I am a property manager in Little Rock, AR. I enjoy writing about various topics that I think may be helpful to others.
For my first missing-persons article, I wanted to start with a case that I felt has been incredibly underreported. If I asked you right now to think about some of the most well-known unsolved cases, chances are most of the victims that come to mind would be white. Am I right? Why do you think that is? Is that our fault as a society? Should we blame the police, maybe the media?
Is it possible that victims of color are reported on less frequently because there are fewer crimes against those of color? Wrong. In 2019 Safiya Charles, a writer for the Montgomery Advertiser wrote:
What does the average missing persons victim look like? Judging from national media reports: young, white and female. Shift your focus from news coverage to data, however, and a very different picture emerges. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, of the estimated 613,000 people reported missing in the U.S. last year, about 60% were people of color. Although black women make up less than 7% of the U.S. population, they represent about 10% of all missing persons cases throughout the country. Estimates by the Black and Missing Foundation put the total number of disappeared black women and girls at 64,000.
That is a HUGE number. If you're a true crime addict like myself, that number is probably very surprising. Think back on your favorite true crime podcasts, documentaries and books. There is a huge gap in the number of white victims reported on versus those who are of color.
While your first instinct may be to blame the podcasters, writers or documentarians, you should know that most of them (including myself) do their research by digging through hundreds of newspaper articles. Maybe even watching old newscasts on the subject if they are available. If originally there was little reporting on the case done, there isn't much to go off of and quite difficult to make a whole story out of. The case of Asha Degree is one I had heard of before but the amount of information available to the public about her case is significantly less than say that of Kristin Smart, Madeline McCain, and the Delphai Murders. I will do my best to tell her story with what little info I have in an effort to raise awareness about the disappearance of Asha Degree in an effort to bring answers to her family and loved ones.
Asha Jaquilla Degree was born to Harold and Iquilla Degree on August 5th. 1990. Her older brother O'Bryant degree was just one year older. Growing up, the Degree family was very religious. Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church was where the family spent a lot of there time. It has been said that Asha LOVED her Bible study and looked forward to going every week. Because it was so important for their children to have a strong relationship with God, Harold and Iquilla did their best to make sure O'Bryant and Asha did not have a lot of outside distractions. Their TV time was limited and not only were they not allowed to use the computer, the Degree family did not even own one. Iquilla was once quoted as saying “Every time you turned on the TV there was some pedophile who had lured somebody’s child away.” While the Degree family may have seemed strict, they were very loving parents and both O'Bryant and Asha both appeared to be happy children that were succeeding in school and in life.
At the age of nine in 2000, Asha was doing rather well in her fourth grade class. Fallston Elementary described Asha as "an outstanding student with an exceptional attendance record". Asha did well in math and science but also loved to draw. She had dreams of becoming an illustrator when she grew up. At the time of her disappearance, her class had just finished reading a book called "The Whipping Boy" by Sid Fleischman. This childrens book is about two kids who run away from home and and go on lots of great adventures before eventually returning home.
Not only did Asha do well in school, she also loved sports and enjoyed being the star point guard for the Fallston Bulldogs. On Saturday, February 12th, 2000 they had their first game of the season. Unfortunately during the game, Asha fouled out and they lost. She was visibly upset. She felt that she had let her team down and that they would blame her for losing. However later on that night, Asha appeared to have started to feel better and was back to her cheerful self.
The next morning the Degree family went to church as normal. After, they went and had lunch with Asha's grandmother and Aunt Alisha at Alisha's home. They did not stay long because Harold needed to go home and get ready for work. So after lunch they went home.
That night Asha and O'Bryant did not have their usual nightly bath. There was a power outage in the neighborhood that had been caused by a car wreck near by. Iquilla decided that the kids would go to bed earlier because they had stayed up late at a sleepover with their cousins the night before. This would also allow them to wake up earlier to get their bath when the power was back on. So around 8:00 PM, they went to sleep in their bedroom that they shared. However it was reported that about an hour later Asha was awoken due to a loud thunderstorm.
Harold arrived home from work around 12:30 am. The power came back on sometime shortly thereafter. Some sources say that when he returned home, Asha was sitting on the couch, fully dressed and he told her to go back to sleep. However it has been mostly reported that when he got home, both children were in fact asleep in their bedroom. Harold then decided to relax for a couple of hours and watch some TV. Before heading to bed at about 2:30, he checked on the children again and has stated they were both still asleep. Not too much longer after, O'Bryant remembers hearing his sister get up to go to the bathroom. Not too long after he heard the bed squeak so he assumed she went back to sleep.
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At around 5:45 Iquilla woke up earlier so that she could get the kids bath ready since they were not able to get one the night earlier. Keep in mind that this would be February 14th which is not only Valentine's Day but also the 12 year wedding anniversary of Iquilla and Harold. At around 6:30 she went into the children's room. O'Bryant was still asleep but Asha wasn't in her bed. She found that odd but figured she had probably just woken up earlier and was in another part of the house. Iquilla looked through the rest of the house and did not find Asha. She even checked the front and back yard and the family vehicles. She was nowhere to be found. She started to panic and woke up Harold. Harold suggested she call his mother to see if she was there. She was not. Iquilla then called her mother and again had no luck.
The police were then called and arrived within ten minutes at 6:40 a.m. Search dogs were even brought in but possibly due to the recent storm, were unable to pick up a scent. Asha's family in the police searched the neighborhood and by noon over 60 people were helping in the search. A helicopter with infrared heat-detection even flew over the area but still no signs of Asha. In fact, despite having the police, search dogs, helicopter and the many volunteers searching the neighborhood and nearby woods. Nothing was found. No sign of Asha whatsoever.
Heartbroken and still wanting answers, Asha's family searched her room in hopes of finding clues that could lead them to her. Upon doing so it was found that her backpack was missing, which is where she normally kept her house key, along with her Tweety Bird purse and clothing. All though it appeared that no coat was missing, which was odd given the cold and rainy temperatures. It was also noted that all doors and windows had been locked which would indicate that most likely Asha was not taken but actually left on her own. This could also have meant that when O'Bryant had heard the bed squeaking the night earlier, it was not Asha returning to sleep but actually her leaving. But why?
The family of Asha found it hard to believe that not only would Asha runaway but especially that late at night during a thunderstorm. Asha was a bright and happy child with seemingly no family issues. Why would she leave in the middle of the night, during a storm with no coat and while she was afraid of the dark? Asha was just nine years old. It's hard to imagine any nine year old leaving under these circumstances but especially a child who was known for always being cautious and obeying her parents. Later on that night, her story was on the local news. That prompted several witnesses calling in tips. It seemed that not one, not two but THREE different people had seen Asha walking along N.C. Highway 18, near the intersection of Highway 180 between 3:45 a.m. and 4:15 a.m. just a mile away from the Degree family home. One driver said he was concerned when he saw her since she was a young girl, walking so late at night, in the rain with no winter clothing. He even turned around to see if she needed help but apparently upon seeing this, Asha ran into the woods and was never seen again.
Because of the new leads, the policed focused on the woods near Highway 18. On February 17th they spoke with the owner of a local business, Turner Upholstery. The woman, Debbie Turner said she had not seen Asha but that a couple days earlier, she had been in a shed on property and found some candy wrappers, a marker, pencil and a Mickey Mouse shaped hair bow. At the time she did not know there was a missing child in the area so she had not reported it. She took the police to the shed who then asked Asha's parents if these items belonged to her. They did. This led investigators to believe that Asha had used this shed as shelter during the storm.
Asha's story has been shared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, America's Most Wanted and The Montel Williams Show. Her family underwent polygraph testing and passed. They are not believed to have anything to do with her disappearance as they have always cooperated with police. The police weren't given any good leads until August 3, 2000 (just two days before what would have been Asha's 10th birthday) 26 miles away in the opposite direction of where she had been seen walking. A contractor who had been working, found her backpack that had been buried inside of two black trash bags.
In February of 2015, 15 years after her disappearance the local police and the FBI reexamined the case. They even re-interviewed people from the first investigation. During this process, a new lead was announced to the public that on the night of her disappearance, Asha may have been seen getting inside a dark green 1970's Ford Thunderbird or Lincoln Continental Mark IV with rust along the wheel wells.
Three years later in October of 2018, two more possible clues were released. These items were found in Asha's backpag but did not belong to her. The first being a book called "McElligots Pool by Dr. Seuss. The F.B.I. said that it was checked out from Fallston Elementary school where she attended, sometime around her disappearance. The next clue was a white t-shirt with red collar and matching sleeves with the band "New Kids on the Block" on the front. The police are hoping that these items may help someone remember a person who had these items around the time of her disappearance. More than likely in the Shelby, North Carolina area. These are the last known leads in the case of Asha Degree.
I think at this point, no one questions if Asha left on her own accord. The question is why. Most people believe that after she left, she was met with foul play. If we can find out why she left though, maybe we can find her. Was she inspired by the book she was reading from class "The Whipping Boy"? Was she running away because was upset about fouling out at her basketball game? Was she walking to get gifts for her family? It was the night before Valentines Day and her parents anniversary after all. Did someone she trust, like a family member or even a church member convince her to leave, possibly promising to pick her up? That could explain why she would leave in the thunderstorm without a coat if she thought someone she trusted was going pick her up shortly. Where was she going and why? Asha Degree is someone's sister, daughter and friend. She is still loved by so many. The police are hoping someone will come forward with new information.
"That's my prayer every night, that God will get into their heart and let them come forward because it's got to be a weight on them," Iquilla, Asha's mother, said. "If Asha walked in the door right now, I wouldn't care what I missed. All I want to do is see her."
All it takes is ONE person to see her face, or photos of the car or the shirt to spark a memory that could lead investigators to find Asha. Please help her family find answers and bring her home. Don't let the investigators forget, don't let the media forget, don't let the person or persons responsible for her disappearance forget. Make them remember Asha Degree.
The FBI is offering a $25,000 reward on top of $20,000 set aside by the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office and the community. If you have ANY tips in Asha's disappearance, please contact the Shelby Police Department or the Cleveland County Sheriff's Department.
© 2021 Sarah Spradlin