Searching for Asha Degree
Monica Grover: More than 20 years ago, 9-year-old Asha Degree disappeared from her home in North Carolina in the middle of the night.
While some clues have emerged about what could’ve happened to her, we still haven’t found Asha.
But the FBI and our partners won’t give up. We never forget a missing child.
On this episode of Inside the FBI, we spoke to law enforcement officers investigating Asha Degree’s disappearance. You’ll hear about the various efforts to find Asha, what we know so far, and how to come forward if you have any information.
I’m Monica Grover, and this is Inside the FBI.
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Grover: February 14, 2000.
Around 2:30 a.m., Asha Degree’s father checked up on her and her older brother in the room they shared. Both were sound asleep in their beds.
Just a few hours later, around 6:30, Asha’s mother came to wake her kids for school. But Asha wasn’t there.
There were no signs of forced entry, no obvious indication of where she’d gone.
So how—and why—did a 9-year-old girl leave her home in the middle of the night?
Detective Tim Adams: That's the answers we wanna find.
Grover: That was Detective Tim Adams from the Cleveland County Sheriff's Office in North Carolina, where he’s been for almost 10 years. He primarily works Asha Degree’s case.
Asha’s parents immediately checked with family members who lived nearby. After learning that Asha’s wasn’t at their house, either, they called 911, which started a massive search for the girl by both law enforcement and her community.
Adams: The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, along with the FBI, came in to assist.
Literally hundreds of community volunteers came in to do land searches.
Grover: As the day wore on and reports of Asha’s disappearance hit the news, some tips came in from drivers who’d seen a young girl on the road early that morning, sometime around 4 a.m.
Adams: There were some fairly credible witnesses that said they saw a young child walking up Highway 18 in the direction of the city of Shelby, and, along with their description of her, it’s believed that that was her walking into the town.
Grover: At least one of these individuals said they’d tried to check on her, concerned about a young girl out on the highway by herself. But by the time the driver had turned around, Asha had gone into the woods, and the driver couldn’t see her anymore.
This is the last known sighting of Asha.
Adams: The reason she left is not known. There's nothing credible to say why that is, and that seems to be the big question in everybody's mind.
Asha was a 9-year-old child. Most 9-year-olds don't get out in the middle of the night or before daylight on a February morning.
Grover: We’ve talked about the last few times Asha was seen, but let’s take a step back. Who was Asha?
Adams: She was a fourth grader at Fallston Elementary. She lived with her parents, her mother and father and a brother who was only about 11 months older than her. They lived in a two bedroom apartment, just outside the city limits of Shelby, North Carolina.
Grover: That was Detective Adams. He also recalls how Asha’s classmates at described her:
Adams: She was always lighthearted, she tried to be funny, and she was always happy, always wore her hair in pigtails and ponytails. And she was just a very likable person and made friends with everyone.
Grover: And Asha loved basketball.
Adams: Asha loves sports. Like I mentioned before, she had an older brother, and they were very close. Her brother played sports. They played in the yard a lot from what I've been told. They had a basketball goal in their driveway.
She played on a team from her elementary school, Fallston Elementary Bulldogs, and she was, from what we understand, one of the star players.
Grover: Two days before Asha disappeared, she fouled out of a basketball game, meaning she wasn’t able to finish playing alongside her teammates.
Adams: They ultimately lost that game, and from what we've been told, Asha was very upset because she was so competitive, and her mother had to calm her down some, some of the other teammates had to calm her down, and she was upset about the game.
Grover: The Degree family has said that by the next day, her feelings about the game seemed to have passed. Still, we don’t know if that basketball game was what made Asha walk out of the house that night, or if it was something else. But there’s reason to believe she left voluntarily.
In the course of the investigation, law enforcement discovered another clue: Asha’s bookbag and some of her belongings were missing, indicating she’d packed prior to her disappearance.
Adams: About 16, 17 months afterwards, her bookbag that she was believed to be carrying when she left was found 20-some-odd miles north on Highway 18 in another county.
Grover: That’s Detective Adams again. He says that while that bookbag definitely belonged to Asha, some of the items inside didn’t belong to her.
Grover: One item was a book, McElligot’s Pool, by Dr. Seuss, that had actually been checked out from Asha’s elementary school. The other item was…
Adams: ...the New Kids on the Block T-shirt that we released the information and some pictures of a couple of years ago to see if someone knows where that came from or if they had children that may have had that shirt trying to identify who that belonged to or where it may have came from.
Grover: No matter how Asha left home, the fact remains: She was just a 9-year-old girl. Someone else has likely played a role in what happened to her.
Adams: Obviously a 9-year-old, even if they do choose to leave home for whatever reason, for her to have been not found for the last 22 years, someone had to help her. Someone had to have met or a planned meeting may have taken place or maybe some stranger came along as she was walking and picked her up.
Grover: In conversations with those assigned to Asha’s case, a strong theme emerges: Even though it’s been 22 years, this is not a cold case.
Here’s Detective Adams.
Adams: There has been work done on it regularly. It's not a cold case. It's a case that we continue to work. We wanna find answers. We wanna find out what happened to her. Her body has never been recovered. So, we're, along with her parents, we hope that she's alive.
I have worked some cold cases before and, basically, to me, a cold case is when you work all the leads you can work and put it on the shelf. You've done everything you can do. That's not the way with this case. There's plenty of work to do.
As I sat in my office this morning before I left, looking at the boxes and files of information, I come up with tons of things I wanted to do. So, there's always work to do on this case, and we are pursuing it. We're committed to finding out what happened to her, because it's not an unsolved homicide or anything like that. This is a child that's out there that has not been found yet, and we're committed to making it happen.
It's not cold.
Grover: One particular hurdle investigators face in this case is that when Asha disappeared in 2000, she didn’t leave behind any kind of digital evidence, something that’s so often leveraged in investigations nowadays.
Adams: There were no cell phones in the home. They didn't have a computer in the home.
Now, you could be able to search those things and try to find the history, and maybe some tracking options are there, but we didn't have that at that time. And also video surveillance. There was none in that area for us to go back and look at.
Grover: Something else that didn’t exist in 2000: the FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment—or CARD—Team.
The team—made up of Bureau personnel from across the country who are experts at working child abduction cases—serves as a resource for state and local law enforcement. When a child goes missing, no matter the circumstances, authorities can contact their local FBI office and ask for assistance from the team.
A CARD Team deployed to Asha’s case in 2017. Special Agent Jim Granozio, also out of our Charlotte Field Office, is one of the leaders of the East Coast regional CARD Team. He describes the team’s work on the case so far:
Special Agent Jim Granozio: So, from a CARD perspective, we’re oftentimes asked to go and help out local and state agencies on unsolved missing child cases. And in this case, we were asked to come down in 2017 and help reevaluate and kinda pull apart this case to assist the local investigators, and that’s what we did.
So a couple months prior to coming down in 2017, we got a copy of the case file, and when we do that, we take our team and we take the case file and in essence, rip it apart. Take the puzzle pieces and dump them on the floor and then retake each piece of that puzzle, pick it up, look at it, and evaluate it.
So, when we eventually came down during the summer or early fall of 2017 for a two-week what we call a CARD deployment, we had a full strategy in place to take the dozens, if not hundreds of investigators we had during that deployment and then actionize them into basically going after all those pieces of the puzzle that we might have had questions about to make sure that we left no stone unturned.
Grover: This type of review by the CARD Team is common in long-time missing child cases.
Agent Granozio explains the process.
Granozio: But oftentimes what we’re able to do is maybe help focus the investigation, maybe help eliminate some persons of interest. So, we’ll go into a case where there are 10 potential suspects that were involved. Well, maybe we can eliminate five of those, which will help the investigative team moving forward, so they don’t have to devote assets to all 10. They can just focus on the most specific ones and move that case a little bit forward. And hopefully that's what we were able to accomplish here.
It's always our goal to find the missing child and it's devastating to know that she's still not here today. And in this case, it still hurts every CARD team member that was on that deployment. We still talk about it, even though we only had a small part in that whole investigation.
Grover: Agent Granozio adds that the CARD Team’s involvement in this case doesn’t end there—they are there to help until we learn what happened to Asha.
Granozio: We're always available to come back and help at any point where they need a consultation, they need some interview strategies, they need a behavioral assessment of something. We didn't come down just for that two-week period. We are a tool for the local investigators to use for forever.
Grover: With so many investigative advances since 2000—from DNA technology to what we know about child abductions—it’s possible one could be the key to closing this case.
Here’s Detective Adams again:
Adams: Now that technology has advanced so much, and, so, we're trying new things, even today with the evidence that's been collected to try all the new technologies—anything that's available. And just within the last year, there's been so many advances. So, we're hopeful.
Grover: Everyone who talks about Asha’s disappearance emphasizes the important role the public will play in solving this case.
The FBI, Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office, and other partners regularly receive new information from people across the country.
We asked Detective Adams and FBI Supervisory Special Agent Kevin Swanson, who works out of our Charlotte Field Office and oversees the federal investigation of Asha Degree’s disappearance, to discuss this aspect of the case.
Adams: When I first started the case, we put together a team and we started a tip tracker that we are able to keep documentation of all the tips, and since that time, we've had almost just within a few short of 500 tips since 2015.
Sometimes, they'll call the FBI, and then it's referred to us or it’ll come from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But each of those tips are followed up on, and we keep track of those. But the public's help, like I said before, I think is paramount in this. I think there is somebody that's got some information that can call us.
Supervisory Special Agent Kevin Swanson: If I can add something to what Tim said, you know, since I've been here, we've received several tips related to Asha's case and they come from all over the United States.
And so I think that's part of the power of the partnership between our local and state resources and the federal resources is to identify tips related to the investigation and provide a central repository on the federal side of where we can look at them, make the connection with our case here in Charlotte, and then provide it to the case team so they can follow up on whatever tips come in, from wherever they come in from, whether it's a state close or far away.
Adams: We've sent people to Florida, Michigan just within the last few weeks doing interviews for us. California, we had some stuff in California we've been working, so it is nationwide, absolutely. And without our partners with the FBI, obviously the sheriff's office can't send somebody to Florida every time we get a lead, so, the FBI sends people to do the interviews for us, and that helps us tremendously. So, they don't go unnoticed.
Grover: And as Detective Adams further explains, it’s never too late to contact law enforcement, no matter what.
Adams: Maybe years have passed and also relationships with people. Let's assume that someone knows the suspect, maybe their relationship with that person has changed, and maybe they would wanna share more information with us now as opposed to when they maybe spoke to law enforcement previously, say maybe 10 years ago.
Even though I've been working on this for several years, and for 22 years this investigation's been going on, it really surprises me that when I go out and interview somebody I find a new name or someone that we didn't know was in the picture at that time. 'Course we investigate that until we can't come up with anything or complete it and eliminate that person.
So, I believe somebody has those answers that can help us, and I believe there's somebody out there that can tell us. We've appealed to the public many times and we're doing it again on the 22nd anniversary of her being missing.
I think it's critical now that people need to come forward if they have something.
Grover: So what can you do if you think you know something about Asha Degree’s disappearance?
Adams: Anyone with information in the Cleveland County area specifically can call the Cleveland County Sheriff's Office at 704-484-4822 or the FBI at 704-672- 6100.
Grover: There additional ways to contact the FBI, says Supervisory Special Agent Swanson.
Swanson: So the number you can call to reach the FBI, in addition to what Tim just provided is 1-800-CALL-FBI, which is our national line. Anyone can call to report any information to the FBI.
There's also a website you can go to, which is tips.fbi.gov, and if you provide your information and reference Asha Degree, that information will be looked at and sent through us to the case team so we can follow up.
People can report information anonymously.
Grover: You can also contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or NCMEC, at 1-800-THE-LOST or 1-800-843-5678.
In her North Carolina hometown, Asha has become known as “Shelby’s Sweetheart.” From the day she disappeared, her family and community have lent their efforts to the search to find her.
Adams: Back when this all started in the year 2000, the community came up with some funding to have a reward for anyone that would come forward with information that would bring us to closure in this case, and the FBI has also added to that. They currently have a $25,000 reward and the community a $20,000 reward, so together, that's a $45,000 reward.
Most people that I've talked to about this information, when I would interview them, I would tell them about the reward. Most people say, “We don't care about the money. We just want to help."
The family does a walk every year where several community members, along with the sheriff's office, we escort them, and they walk the road, the last road that we know that Asha walked. They walk up to the billboard that's put up there that displays Asha's picture when she was 9 years old, and also what we believe she would look like at age 31, an age-progressed picture along with the reward and a phone number.
So, they walk to that sign, and there's normally a pastoral or some of their church members—the family still attends the same church they did 22 years ago—and they'll have some scripture reading and prayer. And a lot of people are involved in this and a lot of people wanna see her come home.
So, a lot of this is in the hearts and minds of the entire community in Shelby and the surrounding area. You can't go hardly anywhere in that part of the state of North Carolina and people don't know the name Asha Degree.
Her parents still hold out hope that she's alive. And I can remember several occasions, the mother said, “Until you bring me proof beyond 99.9% that my daughter is dead, I'm gonna believe she's alive.” And she’s holding out hope, and we're holding out that hope for her.
We're just committed to find those answers, for the community and for those parents that have lost their child. It's just not normal that a child walks out. There has to be some more reason behind why she would've just walked out in the middle of the night.
So that's why it's so very important for people to call in with information, and so we're just trying to appeal to everyone to do that.
Grover: For more information about Asha’s disappearance and our efforts to find her, visit fbi.gov/ashadegree. In addition to information about the case, we also have a number of photos, including an age-progressed picture showing what Asha may look like at age 29.
Remember, if you have any information about Asha Degree’s disappearance, you can contact the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Even if you have spoken to law enforcement before, we encourage you to reach out if you have new information that may help.
And as always, no piece of information is too small.
Adams: Because we're not gonna forget. We're not gonna let it go. It's not gonna just go away. It's not gonna be a case that's put on a shelf and forgotten about.
It will be worked until we find her.
Grover: This has been another episode of Inside the FBI. You can follow us on your favorite podcast player, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.
I’m Monica Grover with the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks for listening.