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011 - The Vanishing of Asha Degree

[Case Evidence]

               Asha Degree was born on August 5th 1990 in Shelby, North Carolina.  Her parents were Harold and Iquilla Degree who married two years earlier on Valentines day of 1988.  Asha had brother named O’Bryant and the two were raised in an apartment in a subdivision in North Shelby.  According to all reports, Asha was subjected to a very sheltered upbringing.  Asha’s parents kept their children’s social activity fairly limited, outside of school, church and of course family.  The children weren’t allowed to watch a great deal of television, and were especially steered clear of the news as the parents found it to be full of negativity and sad stories.  The family did not own a computer either, in a 2013 interview with Jet magazine, Iquilla stated “Every time you turned on the TV there was some pedophile who had lured somebody’s child away via the internet.” 

                By February of 2000, Asha was nine years old and a student in the fourth grade at Fallston Elementary School.  She has been described by many as being a timid girl who was polite but may have been intimidated by social situations.  Asha was 4’6” tall, weighing approximately 60 pounds, an African American girl with brown eyes and black hair which she usually styled in pigtails.  Asha’s mother described her as cautious, shy and content to stay within the limits they had set for her and her brother.  Fallston Elementary was closed on Friday, February 11th.   A lot of newspapers and websites report this closure as being for Presidents Day, but in 2000 Presidents Day fell on February 21st.  Likely school was closed for a teacher work day which would explain why there would be basketball practice later that night.  If it had been closed for a holiday, usually after school activities would be cancelled.  While Asha’s parents were at work, she and her brother spent most of the day at their Aunt Aslisha’s house, which was in the same neighborhood, just down the street from the family home.  Due to their parents work schedules, both Asha and her brother had keys to the house so that they could let themselves in after school and their parents entrusted them to look after one another until one of them could arrive home from work.

                On Friday, February 11th, their Aunt Alisha would take both children to practice for their youth basketball team.  Saturday, February 12th, both Asha and her brother had basketball games to play at Burn’s Middle School.  Asha’s was first.  Asha played point guard and has been described by many as being the star player on the team.  Unfortunately, Asha would be fouled out during the game, and her team would go on to receive its first loss of the season.  Asha’s parents have stated that Asha was visibly upset about her performance in the game, and that she and her teammates cried following the loss. Asha also is reported to of complained about injuring her leg during the game. Asha’s mother consoled her and told her that her leg would be fine. It’s thought that Asha felt responsible for the loss, and took it to heart, but her parents say that her brother’s game was next, and by the end of it, Asha seemed to have nicely rebounded and her spirits were back up.  She was seen later that night joking, laughing and playing with her friends and teammates.  Following the completion of O’Bryant’s game, the family returned home for the night.

                The next day, on February 13th, the family woke and Asha and her brother went to their Aunt Alisha’s house, from which they attended services at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Waco, North Carolina.  Following Church, the kids had lunch at Alisha’s home and were given Valentine’s candy by their grandmother Joanne.  Asha was said to be in very good spirits and was excited and happy to have received the candy from her grandmother. Asha’s father, Harold, had to work his second job that evening.  He would be working at PPG Industries until midnight.  Asha and her brother returned home to their mother.  Asha laid around on the couch for a while before changing into her nightgown around 8pm when both children went to bed.  Asha shared a bedroom with her brother O’Bryant.  A storm was rolling in that night and a car accident occurred around 9pm which knocked the power out to the neighborhood.  The power was restored by the time Harold arrived home at approximately 12:30am on what was now February 14th, Harold and Iquilla’s anniversary and the day in which Asha would vanish. 

                Upon returning home, Harold says that he went to their bedroom and checked on the kids.  Both children were reported to have been home and asleep in bed at 12:30am.  For the next two hours, details are a little sketchy.  Some reports say that Harold watches TV as he usually does when he arrives home late at night and goes to bed at 2:30.  Others report that after arriving home, Harold goes back out to pick up Valentine’s Day candy and returns later, again going to bed around 2:30.  Regardless of which account is accurate, at approximately 2:30am Harold checks on the children again, and both are sound asleep in their beds.  At this point, Harold goes to bed for the night.  Sometime shortly after this, O’Bryant reports hearing Asha moving around.  He wakes up and sees Asha standing in the bedroom.  She is wearing her nightgown, white with red trim and depicting a teddy bear on the front of it.  According to O’Bryant she goes to the bathroom and returns shortly thereafter.  Sometime later O’Bryant hears Asha’s bed springs squeaking and believes his sister is moving around in the bed, but he doesn’t look and falls back to sleep without noticing anything out of the ordinary.

                Iquilla wakes at approximately 5:45am on Monday, February 14th.  This is a slightly debated topic as some have reported she woke as late as 6:15am.  In her Jet magazine interview, Iquilla stated the time as 5:45 so that is the account I will go with.  This was not a typical morning for the family as it was both Valentine’s Day as well as Iquilla and Harold’s wedding anniversary.  In addition to these goings on for the day, the power outage the previous night had prevented the children from being able to take their baths before bed, so Iquilla plans to have them clean up that morning.  This supports the idea of Iquilla waking up earlier than usual. Interestingly, most reports state that the power was knocked out around 9pm from the aforementioned car accident, but I’ve also seen news accounts that the power could have gone out as early as 6pm.  This would seem more accurate since the children were in bed by 8pm, and a 9pm power outage wouldn’t have affected their nightly routine.

                Normally Iquilla would wake the children around 6:30am to start their day and get them ready for school, but due to the need to bathe, she goes to their bedroom to wake them up a little earlier.    When Iquilla enters the bedroom she finds O’Bryant asleep in his bed, but Asha’s bed is empty.  Not immediately panicked, Iquilla begins looking around the house, assuming Asha has woken up early and is somewhere in the house.    At this point, Iquilla begins to get scared and wakes Harold.  Harold places a call to Alisha and his mother, the childrens grandmother, who live down the street, asking if Asha happened to be with them.  Both Alisha and Joanne say they haven’t seen Asha since the previous day.  Iquilla hears a car at this point and “That’s when I went into panic mode.  I put shoes on and ran outside.”  While outside, Iquilla checks both of their vehicles, but again, Asha is nowhere to be found.  At this point, Iquilla places a call to her mother, panicked and trying to explain that Asha is missing.  Her mother tries to calm her down and tells her to hang up and immediately call the police.  By 6:40am, less than ten minutes after Iquilla notices her daughter is missing, Police are on the scene.

                Police arrived and had brought search dogs with them.  Unfortunately, the dogs were unable to pick up on Asha’s scent.  It is thought that the heavy rainstorm from the night before has made it difficult for the dogs to pick up and track her scent.  I did some research regarding how the weather affects the abilities of tracking dogs.  According to several owners and trainers of tracking dogs, rain does not necessarily eliminate a scent, but a combination of torrential weather will.  Cold weather makes the scent fall, while warm weather causes it to rise.  Rain will actually refresh the scent, absorbing the particles and as the dog breathes the wet scent into its wet nose, it magnifies the scent with a taste.  One particular website referred to this occurance as similar to when a person chews a flavorful piece of gum.  This doesn’t make it more difficult to catch, but rain combined with heavy winds, such as occurred on the night Asha vanished, will tend to scatter the scent.  The dog may be able to get a hit, but then will have to follow each new trail caused by the wind’s movement. 

                While the Police investigated the home and using the dogs to try and pickup on Asha, Harold, Iquilla and O’Bryant were walking around the neighborhood, banging on doors and calling out to Asha.  By 7am, many of the neighbors were awake and some of them joined in on the search.  Throughout the course of the day, more friends, family members and clergy would appear to comfort, support and assist the family in any way that they could.  Police find no signs of forced entry at the home, and all of the doors were still locked.    The family and police spent this Valentine’s day searching for Asha.  They began close to the home and eventually began to spread out, circling further and further out from there.  Following the first day’s search there not much information is discovered, and there are no sightings of Asha.  A mitten was found, which police believed could have belonged to Asha, but Iquilla later stated that the glove was not her daughter’s and there was no winter clothing missing from the house.

                Investigators discover that Asha’s backpack is missing, along with several items of her clothing.  This, coupled with the fact that no one else appeared to enter the home that night, leads police to theorize that Asha has chosen to leave the house on her own and has locked the door behind her.  Not only do police believe that Asha made the choice to leave, but they go so far as to theorize that this was not a random occurrence.  Based on things O’Bryant heard that night and the items confirmed to be missing, they don’t believe Asha made a spur of the moment decision, packing her bag and leaving in the early morning hours.  They believe that Asha packed her bag ahead of time, possibly in the days before her disappearance, and planned to go at this particular time for reasons which remain the focus of a great deal of speculation.  Asha’s parents find this hard to believe as they can think of no reason for her to go, and due to her sheltered upbringing, she wasn’t the type of girl to go out on her own.  It is also mentioned that Asha is deathly afraid of dogs, and typically wouldn’t go out by herself.  By the evening of her first day missing, the media grabs a hold of the story and both police, Asha’s family, as well as Asha’s photo are splashed all over the television.  Iquilla appeals through the media, stating “She’s my baby, just bring her back.  If somebody took her, or if somebody has seen her, just bring her back.”  As a result of these reports, several witnesses come forward who believe they may have seen Asha in the early morning hours of February 14th.

                Two witnesses contact police saying they saw a girl fitting Asha’s description that morning walking down Highway 18.  Highway 18 is a two lane, rural road that runs a total of 145 miles north and south.  This was also a route taken by Asha’s school bus, and she may have had familiarity with where it would take her if she traveled along it.  I have been on Highway 18 many times, and depending on where you live, you may have a very different picture in mind.  In North Carolina, as well as many other southern states, these kinds of rural roads are majorly traveled, but very poorly lit, if lit at all.  There are not lights dotting along the shoulder of the road, and at night and during the early morning hours, they are extremely dark and can be difficult to navigate, especially in bad weather.

                 According to two separate witnesses, one a truck driver, they each see Asha walking South alongside Highway 18 between 3:30am and 4:15am.  Asha lives a few miles North of the main stretch of Shelby, and it has been theorized that she was heading into town as Highway 18 runs south through Shelby.  As previously mentioned, there was a storm that night, it was raining and very windy.  It was a cold February in North Carolina, and both drivers were concerned.  According to them, Asha was wearing a backpack, long sleeve white t-shirt.  Police confirm the sightings, based on their descriptions of Asha and the clothing that she was wearing matching items noted as missing from the home.  Cleveland County Sheriff Dan Crawford tells the media “One Sun-drop truck driver and another motorist have called since they saw that she was missing on television, and told officers that they saw a girl walking on the road about that time.  We’re pretty sure it was her because the descriptions they gave are consistent with what we know she was wearing.”

                If the descriptions are accurate, Asha was certainly not wearing clothing appropriate for the rainy, windy winter storm.  According to reports at the time, the only items missing from the home were a pair of sneakers, a pair of pants, a pocketbook bearing the image of Tweety Bird and Asha’s backpack.  One driver tells police that upon spotting the girl, he went slightly passed her and executed a u-turn to see if something was wrong or if she needed help.  The rain and wind were so bad that the driver has to turn around two more times before he spots her again.  At this point, he pulls over and calls out to the girl, but she seems spooked and runs down the hill from Highway 18 and disappears into a nearby woods.  It should be noted, many news sites and blogs have referred to this as a thick woods or forest, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.  Though North Carolina does have some densely forested areas, this is not one of them.  It was more or less the kind of tree line you see on the side of a rural road, a thicket of trees but not so much a woods or forest.  This sighting of Asha was approximately 1.3 miles south of her home near the junction of Highway 18 and Highway 180. This is the last confirmed sighting of Asha Degree. 

                For two long days of searching, no sign or trace of Asha is found.  Finally, February 17th, the third day of the search, investigators pickup on Asha’s trail.  Along Highway 18, just 100 yards off the road and west from the spot where Asha was sighted by the passing driver there is a shed used by Turner’s Upholstery.  The shed is located down a long dirt driveway and was filled with furniture and random items for the business, and a large tractor.  Debbie Turner, owner of the business, discovered some items near the entrance to the shed on Tuesday, February 15th, less than thirty-six hours after Asha had vanished.  Initially, she didn’t make the connection to the missing child, but when investigator’s arrived on Thursday the 17th and asked for permission to search her property for any signs of Asha, she remembered the items and told the police.

                According to investigators, the items discovered were a green marker, a pencil and a Mickey Mouse hair bow.  The items were reported to have been discovered just inside the doorway of the shed.  Immediately Police begin scouring the area, searching for traces of Asha.  In addition to the items discovered by Debbie Turner

 

, Police find several candy wrappers.  These wrappers are linked to Asha as several members of her basketball team identify them as being included in small Valentine’s Gift bags they were given following their game the previous Saturday night.  In addition to these candy wrappers, investigators discovered several more along the stretch of Highway 18 where the drivers had witnessed Asha walking the morning she disappeared.  Search dogs were brought in once again, but again were unable to detect Asha’s scent inside the shed.  Some have suggested that Asha entered the shed to take shelter from the storm, while others have contended that she was taken into the shed.  Though neither claim can be substantiated, Police did not note any signs of a struggle, nor find any physical evidence outside of the items left behind.  It does raise the question, though, of why Asha removed these items from her bag or pockets in the first place.  Others, over the years, have questioned Law Enforcements search efforts, wondering why it took them three days to initiate a search of a property located so close to the spot where Asha was last sighted.

            Despite the efforts of investigators and an increased focus on this particular area near Turner’s Upholstery, no further signs of Asha were found.  Finally, a week after Asha’s disappearance, the foot search was called off.  9,000 man hours were used during the course of this week, and they came away with very little in terms of finding Asha.  In regard to the termination of the foot search, Sheriff Dan Crawford would state “We have never really had that first, good substantial lead.  It's very frustrating to spend a lot of time and resources in an investigation and not have that good, substantial lead come to you."  Investigators and experts are baffled by the case, and can’t begin to understand what exactly happened.  Though they theorize that Asha left her home of her own volition, many people debate this.  Ben Ermini, director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was quoted as saying “Kids usually don’t start running away until age 12.”  John Goad, director of the NC Center for Missing Persons added “She doesn’t fit any standard profile of a missing child.  I don’t think a case like hers has ever happened, anywhere, anytime.”  The theory put forward by police suggests that though Asha left her home by her own choice, she likely ran into someone with darker intentions and became the victim of foul play.  Law Enforcement described this situation as difficult to track, because often kidnappers and murderers, track or stalk their victims first and there are clues to be found.  If Asha happened to stumble upon her would-be abductor, there would be few signs to indicate this.  If it was indeed a situation of happenstance, and a spur of the moment action, there isn’t much of a lead to follow.

                In March of 2000, with investigators frustrated and leads quickly drying up, they turned to the parents.  Although they publicly stated that they did not consider Harold nor Iquilla to be suspects, they did ask for them to submit to a polygraph test.  I was unable to locate any information related to Iquilla, but in terms of Harold, he passed the polygraph test.  Local law enforcement was soon joined by investigators from the FBI as well as members of the NC State Bureau of Investigation.  Sheriff Dan Crawford took center stage at a press conference and issued several statements regarding the investigation.  In relation to the possibility of foul play, Crawford said “Investigators have reason to believe that there may be individuals who have information pertinent to this investigation, that for some unknown reasons, have yet to come forward with said information.  There is a strong belief that foul play is involved in Asha Degree’s disappearance.”  When asked about possible suspects, Crawford replied “there are active leads involving individuals that we are pursuing.”  Crawford said that the FBI had tried to draw up a profile for a possible suspect, but that there was not enough evidence to support this.  The Department of Justice sent Kimberly Poyer, a child interview specialist to interview friends of Asha to see if she might be able to discern any information from them.  According to Poyer “This is not therapy, I follow a standard protocol.  Children can become very critical in cases like these.”

                Over the course of the next few months, the Degree family would make several public pleas in the media.  They appeared on the Montel Williams Show.  America’s Most Wanted, as well as the Oprah Winfrey Show aired segments covering her case.  Despite the coverage, nothing more came to light.  Investigators continued working the case, receiving daily tips, but none of which lead them to Asha or any signs of indications of where she could be.  Eighteen months would pass from the time of Asha’s disappearance before anything new would be found.  On August 3rd of 2001, the first new piece of evidence in the case since her items were found in Turner’s Upholstery shed would surface.  Approximately 26 miles North from the shed, along Highway 18, Asha’s backpack was discovered.  It should be noted that Asha was last seen traveling south, about a mile from her home, so it’s incredibly unlikely that she brought the backpack twenty six miles in the opposite direction.

                Terry Fleming, a 44 year old Burke County contractor was clearing a lot in the Laurel Fork area to make way for the construction of a house.  While operating a grader, Terry uncovered what appeared to be a black garbage or lawn and leaf bag with an item inside.  Curious, Terry stopped the grader and examined the bag.  Inside of the garbage bag, was another garbage bag, and inside of that was a backpack.  The exact location of the bag is somewhat debated, but appears to have been approximately fifty yards off the shoulder of Highway 18.  Also located in the area were a pair of men’s khaki pants and some scattered animal bones.  According to several reports, Fleming opened the backpack and found a paper with Asha’s name on it along with a phone number.  Fleming was unfamiliar with Asha’s case, but felt uneasy about the bag itself.  He reportedly wrote down the name and number.  It wasn’t until the next morning, sitting at breakfast with his wife, when he informed her of what he had found.  According to some reports, his wife was aware of Asha’s case and the two immediately called the police. 

                Search and rescue teams were called in, and they combed the area looking for any signs of Asha but outside of the backpack, none were found.  The FBI took the bag into their possession for forensic testing.  I think it’s important to note here that the FBI have never released the results of their testing, and have never given a full list of the items found inside of the bag.  Many websites make claims about clothing, including Asha’s basketball uniform, and photos of her family, being found in the bag, but I can find no official statements or law enforcement issued press releases which detail the contents of the bag.  To the best of my knowledge, and according to the Charley Project listing for Asha Degree, all reports about the contents of the bag are in fact unconfirmed.

                Following the discovery of her bag, Police considered this confirmation that foul play was involved in Asha’s disappearance.  It is their belief that the abductor or abductors of Asha took the beg into the woods and buried it the way that it was discovered.  Discovery of the bag raises all kinds of other questions, though, and opens the door to a great deal of speculation regarding Asha’s disappearance.  If indeed she were abducted, why would her bag essentially be preserved by placing it inside of trash bags and burying it whereas if someone wanted to conceal it, they could easily have burned the bag, discarded it in a junkyard, or even thrown off one of the many cliffs and mountainsides in the area where it was much less likely to be discovered.  The answers to these questions have never been found and the discovery of her backpack is the last piece of evidence that has ever been found in the disappearance of Asha Degree.

                Over the next few years, Asha’s case began to grow cold.  Investigators state that they continued to receive tips in regard to her possible locations, or sadly, the location of her remains, but all of these tips lead to dead ends.  One particular tip came in 2004, and although the contents of the tip itself are unknown, there must have been enough involved that police took it very seriously.  The tip is reported to have come from an inmate in the county jail.  At the intersection of Shelby and Rube Spangler roads in Lawndale, South Carolina, police initiated an excavation to retrieve possible human remains.  Ultimately the dig had no results, finding only animal bones, and no evidence related to Asha Degree.  More years and no signs of Asha would be found.

                In February of 2015, the FBI announced that a joint team of FBI agents, Cleveland County Sheriff’s Officer Investigators and State Bureau of Investigation agents were re-examining the case and interviewing witnesses once again.  They put up a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest of any indivudals involved in or responsible for her disappearance.  Funds raised locally offered an additional $20,000 bringing the total to $45,000.  Shelly Lynch, Public Affairs specialist with the Charlotte office of the FBI stated “We are going over every aspect of this case and re-interviewing people.  We are making sure there is no evidence that could still be tested.  This is a case we have actively been working on for seventeen years.”  Despite the re-investigation, outside of the offer of a reward, nothing new would come from this second look at the case.  Or perhaps, something would.  It is somewhat of a topic of debate but in May of 2016, investigators released their first new evidence in the case since the discovery of her backpack some fifteen years earlier. 

                The FBI released a statement that a new piece of evidence was unearthed wherein a witness claimed to have seen a girl fitting Asha’s description getting into a dark green car on Highway 18 near the site that she was last seen.  The car is believed to be a late 70’s Ford Thunderbird or a Lincoln Mark IV.  Both vehicles are very similar in style and size, although the Lincoln Mark IV has a distinctive tire-shaped bump on the trunk.  In regard to the vehicle, Cleveland County Sheriff Alan Norman stated “The vehicle is right now considered a vehicle of interest, and it was occupied two times on the day of her disappearance.  It had been discovered by leg work by the Sheriff’s office investigators along with the Federal Government.”  When asked about progress regarding the case, and whether or not it will be solved, Norman responded “It goes to show that this case is actively worked and will be worked until there is closure for the family and the community.”  Despite this new evidence, the vehicle has never been located.  Seventeen years later, the vehicle may have been disposed of, changed hands, destroyed.  Although investigators tried to track vehicles matching those descriptions which were registered at the time, nothing further has come from this.

                So, what happened to Asha Degree?  Theories are plentiful in relation to her case, and cover a wide variety of possibilities.  Some are more extreme than others, and some seem outright ridiculous, but in a case like this where there is so little information available, it’s nearly impossible to determine what is logical and what is easily dismissible.  The major theories cover most of the following possibilities:  Some believe Asha left of her own accord, and chose to never return, or she left of her own accord and was taken by an abductor.  Others theorize that Asha was convinced to leave, or had made an arrangement to meet someone else, and things went wrong along the way.  Some have suggested that Asha was abducted from her home by someone that she knew, while still others think that perhaps Asha sleepwalked out of her home that night.  There are also theories that Asha may have been abducted and trafficked, or perhaps she was struck by a vehicle that night and the person chose to hide the body and pretend it never happened. 

                Beginning at the bottom and working our way up, the first theory to approach would be the sleepwalking theory.  Sleepwalking isn’t uncommon, especially in children.  This theory follows the thought process that Asha got out of her bed, changed her clothes, grabbed her bag, left her home, locked the door behind her, and walked a mile down Highway 18 before being spotted by the passersby.  I haven’t found any indication as to whether or not they believe she woke up at this point in time, or if she was still sleepwalking when she ran down into the woods.  Either way, followers of this theory think that Asha was subject to one of a few different possibilities:  If indeed she was sleepwalking, at some point, she woke up and was disoriented and confused.  Not knowing where she was, she continued on her way and either became more lost, or was discovered by someone who abducted her.  A different branch of this theory believes that while sleepwalking, Asha was struck and killed in a hit and run accident.  They theorize that this unknown person hit her with his or her vehicle, and in a panic, took her body and chose to dispose of it in some way that it would never be discovered.  It’s a thin theory, but it’s one of those which, believe it or not, is very prominent on the internet and amongst online detective forums. 

                Police firmly believe that Asha chose to leave her home that night.  They present her backpack as evidence, suggesting that it was packed prior to that morning and that she was preparing to go out on her own.  Some people have linked this choice to a book that Asha was reading at the time.  In her fourth grade class as Fallston Elementary they were reading ‘The Whipping Boy’ by Sid Fleischman at the time.  The book involves the two main characters running away, and their so-called adventures are chronicled throughout the book.  A common theory is that Asha, described as an avid reader, was inspired by this book and wanted to go on an adventure.  According to this line of thought, Asha packed her bag and decided that she was going to live the story out, in a manner of speaking.  Whether or not Asha was in this alone, or if she had a friend who was planning to go with her is unknown.  Regardless, it is though that this was Asha’s impetus for her running away.  Certainly possible, but not very much to go on. 

                According to experts in the field, and run away statistics, it usually takes more than this for a child to choose to go.  Most of the time, experts say that it requires that the child be running from something.  Be it the household, a particular person in their life or some outside incident of which they were a part, or do not wish to be a part.  Many people have factored in the loss of the basketball game the previous Saturday, and how Asha was upset and blamed herself for the loss.  This, combined with the book, many believe, is enough in the mind of a nine year old to cause her to make the decision to go off on her own.  We don’t know, as of yet, but it’s as likely a theory as any other.  Could there have been other reasons why Asha would have chosen to go off on her own?  Absolutely, but to this day, investigators have yet to uncover what other factors may have played a role in this.

                Assuming that Asha did in fact choose to leave on her own, everything after that becomes suspect.  Why would a child who is afraid of dogs, and supposedly also afraid of the dark and of storms, leave her home somewhere between 2:30am and 4:00am during a storm?  We know from descriptions that she was wearing only a long sleeve white t-shirt, pants and shoes.  She packs her bag with a few items of clothing and some writing utensils, which can only be assumed based on items reported missing from the home and those which are found at the shed at Turner’s Upholstery.  The walk from her house to Highway 18 is less than a quarter of a mile.  This is a walk she ismaking in a t-shirt, when it’s windy, raining and temperatures are somewhere in the 30’s or 40’s.  Not knowing what time she leaves, it is known that she was spotted on Highway 18 at approximately 4 or 4:15am.  A vehicle pulls over, and based on the driver’s statements, he calls out to her asking if she needs help, and she runs down off the shoulder of the road into the trees.  What happened from there is debatable, though it’s assumed she entered the shed at some point in time considering that items of hers were found there.  From that point on, it’s an absolute mystery.

                Most people believe that at some point either while she was at the shed, or shortly after leaving it, Asha is approached by an unknown person or persons and is either coaxed into a vehicle, or is taken into one.  Police were in the are searching within hours of her last sighting, and had she still been walking, it’s not considered possible she could have walked far enough to avoid detection in that amount of time.  Asha appears to have had the bad luck to have run into someone who either was looking for a child to abduct, or who happened to see her and decided to take her.  Either way, Asha is now with someone else, and is being transported away from home.  The chances that she would run into a random child abductor seem to be slim, especially considering how early in the morning it was.  The road itself is not very busy during that time, and statistically speaking, that narrows down the chances even more. 

                Into the picture comes Donald Preston Ferguson.  In January of 2014, Ferguson is arrested and charged with the sexually assaulting and murdering 7 year old Shalonda Poole who was found deceased behind Jones Elementary School in Greensboro North Carolina in 1990.  Ferguson will be found guilty of this horrible crime and be sentenced to two life terms.  Ferguson was found through a DNA match, after a former suspect was acquitted of having any involvement in the crime.  In the case of Shalonda Poole, it turns out that Ferguson knew the victim.  He was a friend of the family, and even participated in the search efforts when she vanished.  One year after her murder, Ferguson was arrested and plead guilty to sexually assaulting a ten year old.  He was sentenced to eight years in prison, and was released in October of 1997.  Ferguson was known to be in South Carolina, specifically in the Spartanburg area.  As a point of reference:  Spartanburg South Carolina is just 38 miles from Shelby, where Asha vanished from.  Greensboro, the sight of the murder of Shalonda Poole is 140 miles from Shelby.

                Ferguson is a special kind of crazy, coming along with family members who were also alleged to be involved in sick crimes such as his.  A quick timeline for Ferguson goes as follows:  In May of 1989, a ten year old girl is sexually assaulted by Donald Ferguson.  He is arrested for this crime by June of that year, and bonds out.  One year later in July of 1990, Ferguson rapes and murders seven year old Shalonda Poole.  In August of 1990, Ferguson’s grandmother is shot and killed.  In March of 1991, he pleads guilty to the 1989 rape accusation and is sentenced to eight years.  In October of 1997, Ferguson is released from prison.  Within five days of his release, Ferguson and several family members are arrested for the murder of his grandmother.  In April of 1999, the charges are dropped citing a lack of evidence.  In 2007, an investigator examines the Poole case and sees a photo of Donald Ferguson, which immediately piques his suspicion.  In August of 2008, Ferguson is arrested in Gaffney, SC for failing to register as a sex offender.  In November of 2012 he is arrested for defrauding a bank.  He is sentenced to a year but that is chalked up to time served.  In January of 2014, he arrested when advances in DNA match him to the rape and murder of Shaldona Poole. 

                From the period of 1999 to later in the 2000’s, there isn’t an accounting of Ferguson.  He is reported to be involved in drugs, scams, fraud and to have been homeless for a period of time.  At that particular time he was known to be a child molester, though he hadn’t yet been connected to the murder of Shalonda Poole.  Asha Degree vanishes in February of 2000, not far from Ferguson’s stomping grounds.  Not only is she within the age range he appears to be drawn to, but her physical description is very similar to that of Asha Degree.  Both are young African Americans girls with small frames, big smiles and similar hairstyles.  In regard to Ferguson, Sheriff Alan Norman states “The individual was arrested in Spartanburg County which means in all probability he had to come through Cleveland County numerous times.  We’re looking back to see where this individual would have been fourteen years ago, where he resided, where he worked.”  As of this recording, there has been no evidence which links Ferguson to Asha Degree, but for many, he is the prime suspect.

                The finding of Asha’s backpack continues the theory of an abduction.  It seems impossible that Asha could have traveled the twenty six miles north without being seen, and even if she had done so, there would be no logical reason that she would wrap her backpack in garbage bags and bury it.  Some people have theorized that the bag was placed there because it was known that they were going to be digging a house and the responsible person wanted it to be found.  Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the items of Asha’s which were found in the shed were placed by the perpetrator also.  There doesn’t appear to be any hard evidence to confirm either of these theories, but they are out there to be discovered.  If indeed a stranger abducted Asha, there are only a few possibilities of what could have happened to her.  She was either murdered, trafficked or kept.  Unfortunately, no information exists to support any of these possibilities, and for many, the frustration of this case is how it seems impossible so that a nine year old girl simply vanished into nothing.

                The final theory, and one of the more popular ones also, is that Asha was not abducted by a stranger, but by someone she knew.  It’s suggested that Asha was not only abducted by this person, but was persuaded and brainwashed into it.  A family friend, a teacher, a pastor, all have become suspect in the years since her disappearance.  Many people believe that someone close to the family managed to get time with Asha, and talked her into running away.  It’s thought to be possible that the shed was in fact a pre-arranged meeting place, and that this is why Asha had taken items out of her bag while there:  she was waiting for someone.  The motive behind this is unknown, and how it could have happened is hard to determine.  Considering the sheltered life that Asha lived, it’s hard to imagine someone being able to get close enough to her to do this.  There was no computer in the home, so the idea of an internet abduction is unlikely.  But Asha may have gone with someone she knew, someone who either picked her up outside of her home that night, or arranged a meeting.  It’s thought possibly that she was picked up at home, and fled to the Shed when she realized what was happening.  Although a possible theory, there are flaws with it.  Could Asha have kept this secret from everyone, including her brother O’Bryant who she was purported to be extremely close with?  How would this person have evaded detection after all of these years?  Is it possible that this is another situation like the Donald Ferguson case where the responsible person was actually involved in the search for Asha in the days after she disappeared?  Unfortunately, all of it is possible.  Every theory, because there is no evidence to directly contradict any of it.  The answers may depend on the evidence, and we still don’t know exactly what the FBI found on her backpack, if anything.  More questions and less answers.

                It has been seventeen years since Asha Degree vanished.  She would be twenty-six years old today, and the FBI and Charley Project have age progressed photographs of what she may look like today.  Her family has moved forward, but never forgotten.  Their home is described as a shrine to Asha, and yes they still live in the same home, and have the same phone number.  Her brother, O’Bryant, has since had his own daughter, and says she looks so much like Asha it is uncanny.  Her family have never given up hope that they will see her again someday.  In 2008 her family began a scholarship in her name, they also host an annual walk from their home to the last place she was seen to raise funds to continue the search.  To this day, along that lonely stretch of Highway 18 where Asha was last seen, there is a large billboard depicting her image and asking for answers as to what happened.  Seventeen years later, we are still waiting for those answers.

[Thoughts & Theories]

The disappearance of Asha Degree is an incredibly frustrating and infuriating case.  How a nine year old girl could simply disappear without a trace is hard to fathom.  It’s a very upsetting case, as almost as cases are, but I am especially sensitive to the ones involving young children.  There is something so horrible about imagining an innocent child being abducted that is almost too monstrous to imagine, and yet we must remain vigilant of it because we don’t live in a safe world and there are sick people out there like Donald Ferguson.  When I was a kid, I was very aware of these facts.  My parents instilled in me the idea that the world was a much bigger place than I could imagine and that it had a great many people who wanted to harm or kidnap children. 

                This case has been on my list for a long time, and I wasn’t originally planning to do it just yet, but Lana Greenland from the Trace Evidence Discussion Group on Facebook suggested it to me and I decided now would be the time to do it.  I currently live about an hours drive away from Shelby, North Carolina where Asha Degree lived.  I have driven on Highway 18 several times, and once at night so I am well aware of just how dark it can get over there.  This was a really big case when it happened, and there was a lot of buzz about it.  In the years since, people talk about it less and less, but to this day if you mention Asha Degree to the locals, they’ll know who you are talking about. 

                A friend of mine used to work in Law Enforcement in the area, and he knew one of the detectives who had initially worked Asha’s case.  He attempted to set up an interview between myself and the detective, but ultimately it didn’t happen.  The investigators are very tight lipped about the case, and don’t like to discuss it.  It was my understanding that they have people in mind, and they don’t want to say anything which could give that away, or hint at what evidence they are in possession on.  I completely understand that and wouldn’t want to do anything to compromise the investigation.  Perhaps at some point, if the answers are found, I’ll be able to do that interview and we can discuss the case further, but for now, as has been the situation for the past 17 years, we have very little to go on and a lot of speculation.

                I feel like this is a case that defies logic in a lot of ways.  Most people approach it with what is typical, and what is statistically likely, but I don’t think this is necessarily the best way to approach the case.  There can be anomalies, there can be situations which are completely out of the ordinary and don’t fit into preconceived notions and beliefs about what is considered typical.  No, nine year olds don’t typically choose to run away, but some do, and this may be the case with Asha.  Investigators are almost certain that Asha packed the bag in the days before, and left the house of her own volition.  This is completely contrary to what they believe is likely based on past cases and situations like these.  I have read a lot about how it is unlikely that Asha could have traveled a mile from her house in the rain, wind and cold of that night wearing only a t-shirt, pants and sneakers, but it appears as if she did.  All the witnesses who saw her that night saw her alone, no one else, no other drivers around. 

                Some things don’t fit into a box, some things happen which are unique, or seem to be completely improbable, but they happen nonetheless.  I have tried to look at this case from a perspective where nothing can be ruled out, and nothing can be known with absolute certainty.  If this case were like others, if Asha’s behavior and disappearance were typical, I think it’s more likely that a resolution would have been found by now.  Seventeen years later, and we still just don’t know what happened to Asha Degree or why she chose to leave her house that morning.  This case has a lot of angles to it, and a lot of moving parts to address.  I think the best way to approach it is to address them chronologically.

                Asha was nine years old when she vanished.  She was in Fourth Grade, played basketball and was a shy girl who loved reading and was close with her family made up of her parents, Harold and Iquilla, her brother O’Bryant, and several relatives living nearby, including her Aunt Alisha.  Her parents both worked, with her father doing two jobs to support the family.  As a result, Asha and her brother both had keys to the house and were trusted to let themselves in and take care of each other.  Often times, when neither parent was going to be around, the children were looked after by their Aunt who lived just down the street with their grandmother.

                The weekend before she vanished, Asha and her brother spent time with their Aunt Alisha.  They attended basketball practice on Friday night.  School had been closed on Friday, and though many places report it as being closed for Presidents day, that’s incorrect.  Likely it was a teacher work day, which would explain why there were still after school sports activities.  Asha and her brother practiced and there doesn’t appear to be anything unusual about this particular day.  As we know, Asha was raised in somewhat of a sheltered environment.  Her parents limited the kids to outsiders, and they were mostly around family.  The only times they were around other people was when they were at school or at Church.  From everything I have read, Asha had an active group of friends at school and was close with her basketball teammates.  Some people point out that Asha’s family didn’t have a computer, and that it was unlikely that she could have talked to someone on the internet who may have been involved in her disappearance.  This is true, but her school likely had computers with internet access.  I know that mine did, and at that time, cyber security wasn’t nearly as big of a thing as it is now.  It’s hard to say, without knowing for sure, but I can’t completely rule out the possibility that she had talked to someone on the school computers.  That being said, we can’t rule out her teachers, coaches, friends parents or really anyone else who ever came into contact with her.

                On Saturday night, the kids were brought to their games at a rival school.  Asha played first, and fouled out of the game.  She was reportedly upset about this and blamed herself for her teams loss.  Having played sports as a kid, I know what it feels like when you think you’re responsible for the loss of a game.  Would that be enough to cause Asha to take the drastic measure of running off?  Hard to say, everyone takes things differently.  The one piece which makes this seem unlikely is that Asha’s family all say that by the end of her brother’s game, which was after hers, she appeared to be over it and doing much better.  As the evening came to an end she was joking and playing with her friends.  It seems like an innocuous incident, and one which doesn’t require a great deal of analysis, but in cases with so little information that are this baffling, people often find it necessary to analyze every detail of everything that happened leading up to it.

                Sunday seems as though it was a typical day for the family.  They attended Church, and Asha’s father Harold went to work second shift at his second job, which would have him not coming home until approximately midnight.  At some point that night the power would go out as a result of a car accident.  The time isn’t known for sure, but the most likely time is approximately 6pm.  This seems most likely based on the fact that Asha and her brother were in bed by 8pm, and weren’t able to take their baths that night due to the power outage.  I’ve read that the power came back on anytime between 9pm and shortly before Harold’s return home between 12 and 12:30am.  There is even debate about his arrival home, with some reports saying he arrived home around 12:30am, before going back out to buy Valentine’s day candy, and others saying that he arrived home at 12:30am and had bought the candy on his way home from work.  Either way, Harold states that he checked on the kids at both 12:30am and 2:30am, right before he went to bed, and both of them were sound asleep in their beds.

                Iquilla wakes up sometime between 5:45 and 6am the next morning.  She has to bathe the children before school, due to the power outage the night before, and goes about her normal routine.  At approximately 6:30 Iquilla goes to O’Bryant and Asha’s bedroom and discovers she is missing.  During the next eight minutes, Iquilla, O’Bryant and Harold check the house and the surrounding area.  Harold calls down the street to his sister’s house, where she lives with her mother, and asks if they’ve seen Asha that morning, but neither of them have.  At this point, Iquilla calls her mother in a panic and is instructed to call 911.  Harold places the call at 6:38am.  There is no audio of the call available, but there is a transcript.  One piece of information I found in the transcript I’ve been unable to find anywhere else.  According to the transcript Harold states “The next door neighbor said she went down the road and said she just seen a kid down the road.” 

                It’s strange that this is in the 911 call transcript, but mentioned nowhere else.  I don’t know if this is something said in a panic, or if it was a miscommunication.  It seems like an important piece of information, regardless, and if a neighbor did in fact see Asha walking down the road, that would have had to have been during those early morning hours when she left the home.  It’s just an out of place detail with no further corroboration.  In other accounts I read that Iquilla heard a car, and ran outside to see if Asha were in it, or if the people in it had seen her.  There seems to be a lot of confusion in the details around what occurred between the discovery that Asha was missing and the arrival of the police.  Of course, it’s entirely possible that this is due to the level of panic everyone was dealing with in that time.

                Cleveland County Sheriff Dan Crawford calls in the FBI and the NC State Bureau of Investigation early in the case.  He believes this is going to be a complex search, and wants all of the help he can get.  When asked about this, Crawford tells the media that this isn’t about glory, or being the one to find her.  He doesn’t have a problem working with outside divisions because he wants to find Asha, by whatever means necessary.  The first day of the search is fairly fruitless in terms of anything leading to Asha’s whereabouts.  They do find a mitten, which Iquilla says was not her daughter’s.  Some people have suggested that this is a strange thing, that Iquilla would so quickly dismiss the one possible clue that they have found.  I don’t think it’s that odd, we are not dealing with a rich family who would have so many items they wouldn’t be able to identify them when found.  Most parents are able to recognize their children’s clothes, and Iquilla is emphatic that the glove is not Asha’s. 

                In the resulting search of the house, Police discover that Asha’s backpack is missing, along with several items of clothing.  This is when the theory is put together that Asha packed her bag herself, and that her exit from the home was planned.  The police believe that in the days leading up to her disappearance, Asha packed the bag and had it ready to go on the morning of February 14th.  For whatever reason, Asha planned to leave that day.  No one has yet been able to determine why.  To me this is a huge piece of the puzzle which has yet to be uncovered.  I think if we had an exact answer as to what spurned her to leave, we would have a much better idea of what happened to Asha.

                Due to the media coverage, several witnesses come forward who had been driving on Highway 18 the morning Asha disappeared.  These witnesses give accounts of seeing a girl matching Asha’s description walking South along the highway that night.  Police verify the sightings through descriptions of her clothing.  I do find it strange that these witnesses spot a little girl walking along the side of the road at approximately 4:15am and don’t feel compelled to contact authorities about it.  Even the man who was concerned enough to pull to the side of the road doesn’t call in a report of what he’s seen.  It isn’t until they see the reports about Asha’s disappearance on the news that they call in and tell what they have seen.  Their reports, once verified, shift the focus of the search.  The spot where Asha was seen is approximately 1.3 miles from her home, along a lonely stretch of Highway 18.  They begin a searching with this spot as the center, extending out in a two to three mile radius.  Hundreds of police and volunteers crawl over the landscape, but find little. 

                On February 17th, three days after Asha vanished, the police get their first real lead in Debbie Turner’s shed.  In it, items belonging to Asha are found in addition to cellophane candy wrappers.  Police refocus the search into this area, combing the nearby woods and roads.       The police find other candy wrappers matching those found at the shed scattered along Highway 18.  Despite massive search efforts, a week after Asha’s disappearance, the foot search is called off.  Police continue to investigate, but within the first week they exhaust over 9,000 man hours and receive over 300 tips.  Outside of a few of Asha’s personal effects and some candy wrappers, they had no new leads, and no trace of Asha.  Things would remain that way for a year and a half, until a contractor stumbled upon Asha’s backpack.  It was found double wrapped in garbage bags, buried 26 miles north of the last place she was seen, in the opposite direction from which she was headed. 

                We don’t know much about the bag, other than that it is confirmed to have belonged to Asha.  The contractor who found it, Terry Fleming, revealed some details about the items contained within the bag.  According to him there was a paper with Asha’s name on it, and a phone number.  The bag was taken into FBI custody and they never revealed anything about its contents, or any significant forensic evidence found on or in it.  There are countless reports online that describe clothing and photographs in the backpack, but these are completely unconfirmed.  The last piece of evidence to come out regarding Asha is an eyewitness who claims to have witnessed Asha being ushered into a car on the morning she vanished.  The witness stated that he saw Asha getting into a dark green car, either a Ford Thunderbird or a Lincoln Mark IV.  This piece of information was revealed to the public in 2016, and there appears to be some confusion about it.

                I have read several news articles which claim that this information came in the Summer of 2016, after the a joint task force of FBI, NC SBI and Cleveland County Sheriff’s Investigators reinterviewed witnesses and looked at the case with fresh eyes.  It’s said that during that summer, the new tip came in.  Allegedly someone remembered these details seventeen years later.  This seems unlikely, but police believed it enough to publicly issue a statement regarding it.  On the other hand, I have also heard accounts that this was not new information.  Some reports state that this information in the files from February of 2000 and that it had either been overlooked, or dismissed initially.  There’s no way of knowing for sure which of these accounts is correct, and although it allowed a glimmer of hope to shine for a moment, nothing would come of it.  At least not yet. 

                There are a lot of theories about what happened to Asha Degree.  Some believe that she was abducted from her home, either by a stranger or someone she knew.  Others believe she left of her own choice, but was abducted somewhere along the way.  Some believe she sleepwalked out of her home and into the unknown, while others still link her disappearance to a known pedophile and murderer. 

                The first theory I want to examine is the sleepwalking theory.  It’s hard not to look at the sleepwalking theory as something from completely out of left field, but there is some precedent for it.  There have been historical examples of people doing all manner of things while asleep, up to and including murder.  I sleepwalked for a period of time in my life, but to the best of my knowledge, I never executed any complex activities while in this state.  Mostly I would get out of bed in the middle of the night, and move to a different part of the house where I would lay back down to go to sleep.  I have vivid memories of going to sleep at night and waking the next morning on the couch in the living room, or on the floor in the kitchen.  No recollection of moving locations and no reason for having done it. 

                The theory about Asha is that, while asleep, she got up from her bed, changed her clothing, packed her bag and exited the house.  I think that all of these activities pretty much rule out the idea of sleepwalking.  If she had simply walked out of the house, it’d be so much more likely.  The idea that she would change, pack the bag and then exit is a bit much to believe.  In addition to that, you would also have to factor in that she shares a room with her brother and it’s unlikely he wouldn’t have heard more or been woken up fully if his sister were changing clothes and packing a bag in the room.  He woke up when she went to the bathroom, he heard the springs of her bed squeaking.  It seems a stretch to imagine he wouldn’t have heard all of the racket associated with packing and changing.  Sleepwalking is one of those things where it’s hard to know exactly how it will work for certain people.  Some have pointed out that Asha had no history of sleepwalking, but I had no history of sleepwalking until I started doing it either. 

                Even if she had managed to do all of this while sleeping, I have to believe that she would have been jarred awake by the time she got outside.  It was cold out that night, I’ve seen estimates as low as 34 degrees farenheit and based on the witnesses, we know she isn’t dressed for this weather.  It’s raining, and when its that cold out, that rain is like little icicles dropping on you.  It was also extremely windy out.  Moving from a warm bed to a cold, wet, windy night atmosphere would almost certainly disrupt a person enough to wake them up.  Allowing a little leverage and assuming that this didn’t wake Asha, she ends up walking down Highway 18 over a mile from her home.  Most of the time, sleepwalkers repeat activities or actions that they perform in their waking hours.  They don’t usually do things or go places they haven’t before, and although Highway 18 was Asha’s bus route to school, she had never walked it.  This theory then has to make room for her running from the witnesses, so people often say that she must have woken up at some point, gotten scared by the car, and run away out of fear.  Certainly possible, but I feel like Asha would have tried to get to a home, a business, some place where someone may have been to call the police, or her parents.  Maybe she did, and this is the point at which she is grabbed by someone.  It’s impossible to say, but I do feel like the sleepwalking theory is very unlikely.  I can’t say it’s impossible, because in a case like this, we have no idea what exactly happened, and the lack of answers leave a lot of room for theories.  Understanding all of that, I would be incredibly shocked if at some point this was proven to be true.  It should be noted that this is a completely civilian theory, there have been no statements from Law Enforcement to suggest or hint that they ever considered this at any point of their investigation.

                Then we have the idea that Asha didn’t leave her home of her own volition.  I think this theory has a couple of different forks to it.  There’s the idea that someone took her out of the home, and then the idea that someone convinced her to leave or tricked her into doing so.  We know that Asha was fairly sheltered by her parents, and didn’t have much access to people outside of her family, and those she would be around at school and at Church.  It goes to say that if indeed someone else was involved in this, it was likely someone the family knew.  This is typically the case when it comes to abductors and muderers, they often know the victims and have some connection to them.  Stranger abduction is more rare, though still a possibility.  If someone else were involved in Asha leaving her home that night, I have to believe it was someone she knew.  There were no signs of a struggle, forced entry or anything out of the ordinary.  I think at this point it’s beyond debate that Asha unlocked that door and walked out herself, locking it behind her.  I do not believe that any evidence exists to say that Asha was taken out against her will.

                So if Asha left on her own, that brings up what I consider to be the biggest question in this case:  Why did she go?  There are a lot of thoughts on the motive behind this.  Some people believe that Asha was running away for unknown reasons.  A lot of people point to the loss of the basketball game as upsetting Asha so much that she chose to go.  Others believe that the book ‘The Whipping Boy’ was inspiration for her to go off and have her own adventures.  Some have even suggested that something was going on with someone in her life and she was desperate to get away from it.  To me, the basketball theory doesn’t connect.  By all accounts, she was feeling better by the end of the night and she doesn’t leave that night.  She leaves two nights later.  Nine year olds tend to be somewhat resilient and while this loss may have upset her it doesn’t make much sense that she would run away, now depriving her team of her once again, if she believes that her fouling out of the game is what caused them to lose.  The book could have played a role, children are impressionable, and I certainly read and saw things as a child that made me want to emulate them, I think children are also drawn to their families and it would be hard to make the choice to leave them behind.  From everything I have read, Asha is close to her brother, and the book involves two people leaving.  I think Asha would have mentioned something to him, or to a friend, about this, and tried to have someone come along with her. 

                I think this leaves the option that she was upset about something else, or someone else, and that is what she was trying to escape.             It’s hard to speculate on this without knowing the details, but many people believe that Asha was either being intimidated or abused by someone inside of her social circle, or inside of her own family.  It’s important to note that Police never listed her parents as suspects, and polygraphs were given to them as a part of procedure.  For everything I’ve come across, to this day their home is described as a shrine to Asha with pictures of her everywhere and that doesn’t seem like the behavior of parents who were up to something wrong.  That doesn’t rule out others.  As we saw in the Shalonda Poole case, Donald Ferguson knew the family.  It’s entirely possible that someone close to the Degree family was responsible for this, and like Ferguson, may have even participated in the search for her.  I’ve read several websites where they state that there is a suspect that knows the family, but I haven’t been able to find anyplace that names this person. With so much speculation and fiction around this case, it’s hard to know if that’s true or if its just another made up detail.  To me, if we have a suspect close to the family, I’d have to imagine the police would have looked long and hard at this individual and would have named him or her if they had enough to do so. 

                Outside of that, there has also been a theory put forth that a stranger, or someone she knew, convinced her to leave the home that night.  I do think this is a likely possibility as I simply don’t believe that Asha planned out and executed this without input from someone else.  Of course, if this is the case, why was she walking along the road by herself?  Well, that depends what perspective you take.  Some people believe she was walking to a specific location to meet this unidentified person, while others think she may have escaped from this person and been trying to get away when she was seen.  Some theories suggest that the shed on Turner’s Upholstery property was a prearranged meeting place.  The entire theory of someone brainwashing her or convincing her to leave that night doesn’t work for me, and I’m going to tell you exactly why.

                Assuming that someone abducted Asha, what was the motive?  I have heard “sex trafficking” bandied about online, and although that is possible, it’s one of those theories that comes up a lot when you’re dealing with a missing female.  In most cases, sex trafficking kidnappings and abductions are done in circumstances of easy availability.  Grabbing someone walking home from school, out late at a bar, alone and easy to target.  Asha fits this description, being by herself at 4am on the side of the road, but how many sex traffickers are operating during those times in mostly empty areas?  I think if this is the case of an abduction for sex trafficking we are dealing with a super high rarity.  I cannot rule it out, but to this day, there has been no evidence to suggest this is the case.  Again, as with most of the theories here, it’s entirely possible, but it seems less likely than some other theories involving a possible abduction.  Some people have considered the possibility that Asha was abducted by someone from the internet, but again, her exposure to the internet was limited at best.  I don’t know exactly what restrictions her school had on Fourth graders using the internet, but I don’t think she’d have been granted the freedom and leeway to have been on there for long periods of time without supervision.  In terms of motive, this own leaves a few:  someone wanted to sexually assault her, someone wanted to murder her, or someone wanted to keep her or give her to someone else.  I doubt the latter would be related to a complete stranger, but the first two might.  If indeed this were a case of someone planning to abduct Asha, and not a spur of the moment crime of opportunity, why would they have planned it for the time that it occurred?

                We know, for a fact, that Asha had a key to her home.  She and her brother both did.  Their parents worked, and when the kids got home from school, they needed to be able to get into their house.  I fully believe that if someone else were involved in this they would have taken any number of other opportunities to get Asha.  Why choose such an odd hour of the morning?  Also, how would a would be abductor be sure that she would leave even if she agreed to?  To me, it makes a lot more sense for someone who knew her, and who knew her routine, to have arranged to pick her up from her house, or to have gotten her in her neighborhood during the day hours when she wasn’t around her parents.  It’s possible that a middle of the night time was chosen because it would buy more time before she would be noticed missing, but how many people would honestly depend on a nine year old girl to silently exit her house early in the morning without being noticed?  It seems like a hell of a stretch to me.  I honestly believe that Asha left her home that night by her own choice, and I don’t think it has to do with any kind of persuasion or brainwashing.  Some theories suggest that since that morning was Valentine’s Day as well as her parents anniversary that someone could have tricked her into leaving under the guise that they were going to do something special for her parents, but I’m not sure why that would require a packed bag, or the early morning exit. 

                There is a well known blog made by a woman who has been looking into the case for years.  The blog is well done, and neatly organized.  A lot of people are down on it, accusing the writer of putting forth her theory and trying very hard to debunk all others.  When asked about this blog, Asha’s mother said that it was full of misinformation and half truths, but she believes the creator has good intentions.  When the police were asked about it they said they welcome the help and hope that something comes of it.  This blog puts forward the idea that Asha was taken by someone that she or the family knew, and while I think this is highly possible, I don’t think it’s the only theory that should be considered.  I think it’s somewhat foolish to focus entirely on one theory in a situation like this where there is so much misinformation and confusion.  I used this blog for some information that I covered in this case, but I had to triple verify everything because there is a decent amount of information on this blog that is incorrect or slightly slanted.  Although I believe the creator has the best of intentions, I think we have a situation like we often see with inexperienced investigators:  She decided her theory is correct, and therefore all evidence must be made to fit it, rather than using the evidence to construct the theory.  I consider the known person theory extremely plausible, but I can’t put its value over that of a possible stranger abduction. 

                In terms of a stranger abduction, things are a little more complicated.  To me, this would follow the idea that Asha chose to leave her home for reasons unknown and at some point along the way an abductor or murderer happened upon her.  The odds of this seem so minimal.  What are the chances that a person with an inclination for child abduction or murder would just happen to be out around 4 in the morning and stumble upon Asha?  Fairly low, but not impossibly low.  She ran into the woods, she spent time at that shed, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility to think that any manner of homeless or transient people could have been using that shed for shelter from the storm and either took Asha with him, or convinced her to come along.  She obviously wasn’t a foolish girl, she ran away when a passerby stopped to ask her if she wanted assistance.  Would Asha have had the same reaction if the driver had been a female?  That’s one aspect of the case that I don’t think is looked at enough, the possibility that the abductor wasn’t a pedophilic male, but possibly a twisted woman.  There’s no way of knowing for sure, but between Highway 18, the shed, and any place she could have gone after that, any number of people could have come across her and taken her.  Later, police would reveal a tip that Asha had been seen getting into a vehicle that morning.  If this is true, I think that puts weight against the idea of a family friend or teacher abducting her.  They would surely have checked these people for that kind of car, or someone in the family, school, church, etc, would have recognized it.  One piece of evidence that doesn’t fit the stranger theory is Asha’s backpack.

                I have long been confounded by the manner in which the backpack was found.  Double wrapped in garbage bags, and essentially, preserved and protected.  Some have suggested that this item was placed there to be found, that it was the abductor or murderer taunting the family.  I don’t believe that.  I think wrapping the backpack and protecting it in this way suggests that the person responsible for what happened to Asha had some kind of a link to her, or felt a great amount of guilt for what they had done.  I think that a cold blooded killer or abductor wouldn’t have thought twice about disposing of her bag.  It could have been dumped in a junk yard, burned, thrown down one of the many mountainsides in the area.  Instead, this person took the bag, gently wrapped it and buried it in the woods.  I don’t know what it is about this backpack, but it bothers me.  You would think that someone who could be horrible enough to do something to Asha wouldn’t care what happened to her belongings, and would simply want to get rid of them where no one could find them, and yet here we have this bag essentially taken care of and preserved.  Obviously they thought no one would dig it up, but if you were going to bury it, why wrap it?  I think this bag is an important piece of evidence.  The FBI has never released it, never explained what they found or didn’t find on it.  It could have forensic evidence or it could have been clean.  They have never even said what the contents of the bag were, despite what you might read online.  The fact that the FBI has held onto this bag for 16 years without saying a word about it, to me, means that there is something associated with it that is extremely important to solving this case.

                Another theory is that convicted rapist, molestor and murderer Donald Ferguson was involved in Asha’s disappearance.  We know what he did to Shalonda Poole, though it should be made clear that Ferguson was a friend of the family, and had access to her whereas he has no connection to any family members of Asha Degree, at least that we know of.  He was in the area of Spartanburg South Carolina around the time that Asha vanished.  Spartanburg is only thirty or so minutes south of Shelby.  He has a long list of criminal activity, and his terrible crime related to Shalonda Poole certainly shows his proclivity for young African American girls.  He is a sick individual, and he is currently in prison with two life sentences for his crimes.  In 2004, the police were digging at a site in South Carolina based on a tip from an inmate.  This puts them digging about halfway between Shelby, North Carolina and Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Perhaps Ferguson learned from his experience with Shaldona, whereas her body was left out in the open, and decided to hide Asha’s body.  It’s completely speculative at this point, but so are all of the theories in this case. 

                The problem is, Ferguson is in jail.  They have his prints and his DNA and if they did indeed find any evidence on Asha’s backpack, it must not match him as I’d have to believe the police would have tested him and interrogated him about this by now.  He was mentioned by police as being someone to look at, after his arrest, but they never said more about it.  This leads me to believe that they either don’t believe he was involved, or they don’t have the evidence to tie him to it.  That doesn’t mean he isn’t responsible, but it does mean that there is no way to prove it.  Police often go to people serving life sentences and ask them about their involvement in other crimes, they may even offer a deal for answers that lead them to Asha’s remains.  Since he is serving life, they might even offer to not give him additional charges if he helps, or perhaps a prison transfer, but none of this has happened with Ferguson, at least that we know of.  If Ferguson is involved then he managed to commit this crime without leaving evidence behind, and without opening his mouth about it over the past seventeen years.  Although I think he is a sick and twisted criminal, I don’t see a lot that points to him playing a role in Asha’s disappearance.  Also, I don’t think he’d have driven so far north to dispose of her bag.  I think he’d have done so in an area he was more familiar with, one where he knew it wouldn’t be found, and that would be further south.  In addition to that, I don’t think he would have treated her bag as delicately as it was.

                There is one theory that fits with my belief that the way in which the bag was cared for suggests a connection or guilt and that is a hit and run.  I believe it is entirely possible that someone was driving down dark and lonely Highway 18 that morning and accidentally struck Asha.  This person then stepped from his or her vehicle, saw what they had done, and in their panic, picked up Asha and her bag, and drove off with them.  Obviously they would have disposed of the body in some way, shape or form, and have done it so well that we have yet to find any signs of Asha, which is ultimately very strange because we have found her bag.  Of course this was during the construction of a home, and probably a lucky occurrence.  That being said, why would you put Asha somewhere else and not have placed her near her bag?  It doesn’t make a lot of sense to make two trips to do this.  I know this is a very morbid road to go down, but I think it’s a thought process that needs to be followed.  I think the taking care of and burial of the bag is significant.  We know it was found 26 miles North of where Asha was last seen walking south.  To me, if it were a hit and run, it’s entirely possible that this person was heading North and the reason the bag was buried where it was was because it was along the way.  Maybe this person was familiar with the area, and maybe this person even lives in that area.  Or perhaps this person lived further north and that area was just one that he or she had passed through and knew to be somewhat secluded.  It wasn’t exactly buried in a way which suggests it was trying to be hid very well.  It wasn’t far off the side of the road, which to me suggests that the person who buried it was panicked and in a rush.  Didn’t want to run the risk of the car being parked on the side of the road for too long when someone might pass by and remember it.  This kind of thing happens.  Just today I was discussing a case with a former law enforcement officer and he told me about a case of a woman vanishing, and later a man confessed that he hit her with his car, and in a panic, disposed of her body.  This occurred not too far from where Asha vanished from.  It’s a tragic event, but not an impossible one.  I think this is extremely possible that this is exactly what happened to Asha Degree.

                Asha Degree has been missing since February 14th, 2000.  It has been over seventeen years since her family last saw her and since the last witness spotted her.  It’s been sixteen years since her backpack was discovered, and the only new tips to come about since that time have been about a vehicle which Asha may have been seen getting into that night.  A tip which has led to nowhere.  It’s an absolute tragedy when something like this happens, and it haunts the family, the investigators and anyone close to the victim for the rest of their lives.  It’s a question that is currently without an answer, and for those who cared for Asha and tried to find her, there isn’t a day they don’t think about that little girl and wonder what happened to her.

                The case of Shalonda Poole was solved twenty-four years after she was murdered.  This goes to show that you never know what could happen, and that a case such as Asha’s could one day be resolved.  In order for that to happen, someone will have to come forward, or new evidence would have to be discovered, that would shine a light on this complete mystery.  The case of Asha Degree is absolutely heartbreaking, and the mystery which surrounds it only adds complex layers to an already enigmatic crime.  Asha’s parents still hold out hope that someday they will see their daughter again, but while the heart believes in hope, the mind is often taunted by the harsh reality that after seventeen years, there is little chance Asha is still alive.  We can only hope that someday we may find out what happened to nine year old Asha Degree and that justice will be brought swiftly against whoever is responsible for her disappearance.