The last time Harold Degree saw his young daughter, she was fast asleep in her bed. Less than two hours later she was seen walking down a road near her North Carolina home. Then she was gone.
The mysterious sighting of Asha Degree, 9, on Valentine's Day 2000 would be the last anyone ever saw of her. The trail has long grown cold, but police say they still receive tips daily and haven't stopped searching for the girl who would now be 20.
"She was scared to death of dogs," Degree said. "I never thought she would go out of the house."
The driver who reported seeing Asha on Highway 18, just outside Shelby, N.C., said there was a storm raging when he saw her around 4 a.m. Feb. 14, 2000. Thinking it strange such a small child would be out by herself at that hour, he turned the car around.
Circling three times, he watched her run into the woods and disappear.
Police immediately suspected foul play even though the little girl's family said she may have voluntarily gotten out of bed, upset about losing a basketball game that weekend.
"The theory is that some time during the night she gets up," Cleveland County Sheriff's Det. Pete Hamrick said.
Her mother, Iquilla Degree, said she believes her daughter packed her school bag and put clothes in it.
Hamrick said, "She walks out of the house and heads down 18 South towards Shelby. Several people say that they see her. But no one stops to make sure she's OK. She runs off into the woods. And no one has seen her since."
When her parents realized their daughter was missing at 6:30 a.m. that morning, they and volunteers immediately began searching the neighborhood.
Within days, the search for Asha turned up candy wrappers and a hair bow in a nearby shed. The family identified the bow as hers. The close-knit community was stunned that something like this would happen.
Investigators found no blood, no signs of a struggle or a car accident. The case stalled for 18 months until Asha's book bag was found wrapped in trash bags 26 miles away.
"I freaked out," Iquilla Degree said. "Because to me it was that, the next thing they was going to tell me was that they had found her body."
There has been no other sign of Asha since. Her family doesn't know whether she's dead or alive or where she has been all these years. Her parents continue to live in the same house, in case she comes home.
"My heart won't let me move," her mother said. "I can just keep the hope that she's going to walk through the door one day.
"All we got is hope. And I just refuse to let anyone take that away from me."
Asha's parents said their little girl was quiet like her father and was good at sports, playing both basketball and baseball.
"She was a daddy's girl," Iquilla Degree said. "She would sit up under me and lay her head in my lap."
Her parents said she showed no signs of being so upset the night they last saw her that she would leave home.
"We thought everything was fine," her mother said. "Because she, when she was around us, she was laughing and talking."
Hamrick said police have continued to process new leads and phone calls on the case come in almost daily.
"Someone out there knows something," he said. "We just need that one piece that's going make the puzzle come together."
Click here for an age-progressed photo of what Asha Degree may look like now. Anyone with information about her disappearance is asked to call the Cleveland County Sheriff's Office at (704) 484-4822.