It's Monday, which means it's time for another...
On a night when the moon gazed down like an evil eye, the young prince appeared in Jemmy's chamber.
"Boy! Tumble out of bed. I need a manservant."
Jemmy saw that the prince was wearing a black cloak and carrying a wicker basket the size of a sea chest. "What you up to now! Walkin' in your royal sleep, are you!"
"I'm running away."
--The Whipping Boy, Sid Fleischman
The above excerpt is from a Newbery-winning book read in many elementary schools. In the story, a bored prince asks a young boy to run away with him to be his manservant. Asha Degree's fourth-grade class was reading this book just before she mysteriously left her home in the early morning hours on February 14, 2000. She was nine years old.
Asha Jaquilla Degree lived in Shelby, North Carolina with two very protective parents. They carefully focused their family life on church, school, and their extended family. On February 13, after spending time at church and with relatives, Asha and her brother went to bed around 8 p.m. They shared a room.
At approximately 12:30 a.m., Asha's father returned home from work. He checked in on the two children and confirmed they were both in bed. At around 2:30 a.m., he checked on them again and they were both still in bed.
Soon after, Asha's brother says he heard her bed squeak. He assumed she was just changing positions and went back to sleep. But at 5:45 a.m., their mom got up to wake them and found Asha's bed was empty. She was nowhere to be found.
Later, witnesses reported seeing Asha walking on Highway 18 wearing a white T-shirt and white pants. Another driver reported seeing her at 4 a.m. and found it odd someone so young would be walking alone...in a heavy downpour. He turned his car around but she ran into the woods and was never seen again.
After an extensive search, some signs of Asha were found in a shed near a local business not far from where she'd been spotted running into the woods. Searchers found candy wrappers, a pencil, a marker, and a hair bow shaped like Mickey Mouse. All were identified as Asha's.
In August 2001, Asha's book bag was found 26 miles north of the town where she lived. It contained several sets of clothes, including her basketball uniform, as well as some photos of her family. It is believed that she packed the bag herself and snuck out of the house in the rain that morning...but why?
Why would a nine-year-old girl leave a house on her own? Was she acting out what she'd read in The Whipping Boy? Or did someone convince her to leave and meet them that morning?