Thomas Eric McDowell: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

thomas eric mcdowell

Sheriff\'s Dept Thomas Eric McDowell (left) and Jessica Gutierrez.

Thomas Eric McDowell is a North Carolina man accused in the 1986 kidnapping and murder of South Carolina 4-year-old Jessica Gutierrez, whose body has never been found.

“Suspect arrested in 1986 child kidnapping, killing,” the Lexington County (S.C.) Sheriff’s Department wrote in a Facebook post on January 6, 2022.

“A North Carolina man has been arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and killing a child in Lexington County more than three decades ago,” the statement says.

Here’s what you need to know:


1. Thomas Eric McDowell, Who Lived in Lexington County, Is Accused of Murder

Thomas Eric McDowell, 61, “is charged with murder, kidnapping and first-degree burglary in connection to the disappearance and death of 4-year-old Jessica Gutierrez in June 1986, according to arrest warrants,” the sheriff’s release says.

“McDowell, who lived in Lexington County in 1986, was arrested by the Wake Forest Police Department at his home about 20 miles north of Raleigh Thursday morning (January 6). He is being held in the Wake County Detention Center,” it says.

In the press release, Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon said his department “took a fresh look at this case in September,” which entailed “reviewing initial reports and interviewing more than 125 people” with assistance from the FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team, the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office and South Carolina’s State Law Enforcement Division.

“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,” Koon said.

On the Facebook thread of the department’s press release, some people praised the child’s mother for never giving up and criticized law enforcement for taking so long to make an arrest.

“It’s a shame it took years for this department to actually do their job. It’s a shame how victims are ignored and treated. We shouldn’t have to beg for help on social media to be heard! Praying for the family,” wrote one person.

“This case was solved because of a mom who pushed and pushed for resolution. She needs to be given credit first,” wrote another.

Jessica’s mom is named Debra Gutierrez.

“I’m glad God brought me to see it,” Debra Gutierrez told The State. “I prayed he would bring me through it, and we’ve waited for this a long time.”


2. More Than 3,500 Case File Pages Were Reviewed

jessica gutierrez

Charley ProjectJessica Gutierrez.

The investigation was massive. More than 3,500 case file pages were reviewed, according to Koon. “Ten FBI field offices were involved in the reexamination of the case last year,” the release says.

“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 in the release. “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.”

Koon said the case “would be prosecuted by the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, which has held the case since February 2015.”


3. Jessica’s Sister Called the Abductor the ‘Man With the Magic Hat’

jessica gutierrez

Missing Kids.orgAn age progression photo of what Jessica Gutierrez might look like today.

According to MissingKids.org, Gutierrez has been missing since June 6, 1986. “She was last seen at home and became missing between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and 9:00 a.m.,” that site says.

The Charley Project describes what happened that night: The child “was sleeping in a bedroom with her two sisters in her family’s Lexington, South Carolina mobile home during the evening hours of June 5, 1986.”

An intruder, now named as Thomas McDowell, “apparently broke in through the living room window and removed the screen and curtains. The abductor(s) then removed Jessica from the bedroom and left the residence through the front door,” the site says.

“Jessica’s mother discovered the crime scene and her disappearance on the morning of June 6; [Jessica’s] six-year-old sister, Rebecca, stated she had been taken by ‘the man with the magic hat and the beard.’ She has never been heard from again.”

According to the Charley Project, Rebecca “remembers seeing a man lift Jessica out of the bed and carry her away” without waking Jessica, but Rebecca was too scared to say anything until the next morning.

The Charley Project says Debra Gutierrez’s ex-boyfriend was questioned but never charged. Jessica’s father was “ruled out as a suspect in the case, as he had been living in California at the time of her abduction,” the site says.


4. McDowell, Who Did Carpentry Work, Was a ‘Friend of the Family’ Previously Accused of Rape

jessica gutierrez

Charley ProjectJessica Gutierrez.

According to The Charley Project, Thomas Eric McDowell, then 27 and a “friend of the family,” was a “longtime suspect” in the case. He “had served time in a North Carolina prison for rape. His fingerprint was found on the window of Jessica’s bedroom,” and Debra Gutierrez said she cleaned the windows every night, the site reported.

The site noted that in 1987, McDowell was accused of telling another inmate that “he had kidnapped a girl in Lexington County and buried her body in a landfill there. He mentioned that he was wearing a tall cowboy hat at the time of the kidnapping.”

McDowell told police he would confess if he got immunity but that was not granted, according to Charley Project.

The child has never been found. ABC11 reported that McDowell “spent 10 years in jail from 1987-1997 for a rape conviction in North Carolina.”

The television station interviewed Steve Sterling, who has a business near McDowell’s Wake Forest home. He described McDowell as hard-working, a person who kept to himself, and who “always had a big white Suburban, always loaded down with construction material.”

McDowell did carpentry work and lived alone, according to WRAL-TV.
According to The State, Debra Gutierrez said, “McDowell’s uncle married Gutierrez’s cousin,” and she suspected him from the start.

“I knew his were the only (fingerprints on the home’s window) because I used to clean those windows every night,” Gutierrez told The State. “If you weren’t living here you wouldn’t have known that, but I used to Windex the storm door. Otherwise, there would have been a hundred fingerprints on there.”


5. The Attorney General Commended the ‘Dedicated & Experienced Members of Law Enforcement’

jessica gutierrez

Charley ProjectJessica Gutierrez

“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,” South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said in the sheriff’s release. “Without this newly discovered information our office would not be able to prosecute this case.”

The sheriff praised the community’s support for the family.

“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,” 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.”

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