Thomas E. McDowell to stand trial for burglary, kidnapping, and murder in 35-year-old cold case
It was the summer of 1986. 4-year-old Jessica Suzanne Gutierrez lived in a Lexington, South Carolina mobile home with her mother and the two sisters with whom she shared a bedroom. On the night of June 5, Jessica and her sisters had been put to bed for the night and were already asleep.
At some point between 11:30 pm and 9:00 am the following morning, an intruder removed the screen and curtains from a living room window and entered the home. This person then took Jessica from her bedroom and exited through the front door.
When Jessica’s mother went to get the girls up the following morning, she discovered Jessica was missing. Six-year-old Rebecca, Jessica’s older sister, told her mother that “the man with the magic hat and the beard” had taken her. The other children were asked if they knew where Jessica was and told their mother that they did not. Other family members were called over to look for Jessica and after finding no trace of her, the police were called.
Jessica has never been found.
Rebecca, now 42 years old, said she still recalls waking to see the man pick Jessica up out of her bed and take her away. She said that Jessica never woke up during her abduction and that she had been too scared to tell anyone until the following morning after her mother found that Jessica was gone.
Several days before the abduction, Jessica’s mother, Debra, had broken off a relationship with her live-in boyfriend due to his excessive drinking and possessive nature. She told him to leave the house and he had complied, but she feared he might have returned to take Jessica. He insisted to the police that he had no part in the abduction and no knowledge of Jessica’s whereabouts.
Police questioned the man several times, but there was no evidence that he was involved, so he was never charged. Likewise, Jessica’s father was ruled out. He had moved to the other side of the country after his divorce from Jessica’s mother and was found to be present at his home in California during Jessica’s abduction.
Instead, there was another suspect that drew the attention of the police. 27-year-old Thomas Eric McDowell was a friend of the family and had done time in North Carolina for rape. Jessica’s mother told the police that she cleaned the windows every night. She had cleaned the living room window that night and the single fingerprint forensic investigators found on it belonged to him.
The following year, McDowell was sent to prison for ten years on a rape charge and told a cellmate that he had kidnapped a girl in Lexington County. He said he had buried her body in a landfill there. He also mentioned that he was wearing a tall cowboy hat at the time of the abduction.
His cellmate told the authorities about his confession and detectives questioned him about the claims he had made. He told them that he would confess if they provided him with immunity from prosecution for the crime, but they declined his request. Without a deal from them, he refused to talk to them any further about it.
Despite the cold case being reviewed in 2008 and 2015, no progress was made in catching the culprit who took Jessica from her home in the middle of the night. However, a review of the case was conducted in September 2021 by FBI special agents from ten FBI field offices, members of the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team, and the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, according to Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon.
Sheriff Koon said that agents from the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division helped review original investigation reports and interviewed more than 125 potential witnesses. He says that agents reviewed over 3500 pages of case files and praised their efforts.
Now, over 35 years after Jessica was taken, police have arrested McDowell and charged him with murder, kidnapping, and first-degree burglary in connection with Jessica’s disappearance. McDowell, now 61 years old, was taken into custody on January 6, 2022, at his home in Wake Forest, North Carolina by officers with the Wake Forest Police Department.
McDowell is currently being held at the Wake County Detention Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, according to Wake County inmate records. At a preliminary hearing held on January 7, the judge ruled that McDowell would continue to be held without bond until he is extradited to South Carolina where he will stand trial.
Though not much of the evidence that police now have against McDowell has been released to the public, Sheriff Koon has confirmed that Jessica’s body has still not been found. His statements indicate that new information in the case is what has allowed detectives to finally make an arrest in the case.
There is no doubt that the months ahead will reveal more about this case as McDowell stands trial for his alleged crimes.