A convicted sex offender in North Carolina has been arrested in connection with the 1986 kidnapping and murder of a then-4-year-old South Carolina girl.
Deputies in Lexington County have been searching for Jessica Gutierrez since her disappearance over 35 years ago.
Thomas Eric McDowell, 61, was taken into custody at 7:50 am at his home in Wake Forest, near Raleigh, about 250 miles from where the girl was abducted 35 years ago.
He was charged with murder, kidnapping and first-degree burglary in connection with her disappearance, the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.
He was living in Lexington County in South Carolina when Gutierrez went missing overnight on June 6, 1986, according to the arrest warrants.
On Thursday, 61-year-old Thomas Eric McDowell (pictured) was arrested by police in North Carolina about 20 miles from his home in Raleigh
Jessica Gutierrez, 4, has been missing since June 6, 1986, when she was taken from her home by a man who had broken in through the window
Footage from outside the home of the Gutierrez family on the morning that Jessica was kidnapped
Police revisited the case in September, interviewing more than 125 people and reviewing more than 3,500 case files, Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon said in a statement.
‘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.
In a court hearing Friday in Wake County, a district court judge said he would remain in custody until he is extradited to South Carolina.
Gutierrez was abducted after someone broke into her Lexington home in the early morning hours on June 6, 1986.
The suspect entered through a window and based on the investigation at the time of her disappearance, kidnapped Jessica and left out the front door.
Debra Gutierrez, mother of missing girl Jessica Gutierrez, holds up an enlarged photo of her daughter
Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon said his department interviewed more than 125 people and reviewing more than 3,500 case files
Debra Gutierrez, Jessica’s mother, woke up to find her gone, and her family and law enforcement was unable to find her.
To date, the girl’s body has not been found.
‘Everything’s happening like a whirlwind,’ she said in a video posted by the sheriff’s office titled ‘Jessica is Still Missing’ on June 3, 2021. ‘You don’t know what to do. You don’t know what to do. ‘
McDowell is listed on a sex offender registry maintained by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) for a conviction in North Carolina in March 1987.
He was convicted of second-degree rape and criminal sexual conduct in the second degree and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, according to North Carolina incarceration records.
The three arrest warrants issued for McDowell on Thursday also say McDowell’s fingerprint was found in the home where Jessica was abducted.
‘I knew his were the only ones (on the window) because I used to clean those windows every night,’ the mom told The State.
McDowell was also picked out of a photo lineup as the kidnapper, according to the warrants, supposedly by Jessica’s then-6-year-old sister, who was in the room when the girl was kidnapped.
Weeks after her daughter went missing, a man living in Lexington County who the family knew stole a van, drove to North Carolina and raped a woman, the mom said.
That man was later convicted and sent to prison, where he confessed to kidnapping a girl in Lexington County, she told the News and Observer in Raleigh.
A spokesperson for the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department would not say Thursday whether McDowell was the convict who reportedly confessed to kidnapping a Lexington girl.
‘We took a fresh look at this case in September when FBI special agents and analysts assigned to its specialized Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team and prosecutors with the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office came to Lexington,’ Koon said in a statement Thursday.
‘SLED agents also joined us in reviewing initial reports and interviewing more than 125 people,’ he added. ‘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.’
A neighbor of McDowell’s in Wake Forest, said he had lived in the town for about seven years.
McDowell rarely spoke to others, said the neighbor, Tony Parker, and drove a white pickup truck.
The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office will prosecute the case, according to deputies.
‘Our work is beginning,’ Attorney General Alan Wilson said. ‘The South Carolina Attorney General’s office has the hardest working prosecutors who are ready.’