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A man has been arrested and charged with murder in the disappearance of a preschool-aged girl in South Carolina more than 35 years ago.
Thomas McDowell, 61, was arrested on Thursday at his home in Wake Forest, North Carolina — about 20 miles north of Raleigh — and is in custody pending extradition to South Carolina, the Lexington County Sheriff's Office announced. He is facing charges, filed by the South Carolina attorney general, of murder, kidnapping and first-degree burglary in the 1986 disappearance of 4-year-old Jessica Gutierrez in Lexington County.
Arrest warrants reviewed by the Charlotte Observer state that McDowell was identified by a fingerprint left in the home from which Jessica was abducted, was identified in a police photo array by a witness to the abduction, and "made statements to other sources that he had kidnapped [Gutierrez] and killed her."
The warrants state that Gutierrez's body has still not been recovered.
On June 6, 1986, 4-year-old Jessica's mother, Debra, woke up in Red Bank, South Carolina — 15 miles west of Columbia — to find her young daughter missing. According to reporting by The State, Jessica had been sleeping in a double bed the night before with her 6-year old sister Becky, but the room was littered with papers that morning, the front door was open and the curtains were torn off of one window. Becky told her mother of Jessica, "The man with the magic hat and the beard took her last night," but Debra Gutierrez didn't immediately believe her and looked around for her younger daughter to no avail. When she realized that Becky might be telling the truth, Debra asked her why she hadn't said anything earlier or screamed, and Becky said that she was too scared.
According to the Lexington County Sheriff's Department, Debra Gutierrez then called local law enforcement, which conducted both a ground search on foot and with four-wheelers as well as with an airplane; they were unsuccessful. A subsequent investigation was able to determine that someone had broken into the Gutierrez home via a window (leaving a singular print, according to The State), taken Jessica, and then left via the home's front door.
Gutierrez initially suspected her estranged boyfriend was involved and police suspected the children's estranged father, the State reported, but both were ruled out.
But, The State reported, a family acquaintance shortly after the disappearance "stole a van in Lexington County and drove to North Carolina, where he raped a woman." Gutierrez told the paper in 2017 that said acquaintance "told a cellmate about how he kidnapped a girl in Lexington County, and that he was wearing a tall cowboy hat when he did it," and that he'd buried the girl in a local landfill. The cellmate, she said, relayed the alleged confession to both authorities and Gutierrez.
Authorities reportedly searched the landfill but turned up nothing; they also questioned the suspect, the paper reported, and he allegedly offered to confess in exchange for immunity, but authorities rejected the offer. It's unclear from reports when that search or interview occurred.
Robert Kittle, then a spokesman for S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, told the paper in 2017 that state authorities had investigated the lead with Lexington County law enforcement but, "unfortunately, after an exhaustive review of all of the evidence, there was insufficient evidence to move forward with a prosecution."
North Carolina prison records and South Carolina sex offender registry records reflect that Thomas McDowell, now age 61, was convicted in March 1987 of second-degree rape, a second degree sexual offense and felony breaking and entering. He was released from prison in North Carolina in 1997. He is listed as an absconder on South Carolina's sex offender registry but does not appear on North Carolina's.
The disappearance was eventually featured on both "Unsolved Mysteries" and "America's Most Wanted" and, in 1991, Jessica Gutierrez became the first missing child in South Carolina to have their appearance "age-progressed" using then-new digital technology, according to The State.
In 2021 — the 35th anniversary of Jessica Gutierrez's disappearance — the Lexington County Sheriff's Department produced a video asking people to come forward with any information about the crime.
"No day is easy," Debra Gutierrez said in it. "My kids will says, 'Hey, you know, grandson's playing ball, you want to come?' And I'm like, 'Nah,' I'm just so consumed with this."
"I'm 35 years deep in this, trying to find my daughter," she added. "And I want my daughter back. I don't think I'm asking for much.
"You have this mother who has lived without her daughter longer than she has lived with her daughter," said Lexington County Sheriff's Sgt. David Pritchard, the lead investigator on the case "It's up to us as law enforcement to do everything we can to give her the closure she needs so that the rest of her life can be a little more peaceful."
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