha was a happy girl, an honor student, and a point guard on her elementary school’s basketball team.

Everything changed on February 14, 2000. When her mother went to go wake Asha and her brother up for school, Asha was gone. Where did she go? Why did she leave in the middle of a rainstorm? And why did she leave her family behind?

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Table of Contents

About Asha Degree

Asha was born on August 5, 1990. She had a brother named O’Bryant who was about one year older than her, and she lived with her father, Harold, and mother, Iquilla.

Asha Degree’s school photo. Picture form the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Asha Degree’s school photo. Picture form the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

At the time of her disappearance, Asha was 4’6 tall and weighed about 60 lbs. She was a fourth-grader at Fallston Elementary School at the time of her disappearance and loved basketball. Described as light-hearted and funny, she tried to be friends with everyone and was generally a likable girl. The only things she didn’t like were large dogs and the dark.


Both Asha and her older brother, O’Bryant, played basketball on their school’s sports teams and the siblings often were seen in their driveway shooting hoops. Asha played as a point guard on the Fallston Elementary girl’s basketball team.

By all accounts, she was a happy girl with no disciplinary issues. The principal of Fallston Elementary School described Asha as an honors student who rarely missed school. The fact that Asha was a happy honors student only makes the case of her disappearance more surprising.

The Days Before the Disappearance

The days leading up to Asha’s disappearance seemed pretty average. She still was her normal self over those days, according to family and friends.

Friday, February 11: No School

The children did not have school on Friday, February 11, but they still had their respective basketball practices. Because their parents had work, they stayed with their aunt, Kisha Degree, who lived just down the street. After spending the day with her, they went to their basketball practices and then headed home afterward.

Saturday, February 12: The Basketball Game

On February 12, Asha’s basketball team lost for the first time that season. She took the loss especially hard because she’d fouled out of the game. Harold and Iquilla recall that she was upset about the loss, but she managed to get over it enough to stay and watch her brother’s game after. Her coach, Chad Wilson, spoke of her demeanor after the game:

“All the girls were crying, not just Asha, and they had a good cry afterward because it was the first loss… Just a few minutes later, she was up smiling and joking and having a good time. I sat behind her for part of the boys’ game and tossed a towel over her head and joked with her.”

Chad Wilson (Source: The Shelby Star)

Sunday, February 13: Church and Family

The next day, the Degree family attended church in the morning at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. After that, they headed to an aunt’s home for lunch, then headed home. Asha received some Valentine’s Day candy a day early, something she was reportedly very happy about.

The Night of the Disappearance

Since the children had school the next morning, their bedtime was supposed to be at 8:30 PM. Asha and her older brother, O’Bryant (10) shared a bedroom at the time. Additionally, the power was out due to a car crash in the neighborhood earlier in the day.

Later that night and into the early morning hours of February 14, 2000, Asha’s father, Harold, returned home at 12:30 AM after getting off work. He checked in on the children when he got home and found them both asleep in their beds. By then, the power was back on so he watched some TV. Harold checked on them one last time at 2:30 AM before he went to sleep himself.

Bed Squeaks

Later, O’Bryant said he heard Asha’s bed “squeak” in the early morning hours and he thought she might’ve gotten up to use the restroom at that time, or perhaps rolled over in her sleep. It would only be a few short hours later, at 5:30 AM, that Asha was discovered missing by her mother when Iquilla went to get the children up and ready for school.

Trying not to panic, Harold suggested that perhaps Asha had gone to her grandmother’s home which was just across the street. However, once they checked with the grandmother, she confirmed that Asha wasn’t there either. The parents then called police to report the missing child.

The Search Begins

Police investigated the Degree’s home and found that in addition to the doors being locked, there were no signs of forced entry or foul play. Additionally, Asha had packed up some sets of clothing before leaving, leading investigators to believe that she probably left of her own volition.

Later in the day, scent dogs were brought in to help with the search. However, the canine units were unable to locate a scent trail to follow. A helicopter was also brought in to scan the surrounding areas, but it also found no signs of Asha.

Other volunteers also searched for Asha on foot and on horseback, trekking through mud and grass in an effort to locate the girl. Volunteers and authorities alike spent untold hours searching the woods as well as looking under houses and in dumpsters. No one found anything that might lead them to Asha.

“The fact that it was a small child that left on Valentine’s Day really caught everybody’s heart in this community. She’s been called Shelby’s Sweetheart, because she’s a child that’s one of our own.”

Det. Tim Adams (Source: All That’s Interesting)

Sightings of Asha

There are some reports that a young girl fitting Asha’s description was seen walking south on Highway 18 in Shelby around 4 AM on the morning of the disappearance. The sighting was said to have been near the Highway 180 intersection.

NC Highway 18.
NC Highway 18 (Chris Patriarca).

Someone reported that she might have gotten into a car, but there are sparse details about this lead. Her family and friends have also stated that she was a careful girl and therefore it would be unlikely that she would have gotten into a car with a stranger.

Another witness said that the young child walked into a wooded area around 4 AM when he tried to approach her to see if she needed help. As far as we know, that was the last confirmed sighting of Asha.

Items Found After the Disappearance

On February 15, the day after Asha went missing, a woman reported to police that she’d found some items in a shed that might’ve belonged to Asha: a Mickey Mouse hair bow, a green marker, a pencil, and candy wrappers. The candy wrappers were the same brand that were handed out at Asha’s basketball tournament, leading investigators to believe that the wrappers and other items were the missing girl’s. However, there was nothing else at the scene that could point them in the direction that Asha might’ve gone.

August 3, 2001: Asha’s Backpack Found

In August 2001, a backpack was found buried at a construction site in Burke County, later identified to be Asha’s backpack. The pack was buried and stuffed into two black trash bags, one inside the other.

The distance from Shelby, NC to Burke County, NC.
The distance from Shelby, NC to Burke County, NC.

While the backpack was confirmed to be hers, items inside the backpack (including a Dr. Seuss book and a New Kids on the Block t-shirt) did not belong to her. Interestingly, the book had been checked out from Fallston Elementary School, but not by Asha.

The Search Goes On

Although the case updates have been few and far between, investigators aren’t giving up hope that Asha’s case can one day be solved. As Iquilla, Asha’s mother has stated, Asha didn’t just disappear off of the face of the earth. Someone knows something and it’s been long enough as it is.

The FBI continues updating this case, releasing age-progressed images of what Asha might look like as a now 30-year-old woman. Although the case is considered a cold case, leads are taken seriously and followed up on. After all, the next hint might be the one that leads to Asha’s discovery.

Theories on Asha’s Disappearance

Like so many cases where we have so few answers, theories abound, ranging from the plausible to the unlikely. With no real answers regarding what happened to Asha, authorities and web sleuths alike have all sorts of hypotheses regarding this case.

Asha Ran Away and Succumbed to the Elements

Investigators point to the lack of tampering with doors and windows, as well as the fact that Asha packed a bag to suggest that she ran away on her own. However, even if this is the case, a 9-year-old girl isn’t going to get far on foot unless she had some outside assistance.

A huge search effort was launched relatively quickly after her disappearance, and it should have found some sign of her if she was wandering around outside and alone.

Asha Ran Away and Was Taken

Another take on the “she ran away” theory is that Asha voluntarily left the family home that early morning only to be kidnapped by someone who saw her walking near the road. This theory makes more sense than the former, simply because few traces of Asha have ever been found.

Remember that Asha’s backpack was found over 40 miles away, a distance that a 9-year old would be unlikely to cover unless she was in a car. Furthermore, the backpack was buried, indicating that someone didn’t want it to be found. It also contained items that didn’t belong to Asha, indicating perhaps that someone else had used it in the time between her last sighting and the bag being found.

A sign posted in Shelby asking for information regarding Asha’s disappearance.
A sign posted in Shelby asking for information regarding Asha’s disappearance.

Was a Book to Blame?

Some argue that a book Asha read The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman, might’ve influenced her decision to run away. The book tells the tale of a commoner child who was whipped every time the young prince did something wrong. Both children ran away in the story, only to return safely to the kingdom by the end of the book.

Asha was described as an honor student, so I’m not sure she would have been so easily influenced by a book that she undoubtedly knew was fictional. Even if Asha felt like the “whipping boy” from Fleischman’s book, I still have a hard time believing that she would have up and left with just a backpack and some clothes, chasing the fanciful words from a book she’d read.

One (Or Both) of the Parents Took Her

As I’ve mentioned in other cases (like in my article The Vanishing of the Fandel Children in the Last Frontier), parents are more often than not the perpetrators when a child goes missing. However, there was no custody battle going on over Asha, as is the case when children are most prone to going missing.

Harold and Iquilla Degree still hope that one day, they’ll see Asha again.
Harold and Iquilla Degree still hope that one day, they’ll see Asha again (FBI).

By all accounts, the Degrees were a happy family and they cooperated fully with the investigation to find their daughter. Even now, they haven’t given up hope that they one day might see her again. Iquilla, Asha’s mother, is quoted as saying in 2020: “So we’ve missed everything. But I don’t care. If she walked in the door right now, I wouldn’t care what I missed. All I want is to see her.”

What Do I Think Happened?

This case is an interesting one because we should have found Asha by now. What I mean by that is that a 9-year-old wouldn’t get far by themselves, even if they willingly ran away.

I think most kids go through a stage where they want to run away from home for one reason or another. They pack a little bag with some toys and clothes and make a run for it, rarely getting further than the edge of the neighborhood. Most children are swiftly returned home, going back because they get scared or because they’re found before they wander off too far.

In Asha’s case, I think it might’ve started as this: an innocent attempt to run away, like so many children try. However, she might’ve ended up running into someone with more nefarious intentions, something she couldn’t have known or predicted at such a young age.

Asha’s Backpack Provides Some Clues

The fact that Asha’s backpack was found with a library book that was checked out from her own elementary school suggests to me that someone she knew — or was acquainted with — picked her up as she was walking down Highway 18. Perhaps this person was the parent of one of the other students at the school, or maybe even a teacher, janitor, or food service worker.

Asha was described as cautious by her parents and they both agreed that she wouldn’t have gotten into a car with a stranger. What if it was someone she recognized from the school, though? She might’ve been more willing to go along with them, especially after a few hours of walking in the cold rain with little more than her long-sleeved white shirt and jeans to keep her warm.

Remember that Asha’s backpack was buried and stuffed into not one, but two black trash bags. This indicates to me that whoever buried it didn’t want it to be found. They even got rid of the bag so hastily that they forgot to remove other items from it before they buried it. Perhaps they got spooked by the amount of media attention that Asha’s disappearance was getting and quickly tried to dispose of the bag.

Getting into a car with the wrong person, someone she thought she could trust, could have had terrible consequences for young Asha. Again, I don’t know for sure, but based on the evidence and the research I’ve done, this seems like the most likely scenario.

There is Still Hope

Child kidnappings, while statistically rare, are still awful and tragic situations for a family to have to endure. When it’s been over two decades, it can seem like there’s no hope of solving the case, but I think there still is a chance that Asha’s case can be solved. Someone out there knows something, saw something, or heard something.

Most of all, my heart breaks for Asha’s family and loved ones who, even two decades on, don’t know what happened to their little girl. A family has been deprived of their little girl for long enough. I hope that, one day, this case can and will be solved.

“This is worse than death because, at least with death, you have closure. You can go to a gravesite, or if you have the urn at home, but for us, we can’t mourn, we can’t give up. The only thing we got is hope.”

Iquilla Degree (Source: WBTV News)

Case Updates

In the over two decades since Asha’s disappearance, there have been some case updates and discoveries. However, none of them have led to the location of Asha.

2004: An Inmate’s Confession

In 2004, an inmate at the Cleveland County Jail claimed to have killed Asha and buried her. Investigators went to the supposed burial site, but they only found animal remains. Nothing at the site had anything to do with Asha or her disappearance.

2015: A Green Car

In 2015, a tip came in that reported seeing Asha get into a green car on the morning of her disappearance.

“Investigators believe the car that may have picked Asha up was a 1970s-model Lincoln Continental Mark-4 or a Ford Thunderbird with rust around the wheel wells.”

News Report (Source: ABC 15 News)

No additional information came from this lead.

2020: Another Inmate’s Letter

In 2020, another inmate wrote to The Shelby Star, claiming to know what happened to Asha. Marcus Mellon (53 at the time of writing the letter) was convicted of sex crimes involving minors in 2014. He reportedly wrote:

“Asha Degree has been missing for over 20 years. About four months ago I had found out her whereabouts and what had happen to her. She was killed and then took and buried. I do know how and what town she is in. I hope you get this letter and do come see me. It’s on the up and up.”

Marcus Mellon (Source: The Shelby Star)

Despite the letter, there have been no more updates or discoveries on Asha’s case. Investigators did follow some leads, but they aren’t sure that Mellon has any actual information on Asha’s disappearance. The sad fact is that inmates often will claim to have knowledge of other cases in the hope of receiving better treatment or reduced sentences for their own.

Do You Have Information?

There’s still a $45,000 reward available for information leading to locating Asha Degree. At the time of her disappearance, Asha was 4’6″ and weighed about 60 lbs. She is African American and was believed to have been wearing a white shirt, white jeans, white tennis shoes, and had a black backpack on. Those with information should contact investigators at (704) 484–4788 or FBI Charlotte at (704) 672–6100.

An age-progressed image of what Asha Degree might look like at 30 years of age.
An age-progressed image of what Asha Degree might look like at 30 years of age (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children).

Cold Case Questions

  • What do you think happened to Asha?
  • Is Asha still alive today?
  • Do you think Asha will ever be found?

Let me know in the comments below!

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