Wake Forest man arrested in 35-year-old South Carolina kidnapping, murder of 4-year-old girl

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Friday, January 7, 2022
Wake Forest man arrested in 1986 kidnapping, murder of 4-year-old girl
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Police arrested Thomas Eric McDowell of the 800 block of N. White Street about 7 a.m. Thursday.

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (WTVD) -- Wake Forest Police announced an arrest Thursday in the case of a South Carolina 4-year-old girl who went missing nearly 36 years ago.

Police arrested Thomas Eric McDowell of the 800 block of N. White Street about 7 a.m. Thursday.

The Lexington County Sheriff's Department in South Carolina charged McDowell, 61, in connection with the kidnapping and disappearance of Jessica Gutierrez on June 6, 1986, in Lexington County, South Carolina.

Jessica Gutierrez was 4 years old when she disappeared in June 1986.
Lexington County Sheriff's Department

Jessica's mother said the girl was gone when family members woke up that fateful day and a massive search of several days did not find her, The Associated Press reported. She has not been seen since.

McDowell is charged with murder, kidnapping and burglary. He is being held in the Wake County Detention Center without bail.

McDowell lived in Lexington County in 1986

"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," Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon said. "SLED agents also joined us in reviewing initial reports and interviewing more than 125 people. 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."

Thomas Eric McDowell
Wake Forest Police Department

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.

"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."