As part of JET’s special investigative report on Black children who go missing—featured in the April 29, 2013 issue on stands now—we spoke with several experts to discuss the lack of mainstream coverage of these cases. Below you will find an extended interview with Iquilla Degree, the mother of 9-year-old Asha Degree, who went missing from her North Carolina bedroom over 13 years ago and has not been seen since. Here the hopeful mother shares her story and quest for closure in this case.
JET: Can you share the basic facts regarding your daughter Asha’s disappearance.
I woke up on Feb. 14, 2000 at 5:45am. The alarm went off for my children to go to school at 6:30am. I went to the bathroom, two feet away from the door, to start the bath water because they could not take a bath the night before since we had a power outage. I opened their bedroom door. My son O’Bryant was under the covers, as he usually slept. I called his name and he jumped up, as usual. I realized that Asha was not in her bed.
I looked beside his bed because sometimes she would get up at night and lay there. I asked him where she was. He didn’t know. I checked the couch. I checked downstairs. I checked the kitchen. I checked every closet in the house. I went in my room and put on clothes and told my husband, Harold, that Asha was not in the house. I checked our cars. She was not there. My husband said maybe she was in my mother-in-law’s home— she lives across the road. We called my sister-in-law’s house. She was not there. That’s when I went into panic mode. I heard a car next door. I did not have shoes on. I put shoes on and ran outside. I called my mom and told her that Asha was not in the house. She told me to hang up and call the police. I threw the phone at Harold and went outside.
JET: Please describe the initial 24-48 hours (from contacting police to getting flyers disseminated to informing family members).
By 6:40am the first police officer came and we started telling them what we woke up to. About 2-3 minutes later the Sheriff was here and more police officers were in the house. They asked for pictures. The Sheriff called for a K-9 unit but they could not find anything but my scent. By that time, every neighbor in my street was up because I was walking up and down the road screaming my child’s name. By 7 o’clock we had every cop in the county here. Every news reporter had shown up. Five or six local news channels were here. Local newspapers. By the time 7 o’clock came I was plastered all over the television. That was the first year Asha was in the 4th grade. She was upset about their first basketball loss that weekend.
Two motorists had spotted her that morning, at 3:30am and 4:15am. That’s when they stopped looking at me as if I had something to do with it. We didn’t even have a computer because every time you turned on the TV there was some pedophile who had lured somebody’s child away.
JET: Do you recall how the case was categorized in the police report?
They put down endangered and missing as the classification in the police report. The FBI, the police department and myself agree that she went out of my house of her own free will. She went out of one of my two doors, I don’t know which one, but she left of her own free will. She was walking on 18 South, the way her bus route went.
JET: What are your overall impressions of the media coverage Asha’s case has received so far?
Only local. A lot of my family members and I went to The Montel Williams Show. They aired the show exactly one month after she was missing—March 14. That was the most coverage we got on a national level. A month later she was featured on America’s Most Wanted, no one did an interview with us. Oprah showed her picture and the info from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). Every month we get a letter from NCMEC telling us who they sent her information to.
JET: Do you perceive a difference in the coverage given in the media to cases of missing children based on race?
Most definitely. The White ladies are on every channel. We were on local channels. The only reason The Montel Williams Show knew anything is that the coach’s sister went online and she reached out to all of them. But only Montel responded. Once the local channels found out we were going to The Montel Williams Show, one of them flew up, and they flew a reporter up, too. Then we did the interview with that local channel. Missing White children get more attention. I don’t understand why. I don’t try to speculate. I know if you ask them they will say it’s not racial. Oh, really? I’m not going to argue because I have common sense.
JET: How do you keep up the search and keep Asha’s name in the media?
The local media calls us when a child is found. They want me to comment on it. They want to know how it makes me feel that another mother’s child was found, as if I would be mad. Why would I begrudge a mama who lost her child and found her? I know the hell that she has been through. There’s also a billboard 1.3 miles from my house, around the area where she was last seen. We organize a walk every year. The police department come and block off the road. We do it because that’s the way to keep her name out there because the local media cover the walk.
JET: Do you think Black-owned media has a special responsibility to publicize these cases?
If we can get it to them. But if they don’t know about the case, then, no, how could they? I think all media does. We don’t believe that she’s dead. We have never believed that she’s dead. Every time we get a call from the press we wonder why, after so many years, we are still being called. There has to be a reason. She’ll be 23 this year. I’m still looking for a person to come home, not remains.
JET: Can you give us an update on the case as it stands today.
We are still looking for her. We now have a $25,000 reward for any information leading to her return.
For more info and to report an update on a missing person, please visit the Black & Missing Foundation, Inc. at bamfi.org. And to get the full story be sure to pick up the Missing & Black cover story, which is on newsstands now.