Each year, approximately 800,000 children are reported missing. Most safely return home but out of every 10,000 children that are reported missing, there is approximately one that is abducted and murdered. But what about those children that don’t ever return home alive or dead, though? What about those children that remain missing indefinitely?
Born on the 5th of August, 1990, Asha Jacquilla Degree grew up to be a quiet and shy young girl. She was an impeccable student at Fallston Elementary School in Shelby, North Carolina. “She’s an outstanding student with an excellent attendance record,” said Donna Carpenter, a spokeswoman for the school. She excelled in math and science and loved reading and writing, particularly when she could make the topic up herself. She certainly had a vivid imagination. Asha dreamed of being an illustrator when she grew up and in her free time, she enjoyed playing basketball with her brother and jumping on her trampoline.
Asha was a daddy’s girl. She bonded exceptionally with her father, Harold, when she was just a baby. Harold was laid off for two months and took over the late-night feedings. The father-daughter duo were very similar – both were very reserved and quiet except for when play wrestling with each other. “It’s amazing these walls are still standing, the way we wrestle in this house,” he fondly recalled.1
Her parents were both extremely hardworking to provide the very best for their family. Harold worked as a dock loader at PPG Industries Inc while her mother, Iquilla, worked at Kawai America Manufacturing. They were a religious family and Asha never missed her weekly Bible study at church. Asha was an extremely timid little girl, in fact, she was wary of almost everything. “She doesn’t even open the front door for me without getting her mother’s permission,” said Patricia Banks, Asha’s aunt.2
At approximately 6:30PM on the 13th of February, 2000, 9-year-old Asha went to bed at her family home on Oakcrest Drive. She had decided on an early night because she had stayed up late at a slumber party the night before with her cousins. At approximately 8:30PM that night, Asha woke up when lightning storms and harsh winds swept through the area. She sat in the living room with the family and watched TV before retreating back to bed half an hour later.
When Asha’s father, Harold, returned from work at approximately 12AM, he checked on his children who were fast asleep. He checked once again at 2:30AM. Asha slept in the same bedroom as her 10-year-old brother, O’Bryant. The brother-sister duo was extremely close; when O’Bryant got into trouble, Asha would cover for him. “We did everything together,” he said.3
Her brother later recalled that he heard noises in the early morning hours but just assumed it was Asha turning and tossing in her sleep. However, in reality, Asha was actually packing her book bag with her two favourite outfits and her Tweety Bird purse. She then crept out of the house in the rainy night sky, locking the door behind her.
At around 3:45 – 4:15AM, two drivers saw her walking along N.C 18, approximately one block from her home. Another witness saw her and turned his car around to ask her what she was doing. A young child out on her own at that time of the night certainly wasn’t normal, especially considering the weather was so grim – it was windy and the rain was lashing down. When he went to approach her, she darted off into the foggy woods. This was the last time Asha was ever seen. When her mother, Iquilla, went to wake the children up for school at around 6:30AM, she found her missing. Her bed looked like it had been slept in. Asha was an extremely tidy young girl and would typically make her bed as soon as she woke up.
By the following morning, a state-wide bulletin was put out for Asha. A search party was assembled and initially focused on the area around the family’s home in a modest neighbourhood of ranch-style brick homes. Police dogs were unable to pick up any scent from Asha. That was potentially because the heavy rain had washed away any scent of her.
By noon, police asked for assistance of an N.C. Highway Patrol helicopter armed with infrared heat-detection equipment. Volunteers and police officers alike searched inch-by-inch along the vast highway which was dotted with trees and surrounded by fields.
When the news of her disappearance broke, the three drivers who had spotted her walking along the road came forward to describe what they had seen. Investigators now focused on N.C. 18 where Asha was last spotted.
There was absolutely no sign of Asha until two days later, when candy wrappers, a pencil, and a Mickey Mouse hair bow were found in an old chicken shed in the woods where Asha was spotted running into. They were identified as her belongings by her parents. This was where Asha’s trail ended for good. “It’s like she stepped off the face of the earth. Nobody has been able to place her beyond that spot,” said Chief Cleveland County Sheriff’s Deputy Bob Roadcap.4
Investigators announced that they believed she had left her home on her own accord. They later announced that they theorised she had been abducted along the way. This grim theory was even more believable when Asha’s bookbag was unearthed during a construction project along Highway 18, approximately 26 miles from where Asha lived. It had been wrapped in a plastic bag and then buried.
One of the many leads in the case came when Barron Ramsey, a Mecklenburg County Jail inmate who went to school with Asha’s mother, made a detailed confession. He claimed that he and another Cleveland County man were heading back to Shelby on rural N.C. 18 in the early morning hours of Asha’s disappearance. He said that the other man, who was driving, accidentally ran Asha over. He said the girl was still alive when the driver put her in the back of the pickup. Ramsey said the driver dropped him home and left with the girl. A couple of days later, Ramsey said he and the driver went to Moss Lake near Kings Mountain where they dumped the now-deceased girl’s body. Ramsey was in jail on charges he robbed a Bessemer City bank. He said that he was looking for a deal in return for his confession in the death of Asha. Following the confession, investigators dragged Moss Lake twice, using an infrared underwater camera and dive teams. They found nothing. Another dead end.5
Although African Americans make up just 13% of the U.S. population, they account for 33% of the missing in the FBI’s database. However, cases involving African Americans also tend to receive less media coverage than missing whites. In 2013, Asha’s mother took to the media to express her disgruntlement that Asha’s case didn’t garner much media attention. She believed it was because Asha was African American: “Missing white children get more attention. I don’t understand why,” she said.
The leads eventually dwindled to a standstill until 2014 when Donald Preston Ferguson was arrested in South Carolina. He was charged with the first-degree murder of 7-year-old Shalonda Poole who was found dead behind a Greensboro elementary school in 1990. Police soon began to investigate him in relation to the disappearance of Asha. The investigation led to a dead end, however.
The case once again went cold until two years later when the FBI announced that there was a new lead. Asha may have been spotted climbing into an early 1970s green Lincoln Continental Mark IV or a Ford Thunderbird with rust around the wheel wells. Detectives still don’t know whether or not this tip was viable but it continues to be investigated. The lead came after investigators launched an effort to re-examine the case and re-interview all witnesses.
Even today The Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office keeps the investigation open with one full time detective and one part-time detective working on the case. In late 2017, it was announced that a specialised FBI team shall be assistance in the disappearance. The Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team is comprised of special agents trained in finding abducted children. This specialised FBI team was no available when Asha went missing and it is the hope of investigators that with their help, Asha will be found alive.
To this very day, the Degree family still live in the same home they did when Asha disappeared. The living room is a testament to how important family is. Dotted throughout the room are photographs of the family. Situated above the television is an age progression photograph of Asha, showing what she may look like today. Her loved ones dangle between dreams of life and fears of death.
Each and every year, the Degree family retrace the very steps Asha took that fateful night. “Every time it snows or rains, I think about her,” said Asha’s brother. “I wonder if she’s safe…”6 The stories of Elizabeth Smart and Carlina White, both of whom returned to their families after being abducted, give the family hope.
If you have any information into the disappearance of Asha Degree, please call 1-704-484-4822.
- Charlotte Observer, 28 February, 2000 – “A Soft-Hearted Child”
- Charlotte Observer, 15 February, 2000 – “Cleveland County Girl Missing from Bedroom”
- The Star, 15 February, 2011 – “I Feel Like I’m Looking in Her Eyes”
- Charlotte Observer, 24 February, 2000 – “Girl’s Vanishing Haunts Shelby”
- Charlotte Observer, 14 February, 2001 – “Asha’s Mystery Lingers”
- The Star, 15 February, 2002 – “Retracting Asha’s steps”