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.
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.”