Inside The Mysterious Disappearance Of Asha Degree

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there's "no reliable way to determine the total number of children who are actually missing in the U.S." It's a chilling reflection of how difficult the process of finding and tracking lost kids is for the police and how painful the not-knowing is for all those left behind in the wake of a child's disappearance.

While the specter of stranger abductions looms much larger in the public psyche than the numbers bear out in reality, the possibility of even one child being lost to an abductor is enough to stoke fear in the hearts of parents. It's a feeling Asha Degree's parents have known all too well for more than 20 years. Sometime between 2:30 on Valentine's Day morning, when her father last checked on Asha and her brother in their shared bedroom, and 6:30, when her parents returned to get the kids ready for school, nine-year-old Asha vanished, seemingly without a trace.

What happened to Asha that Valentine's Day morning?

Sometime between that early-morning check-in and approximately two hours later, when police believe she was spotted walking along Highway 18 in a storm, Asha Degree left her home. That much is known. According to her mother, Iquilla, Asha packed her school backpack with some clothes, reports ABC News. Two drivers reported the sighting to police, according to the FBI's website, and one even circled back trying to find her, but saw the fourth-grader running deeper into the woods.

Once Asha's parents notified authorities that their daughter was missing, investigators combed the house for clues but could find no sign of forced entry, nor a scent trail for dogs to follow. Because of these unusual circumstances, police believe that Asha got up in the middle of the night and, for unknown reasons, decided to leave her home. There has been some speculation Asha may have been upset over her performance in a basketball game (the little girl was known to be fiercely competitive), but her parents insist she was acting normally the day before, despite the disappointment.

Developments in the Asha Degree case

After days of searching, investigators turned up some candy wrappers and a hair bow that Asha's family confirmed had been hers in a nearby shed. Despite the exciting lead, the clues yielded no additional evidence and there were no signs from the condition of the shed that would lead investigators to believe Asha had been injured, according to ABC News.

It would be 18 more months until police got their next confounding clue, when Asha's backpack turned up at a construction site, wrapped in plastic bags, and more than 26 miles away from her home. Inside the bag was a Dr. Seuss book that had been checked out from Asha's school library, as well as a New Kids on the Block shirt that her parents said had not been hers. Despite the lead, the case languished until it was re-investigated in 2015 and investigators uncovered a witness who thinks they may have seen Asha getting into a Lincoln Continental Mark IV or Ford Thunderbird.

Aside from these clues, investigators have not made much more information about the case and its progress available to the general public. Though the case remains open and has generated more than 350 leads, Asha is still missing. Her parents believe, though, that the girl known as "Shelby's Sweetheart" (who would now be 30) is still alive and continue to have hope they'll be reunited. There is a $45,000 reward waiting for anyone who comes forward with information that could lead to finding Asha.