Child kidnapping, killing cold case coming to close as police arrest suspect 35 years later

Published: Jan. 7, 2022 at 9:45 AM EST
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LEXINGTON COUNTY, S.C. (WIS/Gray News) - On June 6, 1986, 4-year-old Jessica “Jessie” Gutierrez was kidnapped from her home in South Carolina and was never seen again.

The Lexington County Sheriff’s Department said a North Carolina man, 61-year-old Thomas McDowell, was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and killing Gutierrez on Thursday, according to WIS.

“This is where I loved my children with my whole heart and soul,” said Debra Gutierrez, Jessie’s mother, in a previous interview. “Home is where your heart is, and if you’re not safe at home, where are you gonna be safe at?”

McDowell is charged with murder, kidnapping and first-degree burglary, according to arrest warrants.

The Lexington County Sheriff’s Department said McDowell lived in Lexington in 1986.

McDowell was arrested at his home by the Wake Forest Police Department on Thursday. At this time, McDowell is being held in the Wake County Detention Center, according to deputies.

Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon said a fresh look was taken in September when FBI special agents and analysts with the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team came to Lexington.

“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 said.

More than 3,500 case file pages were reviewed in September, according to Koon. Ten FBI field offices were involved in the reexamination of the case last year.

FBI Columbia Special Agent-in-Charge Susan Ferensic said the arrest was able to be made because of state, federal partners, and citizens of the community coming together for the investigation.

“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,” Ferensic said.

Koon said the case would be prosecuted by the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, which has held the case since February 2015.

“We look forward to working with all the agencies involved to get justice for Jessica’s family and, hopefully, bring her home. They’ve been waiting a long time and we’re glad to be a part of another step in the process,” Koon said.

McDowell was denied bond at the Wake County Detention Center and was due in court again Friday.

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