February 13, 2024
A Wake Forest man has been sentenced to life in prison this month for the abduction and murder of a 4-year-old girl in 1986.
Jessica “Jessie” Suzanne Gutierrez was just 4 years old when she went missing from her bedroom on the night of June 5, 1986, from her rural South Carolina home on South Lake Drive. Jessica lived with her sisters and mother, who had full custody of them, after their father moved to Mexico following the divorce. He would often live between Mexico and California.
She and her two sisters had been sleeping in their bedroom when an unknown assailant came into the room and abducted Jessica. Evidence indicated that the intruder had entered the house through the living room window.
The following morning on June 6, Jessica's mother, Debra, woke up to discover papers strewn across the floor of the girl's bedroom, curtains torn off the rails, and the front door to the home left ajar.
When asked what she had witnessed during the night, Jessica’s older sister, six-years-old at the time, said that Jessica had been snatched away by a “man with a magic hat and beard.”
She added that the man lifted Jessica out of her bed without waking her up.
There was no sign of a struggle, and no items were missing from the home.
It is believed the intruder entered the residence somewhere between 11:30pm on the night of the 5th, and 9:00am on the night of the 6th.
Debra searched frantically for her missing daughter but could not locate her. She was quickly reported missing, and searches expanded out into larger areas, on both land and air, to no avail. Wooded areas, lakes, and abandoned areas were checked, but officers from the Lexington Sheriff’s office could not locate the missing child.
One piece of forensic evidence was left behind at the scene, however; a fingerprint on the outer frame of a window, through which police believe the kidnapper entered.
The case eventually went cold, and would remain so for decades.
Debra said of her missing daughter: "I'm gonna hope she is alive and that I'm going to see her again. And until you can show me that my daughter is dead, I'm going to choose to believe that she is alive, that's all I have left. I have a chance of hope, even though, like they say, statistically, this is a very large amount of time.”
Debra never gave up trying to find her daughter. After butting heads with the Sherif assigned to the case, Jessica decided to do some investigating of her own.
Although there would be no arrests made in the case until 2022, earlier in the investigation, Debra suspected that either her ex-boyfriend, or a family friend, could be responsible for Jessica’s disappearance.
The family friend was in his late twenties at the time, and would serve a stint for rape and theft in a California prison. In the summer of 1989, Debra herself claimed to have found evidence that Jessica had been in the man’s abandoned vehicle. She shared this information with a local newspaper in the hope that she could keep Jessica’s case in the minds of its readers.
The following year, while incarcerated for a separate crime, the suspect allegedly confessed to a fellow prisoner that he had murdered a little girl and disposed of her body in a Lexington County landfill, adding that in exchange for immunity, he would confess to the crime. The suspects cellmate had written to Debra telling her about the confession.
No deal was ever granted, nor an official confession given.
At the time of Jessica’s disappearance, the suspect was a registered sex offender living in Lexington County. The suspects name was allegedly said to be Thomas McDowell, purportedly believed to be the family friend known to the Gutierrez family. He even said that at the time he had a beard and had been sporting a tall cowboy hat.
Since the state refused to grant him immunity in exchange for the details of the crime, there was no deal made, and Dowell was left serving out his time in a North Carolina Prison. Debra was devastated that no charges had been brought against the suspect, despite him revealing details that corresponded with the night of the crime.
Two decades later, Debra accused the Lexington Department of mishandling Jessica’s case and was afraid to challenge the Sherriff for fear that he would stop working on the case.
After the previous sheriff, James Metz, was arrested and sentenced on charges of wire fraud and bribery, a new Sheriff, Sherrif Jacob, looked into Jessica’s case with fresh eyes.
Thomas McDowell’s fingerprints were on file and were compared to the fingerprint lifted from the window screen found at Jessica’s home on the night of her disappearance. They were a match.
In 2022, the Lexington county Sheriff’s Office teamed up with the FBI to reinvestigate the case, finding 61-year-old Thomas Eric McDowell guilty of first-degree burglary, first-degree kidnapping and first-degree murder.
McDowell, now 63, will spend the rest of his life in prison.
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