Tuesday marks the night in 2000 when a Cleveland County girl, Asha Degree, slipped out of her family’s home and disappeared into heartbreaking mystery.
Asha would be a vibrant young woman of 26 now, according to an age-progressed image investigators released two years ago.
Then she was 9, a smiling girl photographed with her hair in braids and a mischievous arch to her eyebrows.
The few clues to her disappearance dribbled out as years passed, despite a $45,000 reward offered by the FBI and Asha’s community. The Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office has kept the investigation open, even now assigning one fulltime detective and one part-time detective to it.
“About a year ago we decided to start over,” said Capt. Joel Shores, who leads the sheriff’s investigative division. “We went back and started the case as if it just happened. A lot of people had to be re-interviewed and evidence gone through with technology that was not around 17 years ago. Just beginning afresh with a whole new set of eyes.”
Leads continue to come in, Shores said, especially when news media mark the anniversary of Asha’s disappearance. County investigators meet weekly with the FBI.
Her family last saw her asleep in her bedroom at 2:30 a.m. Ninety minutes later, drivers reported seeing her walk along N.C. 18 in Shelby.
More than a year later, Asha’s book bag was found buried beside the same road but farther north in Burke County.
Last May, the FBI released the first new information in years. The agency and the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office received information that someone matching Asha’s description might have been setting getting into a “distinctive vehicle.”
The car was described as an early-1970s Lincoln Mark IV or Ford Thunderbird, dark green, with rust around the wheel wells. Detectives still don’t know whether the tip was viable.
“We’re seeing these cases in the last couple of years where people have been gone for a number of years and resurfaced,” Shores said. “We have to hold onto that hope. We don’t have anything that says she’s not more than a missing person.”
Asha’s community also clings to hope. About 50 family members and friends, including Cleveland Sheriff Alan Norman, held an annual walk Sunday in her honor. Walkers went from the Degree home to the spot on N.C. 18, about a mile away, where she was last seen.
Hope that Asha is alive sustains her parents, Harold and Iquilla Degree.
“Hope is all I have, and I refuse to let anyone take that away from me,” Iquilla Degree told the Shelby Star. “I won't stop until I have closure, either way. She's my child. I carried her.”
Anyone with information on Asha is asked to call the Charlotte office of the FBI at 704-672-6100.