Jessica Gutierrez was just 4 years old when she was taken from her home in South Carolina and killed.
Now, almost 36 years later, police have made an arrest in connection with her death.
Thomas Eric McDowell, a 61-year-old North Carolina man, has been charged with murder, kidnapping, and burglary in the first degree, the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office announced on Twitter Thursday.
Jessica Gutierrez Kidnapped in 1986
According to police, the 4-year-old disappeared from her bedroom in her mobile home in Lexington, South Carolina on June 6, 1986. At the time, authorities determined that an unknown suspect had broken in and kidnapped the girl in the dead of night.
Hauntingly, her sister told their mother that a man “with the magic hat and the beard took her last night.”
She was never seen again.
Jessica’s case went cold after a few months, with no obvious leads. Months became years became decades with no progress in sight.
It wasn’t until late lest year, when state and federal inevstigators began re-examining the case, that light appeared at the end of the tunnel.
“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,” said Sheriff Jay Koon.
“[South Carolina state police] also joined us in reviewing initial reports and interviewing more than 125 people,” Koon continued.
“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.”
Sorting through 3,500 documents with the help of almost a dozen FBI field offices, the task force determined that McDowell — who lived in Lexington in 1986 but has since moved to North Carolina — fit the bill.
“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,” said Columbia-based FBI agent Susan Ferensic.
“I want to commend the dedicated and experienced members of law enforcement as well as prosecutors in the Attorney General’s Office for their tireless efforts,” state Attorney General Alan Wilson added in a statement Thursday.
“Without this newly discovered information our office would not be able to prosecute this case.”
Authorities have not said what specific piece (or pieces) of evidence led them to charge McDowell with the crime, though it’s possible they’re playing their cards close to the vest until the 61-year-old goes to trial. They have not mentioned DNA evidence or any other modern forensic processes as having played a role in the arrest.
Thomas Eric McDowell Faces Felony Charges
McDowell was charged not only with Gutierrez’s kidnapping, but also her murder — though a body was never found — and first-degree burglary for allegedly breaking into her home 35 years ago.
He was taken into custody by the Wake Forest Police Department at his home just north of Raleigh, North Carolina early Thursday morning, and was booked into a local jail, pending his extradition.
Police believe McDowell is a serial offender. He had been convicted of second-degree rape and criminal sexual conduct in North Carolina stemming from a 1987 incident and is still listed as a sex offender in the South Carolina registry, according to local reports.
Authorities said they hope the arrest brings a small measure of peace to Jessica’s loved ones, who are still haunted by the memory of her disappearance decades later.
“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,” Sheriff Koon said.
“And the community support to the family and to those who’ve worked on this case has been invaluable. We know they’ll remember Jessica and stand with her family in the coming days.”