BREAKING NEWS

4-year-old girl was kidnapped and murdered in 1986. Thirty-five years later, police arrested a suspect.

cold case kidnapping
Source: Lexington County Sheriff's Office; Wake Forest police

Jan. 7 2022, Published 11:18 a.m. ET

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More than 35 years after 4-year-old Jessica Gutierrez was abducted from her family’s home in South Carolina and murdered, a suspect has been taken into custody and accused of committing the crime.

Police in Wake Forest, North Carolina, arrested Thomas Eric McDowell, 61, at a home on Jan. 6. and charged him with murder, kidnapping, and first-degree burglary.

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On June 6, 1986, Debra Gutierrez woke up and discovered a window in her daughter’s room was open and the little girl missing. At the time, Jessica’s sister said that a man “with the magic hat and the beard took her last night” from the family’s home in Lexington.

Debra Gutierrez said one possible person of interest in the case was a family acquaintance who, around the time, was convicted of stealing a van and raping a woman, the News & Observer reported.

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According to the outlet, the man allegedly confessed in prison to kidnapping a Lexington County girl while wearing a cowboy hat. Debra Gutierrez claimed in multiple interviews the man was questioned and once offered to provide investigators details about the abduction in exchange for immunity but he was denied.

The Lexington County Sheriff’s Department has declined to say if McDowell and the man Debra Gutierrez had previously claimed could be a possible suspect in her daughter's murder are the same person.

Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon said a new team, including FBI special agents and analysts assigned to its specialized Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team and prosecutors with the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office “took a fresh look” at the Jessica Gutierrez case this past September.

“Because of the work we did, coming together as a team, we were able to sort and connect more pieces of the puzzle about what happened to Jessica all those years ago,” Koon noted.

McDowell, who is listed on a South Carolina sex offender registry in connection to a March 1987 rape and criminal sexual conduct conviction, was being held without bond at the Wake County Detention Center in Raleigh.

“This arrest is due in part to the many years of dedicated investigative work by local, state and federal partners, as well as the resolve of citizens who have never forgotten Jessica,” FBI Columbia Special Agent in Charge Susan Ferensic said. “Regardless of how long a child is missing, we will never stop searching for answers, and we hope that this arrest is a step toward healing for the Gutierrez family.”

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