South Carolina authorities have cracked a 35-year-old cold case involving a 4-year-old girl who investigators now believe was kidnapped in the middle of the night and killed, leading them one step closer to finding the child’s remains.
Wake Forest Police arrested 61-year-old Thomas Eric McDowell on Thursday in connection with the June 1986 disappearance of Jessica Gutierrez, officials announced. McDowell has been charged with murder, kidnapping and first-degree burglary, the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office said.
Authorities learned of McDowell’s involvement after they “took a fresh look” at the case with the help of the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office and agents and analysts with the FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team, Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon said.
McDowell was a Lexington County resident in 1986, and now lives about 20 miles north of Raleigh, North Carolina. He was nabbed at his home and is being held at the Wake County Detention Center, officials said. His next court date was scheduled for Friday.
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Investigators interviewed more than 125 people and reviewed more than 3,500 pages of documents with the help of FBI personnel from 10 field offices. The South Carolina Attorney General’s Office has had the case since February 2015 and will prosecute the matter.
Attorney General Alan Wilson cites “newly discovered information” in leading investigators to McDowell, though details were not immediately provided.
Jessica was last seen at her Red Bank, South Carolina, home on the night of June 5, 1986, before she went to bed, affiliate FOX 28 Savannah reported. When her family woke up the next morning, she was gone. Her 6-year-old sister reportedly recalled how Jessica was taken by “the man in the magic hat.”
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In a video shared by authorities in September, Jessica’s mother, Debra Gutierrez described the terror she felt on the morning of June 6, 1986.
“To just all of a sudden, put your kids to bed and wake up one morning and one of them is gone … you don’t understand it,” she said. “Everything’s happening like a whirlwind. You don’t know what to do. You don’t know what to do. And then, you start searching.
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“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 Thursday. “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.”