Iquilla Degree almost never watches television news.
The stories of abused children and slain women haunt her as they never did before her 9-year-old daughter Asha disappeared from her Shelby home in 2000. Instead, she watches fictionalized crime shows that allow her to pretend the violence isn’t real.
On May 6, Degree watched a rerun of “Hawaii Five-0” about a kidnapping. A newscaster interrupted to say police in Cleveland, Ohio, were investigating a real-life rescue of several kidnapped women.
Degree was transfixed. She said a prayer for the young women, and as broadcasters told the stories of their disappearance, she felt relief.
“God won’t let me believe she’s dead,” she says of daughter Asha, who would be 22 now, and is among thousands of children whose disappearances haunt the police who search and devastate the families who wait. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children counts 33 children missing in the state, some of them gone for nearly 50 years.
Officers think some of these children ran away; others are presumed kidnapped and taken out of the country by a parent. But many simply vanished.
The recovery of Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight in Cleveland brought a wave of hope to some of the families of children missing in North Carolina. For officers who’ve worked on these cases, it brought a reminder that a happy ending is possible.
“Cleveland reinforced for us that you can never give up on these cases,” said Greensboro Police Detective Michael Matthews, who is investigating the 1990 disappearance of Amy Gibson, then 15. “Sometimes these cases do go cold. You think there’s nowhere to go, then suddenly you get some lead.”
Officials at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children say the Cleveland rescue may bring a resurgence of energy to old cases.
“We hope this is a reminder that kids are still out there,” said Lanae Holmes, a family advocacy specialist at the center. “It reinforces the need for vigilance. If you see something funny or suspicious, reach out. It could mean everything.”
Nightmares for Buddy
Nightmares have visited Donna Myers mercilessly during the 13 years since the 4-year-old nephew she reared vanished from her living room.
In those first months after Buddy’s disappearance, she imagined him trapped – hungry and cold – in a hole somewhere in the stretches of woods that enveloped her rural Sampson County home. As years passed with no word, images of a depraved kidnapper hurting Buddy plagued Myers. Then, the nightmares softened, and she pictured him with another family who convinced him they were his parents.
After the news from Cleveland, Myers has been lured into sweeter dreams: Her nephew, Tristen “Buddy” Myers, is alive and eager to come home.
“I can see it,” Donna Myers, 62, said recently at her home. “The police walking him back to me. He’s still that beautiful boy.”
The disappearance of children such as Buddy Myers and Asha Degree are often considered lost causes. After 72 hours, the odds of finding the child alive are low.
Still, for the relatives who pine for them, the children are alive, frozen in time and just out of their reach. They look at everyone suspiciously and stop to examine the faces of children who don’t seem to resemble the parents.
Asha Degree’s family last saw her asleep in her bedroom north of Shelby at around 2:30 a.m. on Valentines Day 2000. About 90 minutes later, a trucker spotted her walking along N.C. 18, a little more than a mile from home.
She had packed her backpack before she left. Eighteen months later, in August 2001, a construction worker found her bag buried along N.C. 18 about five miles south of Morganton, in Burke County – or about 20 miles from her home. Several of Asha’s belongings were still in the bag.
“I can’t trust anyone,” said Iquilla Degree. “My biggest fear is that the person who took her is someone we know. That the same people who tried to help us at the beginning were the ones who took her.”
Donna Myers has the same nagging fear. Over and over, she replays the day Buddy disappeared. Did someone see them out that day and follow them home? Or worse, had a neighbor been watching Buddy that summer, waiting for him to wander out of Donna’s sight?
The October day that Buddy vanished, he had fallen asleep in the living room after a doctor’s appointment. Donna Myers rested her eyes too. When a ringing phone woke her, Buddy was gone, and so were their two dogs.
Five days after Buddy disappeared, one of the Myers’ dogs returned healthy. Five days after that, the second dog came home unharmed.
Now, every time a car rumbles down the Myers’ gravel road, Donna finds herself staring at the driver and memorizing the make or model of the car.
“I know in my heart someone took him,” Myers said. “Maybe I’ll see it in their eyes.”
‘It still hurts’
Time doesn’t wash away the ache of a vanished child.
It’s been nearly 43 years since Ernestine Chambers’ 14-year-old sister, Sherri Truesdale, got on a bus in Winston-Salem to buy school supplies at a downtown store. She never returned.
Chambers recalls her mother staring at the bus stop near their home every day after Sherri disappeared, hopeful that her daughter would get off the bus.
“It still hurts,” said Chambers, now 65. “We loved her so much. I don’t want to die not knowing what happened.”
For some officers, that same need for an answer plagues them day after day.
Scotland County Sheriff’s Capt. David Newton thinks constantly about what became of Kimberly Thrower, a 16-year-old who vanished while waiting for the school bus in 2004. Every few years, he borrows canines from a nearby police department to search the woods around the bus stop. And when younger detectives join his unit, he hands them Kimberly’s case file.
“I tell them to start from scratch. Fresh eyes help,” Newton said. “I haven’t and won’t forget about her.”
Recently, the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office received information about Asha Degree’s case, but Sheriff Alan Norman declined to discuss it. He said he wants this to be a “perfect case of finding her alive and reuniting her with her family.” To him, the Ohio rescue means “you never give up hope.”
Ohio’s news gives Iquilla Degree reassurance to ignore naysayers’ who speculate that her daughter is dead. She believes if that were true, God would “give me a sign, prepare me.”
Raleigh News & Observer researcher Brooke Cain and database manager David Raynor and Observer reporter Joe DePriest contributed.
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