FBI renews long-running missing girl investigation: ‘Tell us what you know.’

In a cold case that has baffled investigators for 17 years, authorities today announced beefed-up efforts to find out what happened to nine-year-old Asha Degree after she disappeared from her Shelby home.

Asha vanished in the middle of the night, on Feb. 14, 2000.

Drivers said they saw her walking along N.C. 18 in Shelby around 4 a.m., and her family called the authorities at 6:30 that morning. Detectives have been looking for her ever since.

Asha’s 27th birthday was last month, and the FBI announced Wednesday that the agencies investigating her disappearance – the FBI, the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office and the N.C. State Bureau of Investigations – will partner with a team from FBI headquarters with specialized training in missing children cases.

The team didn’t exist yet when Asha went missing, but now they’ll be investigating on the ground for the foreseeable future, FBI Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team program manager Joshua Wilson said.

Investigators believe someone in or near Shelby knows more about the case than they’ve admitted so far, said John Strong. Strong leads the FBI’s Charlotte field office, which includes Cleveland County.

The team will interview past subjects again and also try to talk to new people, Wilson and Strong said.

“You may see our investigative team over the next week in Cleveland County,” Strong said. “Please talk to them. Even if you think what you know may not be of help – let us decide. Tell us what you know.”

Strong said investigators are working on the assumption that Asha is alive.

Detectives have kept her case open all these years, with some progress and some false leads.

A year after she went missing, her backpack was found buried along N.C. 18 in Burke County – miles from where she was last seen. Some of her belongings were still inside, authorities said.

In 2010, an N.C. prisoner said he had been involved in her disappearance, but his announcement didn’t turn into a break in the case. Asha’s mother said the man was only trying to get out of prison.

In May 2016, the FBI announced the first new details in the case in years, after getting a tip that someone who looked like Asha may have been seen getting into a “distinctive vehicle” along N.C. 18 at the time of her disappearance.

The vehicle was an early 1970s Lincoln Mark IV or possibly a Thunderbird, authorities said.

The Degree family has said Asha loved sports. Her older brother walked her to her 4th grade classroom each day, teachers said. He has a daughter now, and her middle name is Asha.

Jane Wester: 704-358-5128, @janewester