BURKE COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - It was raining when Iquilla Degree put her children to bed on February 13th, 2000. The power had gone out and the family was relying on candlelight inside of their Shelby home. She was the protective type of mother who dedicated her life to raising her two children. You'd rarely see her without the children in tow.
Iquilla woke around 6:15 a.m. on Valentine's Day, her anniversary, to wake the kids up for school. The power had been restored, but something much more valuable was missing.
"Something said look up and when I looked over her cover was pulled back but no Asha," Iquilla said.
Nine-year-old Asha Degree wasn't in her bedroom where her father had seen her sound asleep just hours before. Her backpack and favorite outfits were also missing. Panic quickly flushed over Iquilla as she searched the house and called family and friends to see if the little girl had come over in the middle of the night.
"I honestly believe she walked out one of these doors on her own free will and after that somebody, once she walked down that road, somebody picked her up," Iquilla said.
At 6:39, a report was filed with the Cleveland County Sheriff's Office. Investigators were dispatched to search for the child who's known as "Shelby's sweetheart." Eighteen years later, they're still looking.
Cleveland County Detective Jordan Bowen grew up seeing Asha's photo pinned up across his hometown of Shelby. He's been on the case for two years now.
"I'm actually about the same age of what Asha would have been. It's just a massive case. So many working parts. So many details," Bowen said.
Two days before Asha disappeared, she played in a basketball game. Video shows the child decked out in her number 45 uniform. That day, Asha's team lost, which didn't sit well with her competitive spirit.
"She was the type of child that she never wanted you to be mad at her for nothing," Iquilla said.
But Iquilla said her daughter seemed to get over the loss in a few hours. Still, she wonders if it had anything to do with her leaving.
"Maybe I shouldn't have been as stern, maybe I should have just let her cry," she said.
There were sightings of Asha in the early hours of February 14. Two truck drivers called investigators saying they spotted her walking down Highway 18. At the time the drivers didn't have cell phones, so a considerable amount of time had passed before they were able to alert police.
"I believe that both, if not especially one of them would have called us and I believe we could have gotten out here quick enough where hopefully we wouldn't be doing what we're doing now," Bowen said.
The stretch of Highway 18 has been examined and re-examined for 18 years. But this past Fall it was looked at through the eyes of dozens of experts when the FBI's Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team came to Cleveland County from Quantico, Virginia. The team conducted 300 interviews in two weeks.
"I begged them to come out and work on Asha because I feel like their expertise is unmatched," FBI Special Agent Karen Walsh said. "There's nothing easy about this case. If it were easy, we joke that it would already be solved. So we try to take creative fresh looks at this case".
Asha's case is hardly one that sits on a shelf collecting dust. Federal and state investigators meet with Cleveland County detectives twice a month to review new information, like a tip called in suggesting a co-worker in Lincoln County may know something about Asha's disappearance.
Tips like that have come in steadily for 18 years, including one saying Asha may have got gotten into a green car the night of her disappearance. Her backpack was also found in Burke County not long after her disappearance. But so far nothing has led to her.
Detective Tim Adams came out of retirement to work Asha's case and nothing else.
"There are multiple people of interest that we've looked at over the years and we continue to look at and new names still arise," he said
Iquilla Degree tries not to get to her hopes up when she learns of a new tip. But she does believe her daughter, who'd be 27 now, is still alive.
I don't believe she's dead. I've never believed it from day one. If it's not 99.9%, I'm not going to believe it. Even if they say okay, we're pretty sure this is her and the case is closed. It will probably never be closed for me," she said.
Eighteen years is a long time to wonder about anything, especially where your child could be, which is why the investigators assigned to Asha's case refuse to let it be forgotten.
"If this were my child, I would want someone to be this passionate," Walsh said.
Asha's parents have never been considered suspects in this case.
A $45,000 reward is being offered for information on Asha's whereabouts. Tipsters are encouraged to call investigators at (704) 672-6100.