Family still hopeful 23 years after Asha Degree, ‘Shelby’s sweetheart,’ disappeared

SHELBY, N.C. — A family says they’re is still holding on to hope that they’ll find their loved one who vanished more than two decades ago at 9 years old.

The case, which opened 23 years ago, has captivated our community, leaving a lasting mark on so many people’s lives.

It all started on Valentine’s Day in 2000, when Asha Degree left her home and never returned. Since then, Channel 9 has closely followed every development in the case.

Now, Gaston County Reporter Ken Lemon is asking federal, state, and local investigators where things stand after 23 years.

‘I won’t give up’

It is hard to say how close closure is for the family of Asha Degree. But hope, unlike closure, seems close enough to touch -- it’s as close as they hold the pictures in their scrapbooks, and the love they have in their hearts for “Shelby’s sweetheart.”

“I can’t give up hope and I won’t give up hope,” said Asha Degree’s mother, Iquilla Degree.

For her and her husband, hope is more lasting than the time they’ve been apart. On Feb. 14, 2000, well before sunrise, 9-year-old Asha Degree walked away from her family’s home just north of Shelby.


That launched one of the largest searches in the county’s history. Channel 9 was there as hundreds of volunteers, officers from several departments, and trained searchers combed the area. The searchers included the current emergency management director for Cleveland County, Perry Davis.

Davis took Lemon back out to where he searched 23 years ago. At that time, he had every hope of finding Asha within a matter of hours. They covered key areas, including the spot where a trucker said he saw her walking in the rain early that morning.

“This is a large search area, it really is,” Davis said.

Imagine a line of searchers a yard apart walking through an area looking for a food wrapper, a loose thread -- anything that might help them find Asha Degree. They did exactly that for miles, and the search for the little girl went on for a week.

They established a stretch, doing a grid-style search of at least three miles in either direction along Highway 18, from Shelby to Fallston.

“Just a lot of time and effort in that search, trying to find her and still not successful is kind of disheartening for us to not be able to put the pieces of that puzzle together and return her home,” Davis said.

‘You spend every day hoping you are going to find her’

Investigators are certain someone took Asha. A year after her disappearance, Asha’s backpack was found along Highway 18. It was the same road where she was last seen, but 40 minutes north, in Burke County.

Investigators found a Dr. Seuss book from her school’s library in the bookbag, as well as a New Kids On The Block concert T-shirt that didn’t belong to her.

The FBI later said Asha was picked up in a green car, either a 1970s-model Lincoln Continental Mark IV or a Ford Thunderbird with rust around the wheel well.

Former Gastonia Police Chief Tim Adams works this case full-time for the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office, with help from another investigator. He has nearly two dozen boxes of evidence files and scores of interviews and information in digital form.

The FBI, the State Bureau of Investigation, and the Center For Missing And Exploited Children are also working to help find Asha.

Adams talked to Lemon about the information they’ve collected in just the last seven years.

“Since then, we are close to 600 individual tips that we follow up on,” Adams said.

Each of them has been documented in detail for review. He said they will run extensive tests on all of the physical evidence collected in this case, hoping new technology will yield helpful clues.


He also said time is usually a major barrier in a case like this, but investigators hope time will bring new opportunities.

“Someone that might have had a best friend 23 years ago that they know something about,” Adams said. “The relationship may change, so that person may feel more free to come forward and bring us that information.”

“We are just not going to give up until we find out what happened,” Adams said.

The same is true for Perry Davis. He still searches every time he drives through the area she was last seen.

“You spend every day hoping you are going to find her and bring her home,” he said.

They all worry for the family, who is holding on to hope with an unshakable faith.

‘It’s worse than death. You can’t grieve’

“It’s always there. It never leaves,” Asha’s mom said.

Harold and Iquilla Degree told Lemon they don’t need to follow every lead or turn in the investigation. They just know that the 9-year-old who walked away will come back a grown woman and ease a decades-long burden.

“It’s worse than death. You can’t grieve. You can’t give up,” Iquilla Degree said. “All we have is hope.”

They said hope is enough to carry them until the searches and investigations bring Shelby’s sweetheart home.

Three years ago, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children created an age-progressed photo to show how Asha Degree may look now. An artist used a combination of her parents’ pictures to come up with the image.

Investigators hope it helps someone identify Asha.

There is a $45,000 reward for information that can solve this case. You can call the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office at 704-484-4788, or the FBI at 704-672-6100. Either number can connect you with someone working the case.

(WATCH PREVIOUS: New push on to find missing girl Asha Degree)

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