It’s difficult being a parent. Your job is to raise protect your child(ren) and do your best to raise them the right way. However, the outside world is hard to avoid, and it will always come with its hardships. For one family, no matter how much they tried to love their daughter and give her a promising upbringing, something or someone took her away from them. This is the unresolved disappearance of Asha Degree.
Harold and Iquilla Degree got married on Valentines Day in 1988. One year later they became parents to O’Bryant Degree, and on August 5, 1990, they had their second child, Asha Jaquilla Degree. The young family lived in Shelby, North Carolina, on 3404 Oakcrest Drive, and were very close-knit, with Harold’s mother and sister living down the street from them.
Growing up, the Degree family were very religious and attended Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church every week without fail. Asha thoroughly enjoyed church and was always eager to go to her weekly Bible study. Seeing how the family was Christian oriented, Harold and Iquilla did their best to shelter their children from the deviances of the outside world, with limited television and no access to a computer, saying, “Every time you turned on the TV there was some pedophile who had lured somebody’s child away.”
At the age of nine-years-old, Asha was coming into her own person. She was a fourth-grade student at Fallston Elementary and was described as an outstanding student with an exceptional attendance record. When it came to education, she had a knack for science and mathematics. She also enjoyed reading and writing — even having ambitions to become an illustrator, and her English class had just finished reading the book “The Whipping Boy” by Sid Fleischman — a children’s book about two kids running away from home but eventually return.
Aside from excelling in her education, Asha also loved sports — particularly basketball, where she was the star point guard on her pee-wee team, the Fallston Bulldogs. Asha’s brother was also heavily involved in sports and was on the boys’ basketball team.
Due to Asha and O’Bryant’s upbringing, they were more responsible than your average child. They would often let themselves in their own home after school and would be found doing their homework or chores by the time their mother arrived home from her job at Kawai America Manufacturing, while their father would get home late from PPG Industries, where he worked the second shift as a dock loader.
On Friday, February 11, 2000, all schools were closed for a three day weekend because of Presidents Day. The next day on Saturday, Asha’s school held their first basketball game of the season. Unfortunately, Asha fouled out and her team lost the game. The loss had her visibly distraught because she felt as if she let her teammates down. Nevertheless, as many children do, she quickly recuperated and was back to her normal self.
The following morning things were seemingly normal as the Degree family went to church. Once the services concluded, they all went to [aunt] Alisha’s residence and their grandmother prepared lunch for the family. After spending the afternoon together, Asha and her parents went home because Harold had to get ready for work.
At approximately 8:00 p.m., Asha and her brother — who shared the same bedroom — went to bed early because they stayed up late the night before because they had a sleepover with their cousins, and they had school the next day. An hour later, she awoke due to a blistering thunderstorm, and a power outage occurred in the neighborhood after someone had a car accident in the vicinity.
Harold arrived home at 12:30 a.m. and the power restored shortly thereafter. Upon his arrival, he checked on the children and they were sound asleep in their beds (there are some sources that state Asha was still up and in the living room at the time). Harold decided to relax for a couple of hours and checked on his kids once more before going to bed at 2:30 a.m. (I have seen some people say Harold left home between that two hour period to get Valentines Day candy, but I haven’t been able to substantiate that claim). Not too long later, O’Bryant woke up to the sound of Asha getting out of bed to use the restroom. Moments later, he heard her bed squeak. Thinking that she had crawled back to bed, he paid her no mind and went back to sleep.
This is where things become mysterious.
Iquilla awakened at 5:45 a.m. and got the bath ready for the kids since they didn’t take one the night before. At 6:30 a.m. she went to wake up Asha and O’Bryant. When she went to their room she noticed O’Bryant was sound asleep but Asha wasn’t in her bed. She thought this was peculiar but wasn’t entirely worried, as she scoured the rest of the home expecting to find her. Panic began to seep in, and she went outside to check their two vehicles hoping to find her but to no avail. She proceeded to wake up Harold, who advised her to call his mother to see if Asha was there, but she hadn’t been. Iquilla then called her own mother, and with no luck, Harold phoned the police.
The police arrived ten minutes later at 6:40 a.m. Search dogs were brought in but they were unable to pick up a scent on Asha — possibly due to the thunderstorm. Nonetheless, Asha’s family and the police searched the local neighborhood but no trace of her could be found. By noon, over sixty people, including residents in the area, the church congregation, and a helicopter with infrared heat-detection were aware of what was transpiring and went to assist in the search. Despite an all afternoon pursuit of nearby woods and fields, nothing was found beside a mitten that didn’t belong to Asha or her family.
When Asha’s family examined her bedroom for clues they found that her backpack was missing, which she kept her house key in, along with her Tweety Bird purse, and an assortment of clothing. Moreover, all of the doors and windows in the home had been locked — indicating Asha left on her own volition. This revelation suggested that the squeaking O’Bryant heard wasn’t Asha crawling back into bed. Instead, she was packing her book bag and was getting ready to leave home, for reasons unknown.
Asha’s disappearance was broadcasting on the local news that evening. This coverage prompted several witnesses to come forward. According to three different people, they said they had seen Asha walking alongside N.C. Highway 18 between 3:45 – 4:15 a.m., only one block away from her residence. One driver was very concerned for her well being because it was still storming outside, and she didn’t have any winter clothing on, so he made a U-Turn to see if she needed any help. When he attempted to check on her she darted off into the nearby woods and was never seen again.
With new leads to work on, the police searched heavily into the woods where a witness said she ran off into, and that’s when they uncovered a shed of a nearby business, Turner Upholstery, and discovered that Asha presumably sheltered herself from the storm because candy wrappers were littered about, a pencil and marker were found, and a Mickey Mouse shaped hair-bow was also located. Asha’s family confirmed to the police that those items did indeed belong to their missing daughter.
The month of March was hectic for the Degree family. In order to spread more awareness to the public, they began selling t-shirts with Asha’s picture on the front, but this quickly came to a halt once they discovered someone was trying to pocket the money made in this charitable cause. With the money they did raise they offered $5,000.00 for a reward for any information leading to Asha’s whereabouts. Her case also made headlines across national television programs including The Montel Williams Show, America’s Most Wanted, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Aside from this, her case hasn’t been featured in the spotlight other than local news stations from time to time.
Subsequently, Asha’s family members underwent polygraph testing — a procedure that is routine in a missing person(s) case — and passed with flying colors. Additionally, the lead investigators in the case traveled to Quantico, Virginia to have a profile created of a possible suspect, if this was indeed a case of an abduction, yet the profile was unable to locate any prominent suspects.
Asha’s case was being actively investigated, but her case was turning cold as all leads being phoned in were turning up no results. It wasn’t until August 3, 2001, when twenty-six miles away in Burke County — the opposite direction of where Asha was seen walking — a contractor working a construction project unearthed a backpack that was wrapped in two black plastic trash bags and buried. It was confirmed to be Asha‘s because it had her name and phone number printed on it.
With the latest lead in the case, the police thoroughly examined the construction site and discovered a pair of men’s khaki pants and skeletal remains that belonged to an animal. The findings were sent to an FBI crime laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, but the results and additional details have never been made public. Despite the latest bombshell discovery, Asha’s case wasn’t producing any promising information and her case went cold, though the police did announce they believe Asha left her residence on her own free will and met with foul play.
Thirteen years later in January 2014, lead detectives in Asha’s case hoped to catch a break when U.S. Marshals arrested 52-year-old Donald Preston Ferguson at his residence in Spartanburg, South Carolina for the 1990 murder of 7-year-old Shalonda Poole, who was found strangled, stabbed, and sexually assaulted behind a Greensboro, North Carolina Elementary School.
At the time of Shalonda’s murder, Donald Ferguson was arrested in June 1989 for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He managed to place bail while awaiting trial and relocated to Greensboro, North Carolina, where he eventually met Shalonda Poole through her half-brother, Marvin Cowan. Shortly after her body was found, he moved back to South Carolina. When he finally went to trial in March 1991, he was found guilty and sentenced to eight years in prison, but was released in October 1997.
Initially, Melvin Bennett, a mentally disabled individual who had an IQ of less than 70 and was a co-worker of Shalonda’s mother at the University of North Carolina of Greensboro confessed to her murder. He would be indicted for first-degree kidnapping and first-degree statutory sexual offense by a Guilford County grand jury in March 1991, but six months later DNA tests proved he was innocent. After a four day trial in October 1992, he was officially found not guilty.
Shalonda Poole’s case went cold until her case was re-opened in 2007. Through advancements in forensics, the police were led to Donald Ferguson, when DNA was collected from an entirely different sexual assault case that was being examined in 2013, and it surprisingly matched to the DNA evidence obtained from Shalonda Poole’s case. Once he was apprehended, the Cleveland County police focused in on him after looking at his past history and noticing Shalonda’s case bore similarities to Asha’s disappearance.
Shalonda shared a room with her twin sister, and mysteriously vanished in the early morning hours of July 21, 1990, between 6:00 – 8:00 a.m. When she was reported missing many people helped search for her including Donald Ferguson. He had known Shalonda’s family for about a month and had even been to her home days beforehand playing cards with her family. Her body was uncovered one day later, bound and gagged. She suffered 19 stab wounds to the neck and was manually strangled.
After a thorough investigation into Donald Ferguson in a possible connection to Asha Degree’s disappearance, he is considered to not have any involvement in her case. In December 2014, he pleaded guilty to Shalonda’s murder and was convicted of first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In February 2015, the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office and FBI began to reexamine Asha’s case, going through all the evidence collected and re-interviewing people from the initial investigation. During this strenuous process, a viable new lead was made relevant in May 2016. Law enforcement announced to the public that there may have been sightings of Asha entering a dark green early 1970s Lincoln Continental Mark IV or Ford Thunderbird with rust along the wheel wells.
Three years later in October 2018, the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office unveiled more possible clues related to Asha Degree’s case via Facebook and asked for the public’s assistance. The first piece of evidence was the book “McElligot’s Pool” by Dr. Seuss. It had apparently been checked out at the Fallston Elementary School library around the time of Asha’s disappearance, but the school didn’t contain any records dating that far back.
The second clue was a white t-shirt with a red collar and matching sleeves featuring a picture of the band “The New Kids on the Block” on the front. The police are hoping that by releasing this new information they will be able to jog someone’s memory as to whether or not they remember someone having these items shortly before Asha vanished. As of today, there are no prominent suspects in the case despite the latest information released in the last three years.
Throughout all of these years, the small town of Shelby, North Carolina still has missing pictures of Asha plastered all throughout the area, and blue ribbons are tied around tree and light posts — representing that her case has not been forgotten. They continue to rally behind the Degree family, and despite an awful tragedy, they stay strong as a community, always going out of their way to help a neighbor or friend in need.
As for the Degree family, they have done everything they possibly can to keep Asha’s case shining brightly in the media and in their community. They created a scholarship in Asha’s name after watching their son, O’Bryant graduate high school. To raise money for this award for a local student they sell t-shirts with Asha’s picture on it and other charitable events.
In addition, they host an annual walk, where people gather together at the Degree family home and walk to the location where Asha was last seen — where a billboard now stands tall with Asha’s photograph for everyone to see as they drive on Highway 18. For the better part of thirteen years, they hosted this event on Valentines Day but changed the date to February 7, because Iquilla Degree said it’s not right for people to be sad on a day that should celebrate love.
It has been a grueling eighteen years for the Degree family. They are plagued by so many questions without any answers. Did she leave on her own accord? If so, why? Did someone lure her away from her home? If so, who? Is she still alive? If so, where is she? Iquilla still holds on to hope that her daughter is still alive and refuses to lose faith. Her conviction in God and the support from her family continue to give her strength to endure another day. Meanwhile, her son, O’Bryant, has a daughter of his own and is almost the same age as Asha was when she disappeared. According to Iquilla, her granddaughter is a spitting image of Asha, and seeing her breathes new life into her, and only motivates her more to find her daughter. As long as the family can remember Asha, though she may be missing, she will always be near in their hearts.