LEXINGTON, S.C. – A North Carolina man has been arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and killing a child in Lexington County more than three decades ago.

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.

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. He is being held in the Wake County Detention Center.

“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.”

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.”

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

“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. “Without this newly discovered information our office would not be able to prosecute this case.”

Wilson stressed that all defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.

“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.”

A video about the Jessica Gutierrez case produced by the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department in June 2021