FBI still searching for missing North Carolina girl 20 years after she disappeared

SHELBY, N.C. (WTVD) -- A North Carolina family isn't giving up hope that their missing daughter is still alive.

According to a news release from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9-year-old Asha Degree went missing in the middle of the night on Feb. 14, 2000. Investigators said she disappeared sometime between 2:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. There were no signs of forced entry into the home and two people told investigators they saw a young girl walking along Highway 18 in the opposite direction of Degree's home around 4 a.m. that day. When one of the tipsters went back to check on the girl, she had disappeared into the woods.

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"After 20 years, I still believe my daughter is alive," Asha's mother, Iquilla Degree, told the FBI. "I do not believe she is dead. And I know someone knows something. I'm not crazy enough to think that a 9-year-old can disappear into thin air without somebody knowing something."

Asha's parents believe she may have left her home because she was upset about her performance at a basketball game the previous Saturday. Though her family said any negative emotions seemed to have dissipated by the next morning, her parents and investigators said the loss may have led the 9-year-old to hatch an unknown plan.

FBI investigators also believe someone in the Cleveland County community has information that could help them unlock the case. Cleveland County Sheriff's Office detective Tim Adams came out of retirement in 2014 to lead the office's probe into the case. In 2015, the Sheriff's Office, the FBI and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation teamed up to re-examine the case, generating more than 350 new leads, including 45 in the past year.

In Aug. 2001, about 30 miles north of the spot where Asha Degree was last seen, construction workers in Burke County found a book bag that belonged to Asha. Inside was a concert T-shirt and a Dr. Suess book. Asha's parents said neither belonged to her, but the book was from the library at her school, Fallston Elementary School.

"Apparently, she packed her bag prior to leaving, but the contents-from what we can tell-looked like something a child would pack rather than her parents preparing her for an overnight stay," Adams said.

In 2016, the FBI said they had a new lead: Asha may have gotten into a dark green 1970s-model Lincoln Continental Mark IV or Ford Thunderbird with rust on the wheel wells.

"We encourage anybody out there that if they have any information-no matter how small or minor it may seem-it might be extremely crucial to further us getting one step closer to Asha," said FBI Special Agent Michael Gregory, who is leading the case now for the Bureau, in a written statement. "We will continue to pursue all avenues to find out what circumstances led to her disappearance, and we will continue to pursue this case at all costs."

The FBI has released multiple age-processed photos of Asha, including one released in Feb. 2020 that shows what Asha may look like as a 29-year-old.

A total of $45,000 is being offered for information leading to an arrest.

Asha's family said hopes and prayers have sustained them for the last 20 years, but they need answers.

"We're hoping and we're praying that she's had a halfway decent life even though we didn't get to raise her," Iquilla Degree told the FBI. "She was 9 years old, and she'll be 30 this year. So we've missed everything. But I don't care. If she walked in the door right now, I wouldn't care what I missed. All I want to do is see her."
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