SHELBY, N.C. (NewsNation Now) — On Feb. 14, 2000, a 9-year-old girl walked away from her family’s home in rural North Carolina in the middle of the night and, aside from a handful of motorists, was never seen again.
Asha Degree’s backpack was eventually found in trash bags 18 months later, but there’s been no sign of her.
“I wouldn’t wish this on nobody, not even my worst enemy,” said Iquilla Degree, Asha’s mother. “This is worse than death.”
Iquilla and Harold Degree are now preparing for the 22nd Valentine’s Day without their daughter.
While the family was sleep, Asha packed her bookbag, snuck out of the house and disappeared into the night.
“We had rain because of the storm and then it was ice cold, about like it is today,” Iquilla said. “And she didn’t even have a coat.”
Chief Durwin Briscoe, with the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office, was one of the police officers dispatched within minutes.
“Whenever I pulled up that morning, there were cars all along the road we came in,” Briscoe said.
The chief had been lifelong friends with Asha’s parents.
“She would have went to the left, which would take you to Highway 18,” Briscoe said.
Her disappearance rocked the Shelby community, with many calling her “Shelby’s sweetheart.”
More than two decades later, the big question remains: Why? Why would a 9-year-old child who was quiet, scared of dogs and a lover of school and sports leave home alone?
Mom’s only guess is a school basketball game that hadn’t gone well that weekend.
“She was still upset about the game and she didn’t want to face the teammates,” Iquilla said.
Not only had the team lost, but Asha fouled out. Iquilla says it bothered her daughter for the rest of the weekend, but she never threatened to leave home.
“This has never happened,” Iquilla said. “There was never signs of that because, like I said, we were thick as thieves, as they say.”
The year after her disappearance, Asha’s backpack was found buried within two trash bags in a neighboring county. Inside, there was a Dr. Seuss library book from her school and a New Kids On The Block T-shirt, but neither were hers. Iquilla told NewsNation her basketball uniform was also inside, which is information that was never released by law enforcement.
Jim Granozio is a special agent working Asha’s case with the FBI’s child abduction rapid deployment team. The team wasn’t created until 2006 and the first day is critical for missing children.
Of children who disappear, “50 percent are dead within the first hour of them going missing, 75 percent are dead within three hours, 89 percent are dead within 24 hours,” Granozio said.
Iquilla still believes her daughter is out there. Asha would turn 31 this August.
“It’s too much to try to imagine what all we done lost out on,” Iquilla said.
Investigators have received 65 tips in the past couple of years. They made it clear that the family and anyone who had access to Asha has been cleared.
Relatives and loved ones of the missing, or concerned parties with new tips or information, can contact NewsNation here.