On Valentine’s Day of this year, a mere ten days away, it will be twenty-two years since Asha Degree disappeared from Shelby, North Carolina in the middle of the night. All disappearances of human beings rankle in the soul and make us ask ourselves how such things can happen in today’s world where camera eyes are almost always upon us, where we have devices which track our every move and where we have all sorts of advanced means of search and recovery from wilderness specialists to drones to DNA. And new investigative tools like genetic genealogy have emerged to help in identifying and apprehending perpetrators.
Yet the combination of these advantages, this modern arsenal, has not yielded an answer in the case of Asha Degree. All disappearances disturb us and make us wish for the best possible outcome, but some cases disturb us at an even deeper level because of the mysterious nature of those vanishings. Asha Degree’s is one of those cases. She disappeared in a way that we do not expect children of her age to vanish. We don’t expect a nine-year-old to leave her home in the middle of a winter night, in a terrible storm, to wander down a highway and then suddenly veer off into wilderness and never be seen again.
I wanted to just do a brief series of scenarios because I see others going through the same sorts of mental gymnastics online which I do, trying to put together the pieces of this horrifying puzzle, the alleged facts. I apologize for any scenarios which might seem to cast doubt on the given stories of any of the principals in this case and I can honestly say I have no particular scenario which I find fits the preponderance of the evidence in this case. I am as baffled as everyone else by this disappearance. But I just wanted to see the scenarios laid down in black and white, almost like a flow chart saying “if this, then this…”
Maybe you will tell me what you think happened. I won’t rehash every detail of the disappearance here since you can easily read the Wikipedia entry or the granularly researched post on Reddit to which I linked in my last post below. I would obviously recommend the latter over the former if you want to read a timeline where someone has done a great job of removing so much of the misinformation which has been floating around the internet as facts in this case.
ASHA DEGREE DISAPPEARANCE: SCENARIOS
- Asha Degree voluntarily exits the house in the middle of the night in the rain wearing only minimal clothing: jeans, white shirt and white sneakers. She has her backpack but no coat. This points to the possibility that the child believes she would be meeting someone imminently, either someone who lived nearby who could offer shelter, or someone who she believed would be picking her up in a warm car or other vehicle. In either case, this could be someone known or someone new. Law enforcement believes the backpack had been prepared by Asha herself in preparation for running away (destination unknown).
- Asha Degree involuntarily exits the house because something horrible has happened there that night. She fills up her backpack hastily and she does not get a coat to wear because she is panicked or because she is afraid to make a sound which will wake or alert someone she fears. If the sightings of her walking down the highway are accurate, perhaps this person pursues her later and finds her further down Highway 18.
- Either the sightings of Asha Degree walking down Highway 18 are genuine or they are spurious. Because there are two sightings and because candy wrappers matching those known to be carried by Asha were found along her walking path, it seems these are legitimate sightings. And then items belonging to Degree, along with the mystery item of the photograph of the young girl which has not been definitively tied to Asha, are found in the open storage shed of the Turner Upholstery business down the road, again lending credence to the theory that Asha did walk south on Highway 18 the night of her disappearance.
- Probability problems emerge. Most runaways are not as young as nine. Most children who disappear from homes are abducted or killed by someone they know like parents or other trusted family or adult friends. And yet Asha Degree’s parents were not named as suspects or persons of interest in her disappearance by local law enforcement. This is after FBI involvement in this case as well. This is probably because there seems to be strong evidence that Asha either quietly left or fled the house. One would assume if one parent left the house in the middle of the night pursuing her, the other parent would know the truth about what had happened.
- One would assume the likeliest explanation of the disappearance is that the child died of exposure to the elements after having gotten lost, had her backpack not been later found in such suspicious circumstances. The backpack contained items that allegedly did not belong to Asha, notably a New Kids on the Block children’s nightshirt from a concert back in the nineties and a Dr. Seuss library book which Asha herself had not checked out of the school library. Some have speculated that these were either borrowings or things left in her backpack after her recent sleepover with young friends or that the child had pilfered these items. The FBI is not being forthcoming about what evidence has been gleaned from these two items but it seems significant that images of both the nightshirt and the photo of the young black girl found in the shed have been widely circulated in a bid to gather information on a potential perpetrator. Why was the backpack double-wrapped in black trash bags and thrown to the side of the highway. Some reports say it was found buried but others say it was only “buried’ because it had lain there on the roadside for a while. It appears to have been pitched. This was found in the opposite direction to Asha’s trek down Highway 18, in a northerly direction.
- The only possible “good interpretation” to be placed on the backpack is that Asha Degree ended up living with someone who kidnapped her to raise her as their child. Perhaps the nightshirt was something she wore in the first few days of living with this person. Perhaps this shirt had belonged to this individual’s own child in previous years. Or it could have just been a thrift store garment. But if one were going to get rid of evidence connecting one to an abduction of this nature, throwing it from a vehicle to the side of the road seems less likely. This seems like something a man, not a woman, would do. And it just seems horrible. But it’s also stupid because just tossing something by the side of the road is not going to truly conceal it. To me, that implies this individual might not live in that particular area. That they were figuring they would be long gone by the time the bag was discovered. But still it is weird. Because why would you not simply pitch it in a dumpster. One last extremely improbable explanation for this would be if someone found the backpack and wanted the rightful owner to discover it and set it there at the side of the road, perhaps initially propped upright. Possibly they had wrapped it in black bags to protect it from the weather and/or to hide the nature of what it was, figuring the rightful owner would go looking and know to check the bags for the contents, the missing item. This is a real stretch but stranger things have happened.
- The disturbing nature of this case is compounded by the fact that it piles improbabilities on top of improbabilities. Asha ran away at an age when children typically do not. She ran away in circumstances (middle of the night, bad weather, underdressed) in which children typically do not. She was seen in a particular area not that far from the house but no search ever uncovered her whereabouts or her remains. If she ran away voluntarily and then was immediately abducted by a random stranger with whom she had had no previous communication, that would be two improbabilities and one of them an extreme improbability. She did not have internet access, so if she were being groomed by a predator why would she meet with him in the middle of the night? Was there someone who lived nearby whose home she had been visiting regularly? Is that where she was going in the middle of the night? And, if so, why at that time? Had she been counseled to slip out of the home in the middle of the night? This would be a huge risk scenario for any advising abductor since this could have fallen apart at any stage, either within the house or if police or any adult had stopped the child and picked her up. Nothing makes sense in this case and that is why it rankles in the mind so.
- Something is missing in this case. I wish investigators would go back and talk to Asha Degree’s childhood friends from school and elsewhere. I realize it’s been many years but the terror of what happened has probably kept memories intact for many of these young girls (and boys). Someone very well might have known that little bit of something extra that will point law enforcement in the right direction. Maybe they are ready to confess something now that as a child they would be loath to say. Some uncomfortable bit of knowledge. I would show them the above age-progressed photo and remind them that it is most likely a picture of a stolen life that will never be. Can they help?
- We are all there with that child that night. Anyone who reads the particulars of this case finds himself or herself shadowing the child walking briskly down the highway in the middle of the night rain, completely underdressed and with some urgent purpose in her mind. But what was it? Was she running away from something or running to something?
- While both reports of the highway sightings of Asha indicate she was walking alone, there is the possibility that someone walking beside her ducked into the shadows or lay down at the side of the road momentarily until the headlights passed. If that were the case, then perhaps she wasn’t sheltering alone in the shed behind Turner Upholstery. Maybe a perpetrator took her there. Maybe he was the one carrying the photo of the other young “mystery girl.” It has been stated that the way up to the shed was an arduous climb and it involved a trek through rough terrain in darkness. Could it have been the child was accompanied or carried during this part of her movements that night? If so, this definitely would point to a local and someone very familiar with that area and probably someone who lived very close to that area at the time. Alternatively, this could have been an agreed-upon meeting place.
- One hopes the nightshirt is legitimate evidence and that it contains the DNA of not only Asha herself but also that of her abductor if there was one. The worst case scenario would be that it was just a red herring, if the library book and the nightshirt were just things Asha Degree collected herself and placed inside the backpack. But that would still leave us to wonder who double-bagged the backpack and threw it to the roadside. It’s so hard to come up with a happy outcome related to that find. I listed one above but it seems such an improbable explanation.
- The strangest thing about this case is that probability seems to be wrong again and again in the disappearance of Asha Degree. Nothing that happened in this disappearance was a likely occurrence. She haunts us because her disappearance should haunt us. One hopes she is safe and warm tonight, but it’s so hard to imagine that, barring a complete brainwashing campaign by an otherwise “loving” abductor, say a parent or parents who lost their own child and wanted a replacement and stole the dearly loved child of others. But we know how rarely this happens in life. It usually happens with infants more than fully grown children.
- If Asha’s disappearance had happened on an early Saturday or even early Sunday morning (weekend scenario) I would say it changes the potential victimology. Young people are out and about on those nights all year long, often drinking and getting into trouble. But this was a Sunday going over into a Monday that night. And it was winter and nasty out. So you’re going to have minimal traffic and probably no kids out looking for trouble.
- If Asha herself placed the mysterious night shirt and library book in her backpack and if the photo of the young child found in the shed was something she had just collected somewhere or if that has no relation to this case, then the situation is different. If the FBI found no indication of a perpetrator in that bag (DNA or other trace evidence) then it is possible someone simply found the bag outside somewhere, separated from the child. If that is the case, Asha Degree may have died of exposure and her remains may wait to be discovered not far from the last sighting. So many times initial and secondary and even tertiary searches fail when the person they are seeking is nearby. For some reason, lost children seem to climb rather than descend. I didn’t check the terrain and its elevation but it might be possible she will be found outside the search radius and higher than one would expect. I am just basing that on other strange cases of children lost in forested or wilderness areas. I hate to say it but I think if I were a computer and not a human being computing the odds for the likeliest outcome, it might be that this is the likeliest answer. Because apart from the backpack being found in those odd circumstances (and it might have been wrapped to protect it and placed there precisely to be found) there is little evidence that can support the idea of an abduction. Asha had no internet to connect to any stranger. I’m sure the family’s phone records of the time were scrutinized to see if she made a late night call. She was seen to be alone on the highway. A search was begun only a handful of hours after the last sighting. Traffic would have increased dramatically after daylight which was not that far away. No other highway sightings were reported. So perhaps the most logical assumption is that from the shed Asha wandered further off into wilder terrain and got lost. The time between her disappearance and the reappearance of her backpack might indicate the amount of time before someone wandering the same terrain found it. It is quite possible she had dropped it and separated from it after a certain amount of time lost in the wilderness.
- Realistically, if Asha is alive she has probably lived through some horrific things. If she is alive, she might feel completely disconnected from her previous life. I’m thinking of the scenario where her abductor was an exploiter who moved her out of the area or where trafficking might have been involved. There have been cases where people have lived through such experiences but then felt psychologically alienated from their past, have declined to reach out to their loved ones. Perhaps they feel tainted or dirty or dread of having to explain things they have done to survive. These are guiltless people who don’t feel guiltless. If that were indeed the case, one would hope she would see how much her parents love her by the way they keep up the search and vigilance constantly, how they do the annual walk down the highway in her memory. And, one would hope, she would come home.