LEXINGTON, S.C. – A man has been sentenced to life in prison as punishment for the abduction and killing of a 4-year-old Lexington County girl in 1986.

Thomas Eric McDowell, 63, was found guilty of first-degree burglary, kidnapping and murder in the case that began when Jessica Gutierrez vanished from her home on South Lake Drive in June 1986.

“We, along with FBI personnel and SLED agents, took a fresh look at this case in 2021,” Lexington County Jay Koon said.

“The FBI personnel provided on-the-ground investigative, technical, behavioral analysis and analytical support,” Koon said. “Prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office were also on-hand for the two-week operation and their presence was valuable as we intently focused on the case.”

“After far too long, we finally have justice for Jessica Gutierrez and her family. While we can’t bring Jessica back, the person responsible for her murder will be held accountable and spend the rest of his life behind bars,” South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said. “Today’s verdict would not have happened without the hard work of the dedicated men and women in the Attorney General’s Office, the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI. We hope Jessica’s loved ones can rest a little easier tonight.”

Jessica’s mother was unable to find her when family members woke up June 6, 1986, according to an incident report. Koon said a large area was searched on foot, all-terrain vehicles and from the air in the days after Jessica disappeared; however, no one ever saw her again.

McDowell was arrested in connection to the Gutierrez case near his Wake Forest, North Carolina, home in January 2022. Prosecutors said McDowell dated Jessica’s mother, Debra, for a short time in 1986.

McDowell has been held at the Lexington County Detention Center since his 2022 arrest. He will be transferred to the custody of the South Carolina Department of Corrections in the coming days.