Men Arrested for Pimping Teen Girls on Craigslist

While Craigslist has shut down their adult services section in the U.S., the pimping of teen girls continues on their Canadian site. Two men were arrested in Quebec for selling two underage girls through an escort service, which they advertised on Craigslist. Will Craigslist extend the protection its given American teens to Canadian girls as well?

Myles Tynes and Philip Lafferty operated an escort agency in the Montreal area called Hush, which was a front for a prostitution ring.  They used Craigslist’s Canadian adult services site to market their “products” to potential clients, for whom they made all the arrangements and collected all the money. However, not all the women at Hush were adults; two girls who were advertised on Craigslist were under 18. Tynes claims he didn’t know the girls were underage, because they were wearing makeup and high heels and had already been in prostitution before meeting the men behind Hush. He also claims the girls lied about their age. Umm …  I’m sorry, but I’m pretty sure every teenage girl has worn makeup and high heels and lied about her age at some point. That’s a pretty lame excuse.

Unfortunately for Tynes and Lafferty, “I didn’t know she was under 18” is both one of the oldest and least effective defenses out there. In Canada, someone can still be charged with child trafficking even if they “didn’t know” the girl was under 18. And that might mean 10-14 years in prison for the Hush men.

While Tynes and Lafferty arranged and profited from the prostitution of two teenage girls, Craigslist played a role as well. They provided a safe, socially-acceptable space for underage girls to be advertised for sex and for men looking to buy sex with young girls to find them. Yet, as is often the case, no buyers of the girls were arrested and charged with statutory rape. As long as men can buy sex with teen girls with impunity and sites like Craigslist and give them the tools to do it, child sex trafficking will continue. You can ask Craigslist to seriously reform or shut down their adult services section in Canada to help reduce the exploitation of Canadian girls as well as American girls.


Published in: on September 29, 2010 at 4:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Exploited minors need our help, not punishment

Former Southwest Washington Congresswoman Linda Smith was back in the nation’s capital on familiar turf Wednesday, testifying before a House subcommittee in support of a bill aimed at combating sex trafficking of minors. It’s a topic in which Smith has developed considerable expertise since founding Shared Hope International in 1998 to “rescue and restore women and children in crisis.” The Vancouver-based nonprofit is a leader in the battle against human trafficking worldwide, due largely to Smith’s fierce dedication, strong work ethic and practiced political skills.

Last year, Shared Hope International completed what must be regarded as the definitive study of the sexual exploitation of children in the United States. The bulk of the research, funded by a U.S. Department of Justice grant, was conducted in nine U.S. cities and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory. A private grant provided for additional research in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

Despite more than a decade’s experience working with victims of human trafficking, Smith said last fall that she was “shocked” by what the investigation revealed.

Researchers put the number of sexually exploited children in U.S. cities at upward of 100,000. “What we found,” Smith told Daily News reporter Cheryll A. Borgaard, “is I can go to Craiglist or a strip club or an adult shop anywhere to find a minor for sex. There’s no town, I don’t care where; if there’s buyers, there’s sellers.”

In her testimony Wednesday on Capitol Hill, Smith lamented the fact that young victims of domestic sex trafficking too often are treated as oenders. According to a report of the hearing by Joseph Picard of the International Business Times, Smith testified that sex-trafficking victims, whose average initial exploitation age is 13, are often treated as juvenile delinquents or adult prostitutes by the criminal justice system. “Those who are identified as minors are frequently charged with a delinquent act, either prostitution-related activities or a related offense such as drug possession,” Smith explained. That treatment, Smith added, only compounds the trauma of the sexual violence the minor has already experienced.

The bill Smith’s testimony supported — the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act of 2010 — would help promote a more victim-centered approach to addressing minor sex trafficking. It would authorize block grants to both help combat sex trafficking and provide services to minor victims of sex trafficking.

Minor victims would get shelter, substance abuse treatment, counseling and legal services. Law enforcement would receive specialized training on sex trafficking and grant funds for investigating and prosecuting the sex traffickers who exploit minors.

Smith told the House subcommittee it’s important not only that young victims of sex trafficking be identified and treated as victims, but also that traffickers and their buyers be apprehended and prosecuted. This legislation, H.R. 5575, would help do both.


Published in: on September 22, 2010 at 7:41 am  Comments (1)  
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Sex Trafficking Into the U.S.: It’s Not Getting Better

Forced prostitution victim “Claudia” wants people to know that sex trafficking from other countries into the United States is a substantial problem, and that the effects of its horrors last years. Speaking anonymously in a recent conversation with CNN, Claudia shared her experience to let authorities and others know that girls like her have fallen – and are still falling – through the cracks and into a living nightmare.

Though Claudia herself was fortunate to escape her situation awhile ago, it wasn’t easy, and she’s still afraid of vengeance by the pimp who lured her to America from Mexico. Prior to her enslavement, Claudia simply wanted a better life, and a guy she met at a party promised her as much with a good job at a clothing factory in the U.S. Sounds pretty innocuous, if not ideal, right? It does, especially when the promises are made to your 15-year-old self, by your soon-to-be boyfriend, and you want (or need) to believe their truth.

Once Claudia made it New York City, she soon discovered there was no clothing factory, no great job, no better life. Her boyfriend, the maker of hopeful promises, was a pimp, and she would be his newest prostitute. Young, naïve and in the country illegally, Claudia did not exactly have the upper hand in this scenario. And to make certain she wouldn’t go anywhere, her not-at-all-a-boyfriend brought her physically and emotionally under his control with cigarette burns, beatings and a new and terrible promise to kill her parents at home, should she put up a fight.

So Claudia endured. She endured sleeping with 20 men consecutively on her first day forced into prostitution. And she endured every day of rape and abuse after that, forming, in spite of all odds, a plan to escape. She sneakily, patiently, squirreled away a few tip dollars at a time in the refrigerator. She asked questions of the older girls, on the down-low, getting a feel for neighborhood streets and how to get to the bus station when it was time. Then, finally, she ran.


Now is the time for the North Las Vegas Police Department to FINALLY start investigating like they should have 4-1/2 years ago!!

Peter Todd is the person who we were told, by many people, beat Jessie and forced her to work at an escort agency. Several people at this agency, including the manager, have told me personally that Jessie had bruises from Peter, and she was afraid to leave him. They also all ‘knew’, as did many people in that walk-of-life, that Jessie was beat to death by him in the house at 1009 Cornerstone Place, North Las Vegas, NV USA 89031 and buried in the Mojave Desert north of where they lived. I get calls all the time, the most recent one was just in August 2010, from a woman who knew Jessie (she knew her as Taylor) back in 2005, she said she believes Jessie is dead, that she was murdered by Peter Todd.

The police have NEVER done a proper investigation of the house they know she lived in, even though they say they have no reason to do this investigation, it makes me wonder how else you can solve a crime . . . without investigating?!?!?!? How do they know if he did it or not if they do not investigate? If they don’t rip up carpets and baseboards to look for blood drops or splatters? How does someone not even be investigated and therefore ‘wins’ by default?

I don’t know if Peter did anything or not, but I do know he told me 3 different stories about the last time he saw Jessie. Well, I have one story about the last time I saw Jessie . . . it was as she was leaving Kamloops and her family on CHRISTMAS DAY, DECEMBER 25, 2005 so she could go back to Peter and Las Vegas and the fate that she met, 3 months later – and my story has NEVER changed! How could it? The truth does not change! Our Christmas was forever changed, who do I have a different story about that.

However, regardless of what we don’t know happened, what we do know happened is this:

– Jessie was taken to the USA by Donald Vaz.

Donald Vaz left Jessie in the company of Richard Barrington Walcott and Yvonne Hubrechtsen.  

Richard Barrington Walcott and Yvonne Hubrechtsen then left her in the company of Peter Bertrand Todd.  

Peter Todd ended up her ‘fiancé’ and it was who she was living with, and his identical twin brother, James Andrew Todd, when she vanished 10 months later, never to be seen or heard from for 4 & 1/2 years.


– passport was NEVER used again!  

– debit card was NEVER used again!!

– cell phone was NEVER used again!!!

– credit cards were NEVER used again!!!!

– bank account was NEVER used again!!!!!

– loved ones NEVER heard from her again!!!!!!


– she does not have a known American Social Security Number!

– there has NEVER been anything on her Canadian Social Insurance Number!  

If Jessie did ‘cease to exist‘, then we know, it is because someone murdered my daughter.

If Jessie is alive, (like my heart has always told me), then it is because someone did something to her to make her disappear.

I don’t know why I have to share this now, but suddenly I have something I NEED to tell you.

There is something that happened I have only told a few people about – my family, a few friends and a couple of reporters, but it has never been written about. However I am going to share now. It is a very emotional thing for me to relive, and when I do, always I cry hard, so the tears will be pouring down my cheeks and the snot will be dripping from my nose, but you know what, nothing is worse than having a missing daughter. So compared to that, this will be a piece of cake.

First of all, the last time I talked to my beautiful daughter, Jessie Foster was on March 24, 2006 when she called to see if her little sister, Jennee’s birthday present had got there and to tell me she had a dentist appointment booked for March 27, she called me twice that day. Jessie was 21 years old at that time.

Then on March 27 Jessie called her dad’s house and left her stepmom a happy birthday voice message and said that she was going to the dentist that day.

Crystal talked to Jessie several times on March 28, 2006 – I didn’t, but I had talked to Crystal.

Then on March 29, 2006 I got up for work at my usual time of 3:00AM. Because I was in the same time zone as Las Vegas, there were many times that Jessie would call me at that time to talk, she knew I always had time for her, even at 3 o’ clock in the morning. So it did not surprise me when the phone rang shortly after I got up. What did surprise me was what I heard on the other end.

The first thing I noticed was it was not Jessie cell phone – she still had her same number from Calgary, AB. It was a 7 -0 – 2, Las Vegas area code, but not a number I recognized. But I knew, before I picked it up, that it was going to be Jessie. So I said HI SWEETIE! And then I heard it – it sounded like someone was yelling into the phone. It sounded crackly, like a bad connection with lots of static and I could not understand a thing she was saying. BUT I STILL ‘KNEW’ IT WAS JESSIE, and not just because of the Las Vegas area code on my call display! I felt it was her.

It made me very nervous, because it sounded like Jessie was desperately calling for help. Like she was screaming. I was yelling back, JESSIE . . . WHAT IS WRONG? JESSIE, SWEETIE! I CAN’T HEAR YOU. WHAT IS WRONG? And the phone went dead.

I went into the other room to turn on the light and call the number from the call display back, I WAS STARTING TO PANIC. Before I could call the number, my phone rang again. It was the same 702 area code. I answered quickly and said, JESSIE, ARE YOU OK. But again, all could hear was what sounded like someone screaming. This time it was more desperate, but still not clear. I could not understand exactly what was being said, but it sounded like, “HELP  . . . . ME  . . . . AGGGGG . . . HELP . . .” I was seriously freaking out. I was starting to scream into the phone, JESSIE, WHAT IS WRONG? JESSIE HANG UP AND CALL THE POLICE. I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. JESSIE, WHAT IS HAPPENING? And the call ended again.

I was freaking, my heart was pounding, I was starting to shake and cry. WHAT WAS HAPPENING? Was Peter beating her? I had received calls before when Jessie and Peter were fighting and I talked to both of them, I even tried many times to get Jessie to come home and to get Peter to send her home – but of course, back then, I had no way to know that Jessie was already the victim of modern-day sex slavery. She was already being beat and forced to work at an escort agency. Then the phone rang for a third time.

This time I was as panicked as I have EVER been in my entire life. I HEARD MY DAUGHTER SCREAMING FOR HER LIFE. I swear it. I still could not make out the words, but the shear panic and shrillness and the loudness of it all told me SOMETHING WAS VERY WRONG. I was screaming into the phone, JESSIE, STOP CALLING ME. CALL THE POLICE! WHERE ARE YOU? WHAT CAN I DO? CALL 9-1-1!!!!!!!!!!! Then the call ended again.

I tried to call Jessie’s cell phone from my cell phone at the same time as I tried to call the number on my call display from my home phone, but both phone just rang, and rang, and rang. I tried to call Peter’s cell phone and even Yvonne Hubrechtsen’s cell phone (hers was the only other number I had for anyone that Jessie knew in Las Vegas, because I ironically and prophetically said to Jessie when she was going to stay in Las Vegas for 2 weeks until her 21st birthday so she could celebrate there – “Jessie, you are not staying in another country unless you give me an contact number for SOMEONE there. I don’t know anyone or where you are and IF YOU GO MISSING, who will I call”. TEN MONTHS LATER MY DAUGHTER WENT MISSING) but all I got on everyone’s phone was voicemail. I left messages, but no one was calling me back. I did not know what to do, because, seriously, I was not even sure what I had just heard.

I called in to work and said I could not come in. I was a mess, there was no way I would be any use at work, and I would be just too worried. I was already worried out of my mind.

Then about 10AM my daughter Crystal called from a payphone when the Greyhound bus was at a stop . . . she was on her way home from up in Northern Alberta at the oil rig camp she was a cook at, to meet her sister Jessie in Kamloops so they could drive her car to Calgary for their stepsister’s wedding reception (Jessie’s proof of car insurance came in the mail to my house for 30 days . . . Jessie paid almost $200 for this, but she never showed up to use it). She was very upset. She said MOM, IT WAS ME. IT WAS ME CALLING NOT JESSIE. IT WAS ME CALLING FROM MY CO-WORKER’S CELL PHONE, SHE IS FROM LAS VEGAS!!!!

You see, Crystal had accidently washed her cell phone in her housecoat pocket before she left camp, so it was not working. She was on the Greyhound bus with her friend who was going to Edmonton to take a plane home to Las Vegas and she knew I would be up at 3:00AM, so she called me from a 7-0-2 area code phone number!!

Crystal told me she could hear me plain as day. She was saying over and over, “No, Mom, it is not Jessie, it is me!”, but all I heard was Jessie screaming for help.

Now, if you knew how close my daughters are to each other, and how close I am to my kids, then maybe somehow there is a way for Crystal to call me on a Las Vegas cell, just as something horrific is happening to Jessie – perhaps she was being beaten to death at that exact time and through the powers of whatever – through the heartstrings between my children and I and my children and each other, I somehow heard Jessie screaming out for me, for her Mommy as ‘someone’ snuffed out her beautiful life.

I know my heart has always told me Jessie is alive and to this day, through my tears as I type now, even with what I just told you, I can’t help it!

I just DO NOT FEEL, DEEP IN MY HEART, THAT MY CHILD IS DEAD, and whether that is the truth, and Jessie is alive and that night there were just 3 ‘bad’ connections from a Las Vegas cell area code at the exact same time Jessie sometimes called me OR, Jessie was murdered, and through the grace of the Lord, I was able to be there for he at the end, well, I just don’t know.

I do know this though. My best-friend Brenda was there for her 16-year-old (& 2 weeks – his birthday was just on July 22, 2002) son, James when he was hit by a speeding truck on August 5, 2002 . . . she held him as he died, and as tragic as that is, it is what has allowed her to go on. She KNOWS he did not suffer, she knows he went to heaven, and she was with her baby as he took his last breath. I hope, if Jessie is not alive, that I was ‘with her’ as she took her last breath. Thank you for your wonderful friendship Brenda; I don’t know what I would do without you being here for me all the time.

The next day, after Jessie never returned Crystal’s calls or my calls, her sister Katie told me she had been calling Jessie all day, and she never returned her call. I started leaving message after message and I filled up her voicemail-box. I emailed her and my emails were getting more and more frantic and pretty soon I was YELLING in them!! I went to work the next day and told one of my co-workers, I THINK MY DAUGHTER IS MISSING IN LAS VEGAS. He said, “What are you doing here then?” And I said, “I DON’T KNOW”. I left and never went back for a year and a half (then a year and a half after that, the business closed).

So, thank you ALL for letting me share this with you. I know it was probably very emotional to you, as it is to the few people I have told this to. Right now, besides the tears and snot I already mentioned, I am shaking and my head is throbbing. It is almost like I just went through that again. But you know, this time, I feel as if I got something out of telling it. Like when you go to the ‘shrink’ and pour your guts out and feel better! Or . . . when you pop that damn zit that hurts like hell . . . and when you do, the pressure comes off and the pain is relieved a bit. Eventually the zit will heal, and I pray that one day, so will my heart.

Friends, you mean so much to me. There are thousands of people who have followed Jessie’s case in the news and on the internet. Thousands of people who love Jessie like a daughter, sister & friend. The prayers for Jessie are constant – every day from everywhere around this world.

AGAIN, THANK YOU ALL . . . Sincerely, not just Jessie’s mom, but also Crystal, Katie & Jennee’s mom, and Maddie, JJ & Ili’s grandma, Glendene Grant.


Interview: Founder Yanks Personals to Prevent Child Trafficking

Online classified site and Craigslist competitor announced this week that is was permanently closing its online personal ads, citing a desire to ensure Geebo was never used to advertise human trafficking the way Craigslist has been. I caught up with Geebo founder Greg Collier to ask him about his company’s attitudes towards human trafficking on online classified sites. And unlike certain other online classified founders, he was actually happy to talk to the media. is a popular online classified ad web site which has been around since 2000 and operates in more than 150 communities nationwide. What sets Geebo apart from competitors, however, is a commitment to social responsibility. Their tagline, “safe community classifieds,” means they review every classified before posting and reject anything that smacks of scams, violence, or illegal activity. And they’ve taken care to prevent any human trafficking from infiltrating the site. Here’s some of my chat with founder Greg Collier about Geebo’s anti-trafficking stance.

Amanda: What instigated Geebo’s decision to remove their personal ads section, and is it gone forever?

Greg: This decision has been a long time coming for Geebo. Since our inception we have advocated for increased security and privacy features for classified site users. Our review process allowed us to prevent child trafficking, prostitution, and other morally repugnant behavior, while also protecting the safety of our users genuinely looking for love. Even though we have NEVER had a problem [with human trafficking], we don’t want to risk the lives, liberty, or property of our users. The personals section is gone forever.

Amanda: What do you think of Craigslist’s recent decision to block their “adult services” ads in the U.S.? Do you think they should voluntarily block those ads in other countries as well?


Jessica Foster’s Las Vegas Circle

Saturday, April 04, 2009 

Peter Bertrand Todd
Alias: Peter Todd, Pedro (unconfirmed)
Age:  42 in 2009
Height: 6’1
Relationship with Jessie: Jessie told her parents Peter was her boyfriend

 and that he was living off a trust fund in North Las Vegas. After Jessie’s

disapperance, it came to be known that he might have also been her pimp.

Aside from North Las Vegas and Las Vegas, Peter may have ties to the

following cities: Houston, TX, The Colony, TX, Atlanta, GA,

Jersey City, NJ and Oklahoma City, OK.

Trish Michelle VanArsdale
Age: 38-45, although she claims to be younger.
Relationship with Jessie: Peter’s ex-wife and mother of his son.

James Todd
Age: Currently 42
Relationship with Jessie: James is Peter’s twin brother. He lived with
them at the 1009 Cornerstone Place, North Las Vegas home.

Jose Garcia
Age: Unknown
Relationship with Jessie:
He resided with Jessie and Peter at the 1009 Cornerstone Place,

North Las Vegas home.

Yvonne Hubrechtsen
Alias: Angel
Age: Unknown
Relationship with Jessie: Traveled with Jessie to
Las Vegas in May 2005.
Dated a friend of Peter Todd’s, a relationship which
 didn’t last long and

Yvonne moved on.

If you have any information on the above named
 people, please contact us.

Read more:

Tell Village Voice Media to Stop Child Sex Trafficking on

Child sex trafficking on, owned by Village Voice Media, is becoming a disturbing trend.

Earlier this week a Georgia man was arrested for pimping two 17-year-old girls around the Nashville area. Detectives responded to a suspicious ad on and drove to a motel. There, they found the teens and their 37-year-old pimp, as well as a laptop computer, likely used for the online advertising. Just four days prior to that, four people in Denver were arrested for forcing a teen girl into prostitution. They also advertised her sexual services, including semi-nude pictures, on Backpage. And last year, a South Dakota couple was arrested for selling underage girls for sex on …. wait for it … yet again.

Backpage’s terms of use, of course, prohibit advertising for illegal commercial sex acts or exploiting minors, but both are happening anyway in Nashville, Denver, and Sioux City. And like Craigslist, Backpage and their parent company Village Voice Media are doing little to prevent the sale of children or trafficked adults on their site. Village Voice Media has a duty to ensure that young girls aren’t being abused in the commercial sex industry with help from their website, and that they aren’t facilitating human trafficking.

Please, ask Village Voice Media to stop child sex trafficking on


Published in: on September 14, 2010 at 8:28 pm  Comments (1)  
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Five Arrested for Webcasting Sexual Torture of Mentally Disabled Woman

Five men were indicted in Missouri for sexually torturing a young, mentally-disabled women on live Internet webcast, forcing her to dance at strip clubs, and other heinous abuses. While the details of this case are some of the most gruesome that have ever been revealed, it serves as a textbook example of several of the most common and critical components of sex trafficking cases. And some of the men involved are well-known community leaders.

Editor’s Note: The details of this case are especially disturbing, even for this blog.

Five years of unspeakable torture ended for one Missouri woman this week, when her abusers were arrested and charged with a nauseating smorgasbord of crimes. The victim, who is referred to as FV only, met Edward Bagley, the alleged primary abuser, when she was just 16. She had lived in foster care her whole life and suffered from mental disabilities, so he easily convinced her that he could help her become a model and a dancer. Instead, he forced her into a life of sexual slavery, rape, torture, humiliation, and abuse. Traffickers prey on the vulnerable, and that includes young people, people with disabilities, and people without strong support systems, like foster children. FV fit the profile too well.

Bagley allegedly made money off FV in a number of ways, many of which were online. He advertised for sexual torture sessions with her online and broadcast them on streaming webcasts. He forced her to dance at strip clubs around Missouri. He traded her to his friends for cigarettes and steaks (yes, steaks). Traffickers increasingly use the Internet to advertise and exploit victims, but some exploitation still takes place the old-fashioned way, in strip clubs and by men exchanging meat for meat.


Branded: How Pimps Use Tattoos to Mark Women as Property

Pimps use a number of techniques to control and manipulate the women they sell, many of which leave long-lasting emotional scars. But one control technique which also leaves physical scars is branding. In the underground world of forced and coerced prostitution, pimps mark women and girls as property with tattoos. It’s the same principal as writing your name inside your shirt, but instead of a garment being claimed, it’s a human being.

Chicago police recently noticed several girls between 13 and 18 in prostitution had the same tattoo — “P-Child” inked on their backs, chests, or shoulders. The distinct markings led them to Datqunn Sawyer, a pimp who was forcing nine underage girls into prostitution. He gave them all new names beginning with the letter P and used the tattoos to brand them as being in his “stable”. Also in Chicago, pimp Alex Campbell, owner of a brothel masquerading as a massage parlor, forced the women he controlled to get his birthday 9/17 tattooed on the backs of their necks. Another California-based pimp managed to ink his 16-year-old victim withing a couple weeks of meeting her on Myspace. And some pimps choose more painful brands for their victims, including signature burns and actual cattle prods.

For pimps, tattoo branding serves a number of purposes. It marks victims as their property, sending a message to other pimps to stay away. It helps them advertise to buyers looking for specific types of girls, especially young ones. And perhaps most importantly, it sends a powerful message to the victim herself: I own you, and I own you forever. A tattoo is a permanent physical mark, and pimps use the psychology of that mark to make victims believe theirs is a permanent relationship. If victims try and leave their pimp, the tattoo serves as a reminder of their abuse. And, of course, it signifies the bearer as a slave.


A Decade Later,Parents Still Wait For Their Asha

SHELBY To enter the home of Harold and Iquilla Degree is, in some ways, to travel back in time.

Little has changed since the morning of Feb. 14, 2000, the day the couple reported to Cleveland County authorities that their 9-year-old daughter, Asha, was missing.

Their living room is overstuffed with family photos. Asha, her hair in braids, smiles out from many of them, frozen as friends and family remember her.

Despite a decade of speculation, rumors and unanswered questions, the couple, both 40, said they remain firm in their faith that Asha, somewhere, is alive. So convinced, they say, that they have refused to move from the rented, two-bedroom duplex on Oakcrest Drive in Shelby.

“This is the last place she knew where we lived,” Iquilla Degree said in an interview. “My phone number, that was the last number she knew I had. So I refuse to change it.

“I can’t stop change,” the mother continued, “but what I can stop, I have stopped.”

Cleveland County investigators said tips continue to trickle in regarding what is arguably the region’s most infamous missing-person case. But most of those tips, said Capt. Bobby Steen of the Cleveland County sheriff’s office, have led to nowhere.

Early this week, he said, a couple stopped by to say they saw something 10 years ago that now seems suspicious. They simply wanted to clear their minds, said Steen, who heads the investigation.

And two weeks before that, an N.C. prisoner stepped forward to say he had knowledge of Asha’s disappearance.

“He was just looking for a way to get out,” said Steen.

In late 2009, a Mississippi man wrote to say he had knowledge important to the case. Sheriff’s officials flew south but came home empty-handed. “That was disappointing,” Steen recalled.

A child vanishes

Even by law enforcement standards, Asha Degree’s disappearance is baffling.

A decade ago, the fourth-grader who loved sports and attended Fallston Elementary School went to bed, just as she had countless times before, her parents told police. It was a Sunday.

The next morning, Iquilla Degree said, her daughter had simply vanished, missing from the room she shared with her 10-year-old brother.

Two motorists would later tell police they saw someone fitting Asha’s description walking along N.C. 18, some 1.3 miles from her home, in the dead of night. The first sighting was said to be around 3:30 a.m., the second about 4:15 a.m.

When questioned by police, Asha’s parents and brother said they saw and heard nothing. Harold Degree said his daughter was definitely in bed when he turned in around 2:30 a.m. Less than 5 feet separate the two bedroom doors, which sit cater-corner to one another.

Within the first year of Asha’s disappearance, the television program “America’s Most Wanted” set up a hotline to accept tips, and former talk-show host Montel Williams flew the family to New York to discuss Asha’s case.

Then in August 2001, some 18 months after she vanished, a construction worker found Asha’s book bag in a wooded area along N.C. 18, about six miles south of Morganton. Also found were several items that authorities identified as belonging to the missing girl.

Rumors swirl

The Degree house is on a rural street of ranch-style homes, many in need of repair. The houses appear all the smaller when measured against the oversized lots they occupy.

Harold and Iquilla are on their sofa, retelling a story they’ve told hundreds of times in the past 10 years – a period Iquilla calls “the nightmare.”

Of the two, she is the talkative spouse. Her husband, she said, is more laid back, a lot like Asha.

Even with the passage of time, she said, she struggles to understand how her daughter – or any child, for that matter – could simply walk out of a home undetected and vanish.

She wonders if she missed something that might have foretold Asha’s disappearance.

“They say mothers always know,” she said. “No, I did not know. I had no idea. I never expected my daughter to ever leave out of our house or nothing like that. You hear stories on TV, but no parent ever thinks it will happen to you.”

Most hurtful, she said, have been the rumors – friends and neighbors who whisper that someone inside the Degrees’ home harmed Asha that night.

“I had to accept the fact that people were going to lie on us,” she said. “They were going to tell lies on my husband. They don’t understand. I don’t understand myself, so why do I expect you on the outside to really understand? Then I have to look at myself. If I were on the outside, wouldn’t I be speculating, too?”

Twenty-five days after Asha’s book bag was found, Harold was hurt in a head-on car crash. The couple said rumors quickly spread that he had tried to kill himself, afraid that evidence collected at the scene would prove his guilt.

“You can’t control what people say, no matter what,” Harold said. “No matter what you do or say, people got a right to their opinions.”

Iquilla agrees but then interjects: “We don’t have a typical marriage no more. It’s like we’re under a microscope. When we go out in public and we’re not seeing eyeball to eyeball, we have to act like we are.”

The couple said they also went to great lengths to protect their son, now 20 and a junior at UNC Pembroke. Because he shared a room – but not a bed – with his missing sister, suspicion fell on him as well.

Iquilla said she knows in her heart that her son could not have harmed his sister. After Asha disappeared, she said, teachers at their school recounted how the 10-year-old walked his younger sister to class each day.

Iquilla said her son recently became the father of a baby girl, whose middle name is Asha.

Clinging to hope

When asked how the last 10 years have changed them, Harold said he and his wife have become more patient.

“We’re not going to have closure until God decides,” Iquilla said. “I would say we’re stronger people. We’ve had to endure a lot.”

The couple said they are adamant in their belief that Asha is alive. They speculate that maybe she was sold in some illegal adoption deal. But they said they also must accept the fact that maybe someone somewhere is hurting her.

What they won’t entertain, they said, is any suggestion that their daughter is dead.

“The police are looking for remains,” Iquilla said. “We’re looking for a person. They believe what they believe. I believe what I believe. I have hope, and no one’s going to take it from me.”

Steen, the sheriff’s investigator, said his department has not given up hope that they will find Asha alive.

“We’ve never, ever said we were looking for a body,” he said. “If we focus on just finding a body, then we are missing the whole concept here. … That’s why any (tip) we get we follow up on, because we know that somebody knows something.”


Published in: on September 9, 2010 at 8:23 am  Comments (2)  
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