Monday Mystery: Asha Degree

On February 14th, 2000, Harold and Iquilla Degree woke expecting to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Instead, they spent the day searching for their missing daughter, Asha.

Nobody ever expected to wake up and find Asha gone. Some children are impulsive daredevils, punctuating their lives with minor injuries and baffling misbehavior; Asha was not one of them. The 9-year-old was said to be cautious and shy of unfamiliar situations. The Degrees were a quiet family, who took steps to shield their children (Asha, and a brother two years her junior, O'Bryant) from the dangers of the outside world. The family didn't even have a computer. Too many predators, said the parents.

Could she have been upset about something? Enough to run away? The Degrees wracked their brains for anything that might have distressed her that much, but all they could come up with was that Asha's basketball team had lost their first game of the season the previous Friday, after Asha fouled out. She cried with her teammates, but appeared to get over it in time to watch her brother's game later that day.

This is the part where I would normally go through the sequence of events, but in this case, there are... problems.

The canonical source for most online discussion of the case seems to be Wikipedia. This is generally a bad idea; Wikipedia's idea of fact-checking is "leave all the mistakes up until someone who knows better gets mad enough to fix it". They present a timeline that has at least one huge internal contradiction, and looks questionable in other respects.

The only point in it that can be absolutely corroborated by outside sources is that there was a power outage in the neighborhood at just a bit before 9 pm on February 13th. The commonly-accepted timeline, however, is based on the parents saying that Asha went to sleep on the sofa, still in her clothes, around 8 pm, because the power outage prevented her from taking her nightly bath. Which, without time travel, makes no sense at all.

The next questionable point is what time her father, Harold, last saw Asha in her bed. Most sources have him coming home from the late shift at 12:30 am on the 14th, checking on her immediately, and going to bed at 2:30 in the morning. A few of them say he didn't check on her until 2:30 am. Some have Harold checking on her at 12:30, and report that her brother O'Bryant -- who shared her room -- was awakened by the sound of her getting out of bed at 2:30 am. (How the 7-year-old boy knew what time it was is not mentioned. Did he get up to check a clock?) One timeline says that the entire family stayed up until midnight by candlelight, including Asha, and one says that Harold came home from work and immediately went back out to buy Valentine's Day candy at 11:30 pm, which fits nothing else at all.

No further block of time is accounted for in any way until somewhere between 3:45-4:15 in the morning, when two motorists saw a little girl in a white shirt walking south along the side of Highway 18 in the pouring rain. Inexplicably, they decided not to bother telling anybody a small child was tromping down the road in the middle of the night until they saw a report about her disappearance on TV. Another driver saw her around 4 am, and in a fit of common sense, tried to stop and help her; the little girl ran away, into the woods, and could not be located.

When Iquilla went to wake the children just before 6:30 am for an early bath, to make up for the one the power outage had prevented the night before, she found only her son. Asha was nowhere in the house. Nearby relatives were called, then the police, who were on the scene by 6:40. A search was initiated and continued for the rest of the day.

Asha's backpack disappeared along with her, and the list of what was inside (i.e., what her parents noticed was missing) has varied through the years. While the early description of what she took was brief and a bit non-specific (backpack, purse, some shoes and clothes), later sources began claiming that she had taken her basketball uniform with her, as well as family photos, perhaps because the combination suggested both a reason for her to be upset enough to run away, and that she intended to be gone for long enough to miss her family. The initial search uncovered only a mitten that Iquilla could not identify as Asha's, and some small items in a nearby shed that she could. The location of the shed did fit with the reports of her walking along Highway 18, but provided no further leads.

In August 2001, a backpack positively identified as Asha's was found at a construction site near Hwy 18, in a town 26 miles away from her home in Shelby, NC. A definitive list of what was in the backpack at the time has not been released, but it was widely reported that the bag was wrapped in plastic, i.e., it appeared to have been buried intentionally.

Various theories have been put forth. The front runner, at least online, is that she was groomed and lured away by a nefarious pedophile who convinced her she was going on an adventure. As the family had no internet service -- the traditional way for predatory creeps to steal your innocent children -- the person responsible was probably someone they already knew. Other theories include that she 'ran away from home' like a lot of perfectly normal kids do and met with an accident, that she was sleepwalking, that she thought she was meeting a penpal (who was really her kidnapper), and for all I know that she was kidnapped by aliens.

Unfortunately, foul play is the only theory that explains both the buried backpack and the strange sightings along the side of the road -- people have postulated that she escaped at one point, and mistook the motorist who stopped to help for her captor coming back to get her. The sheriff in charge of the local investigation has stated that Asha clearly planned this for days and left (at least initially) of her own accord, although he offered no particular reasoning.

The parents tend to be painted as God-fearing uptight Puritans, leading some people to wonder if Asha were running away from stifling conditions at home. Maybe, although I suspect that either the parents are much more reasonable humans than they seem to be in media depictions, or they were a lot worse at keeping an eye on her than they thought.

Check the category label for more Monday Mysteries!



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