‘My independence day’: Mother of Lexington kidnapping victim faces NC suspect in court

·3 min read

The man accused of kidnapping a Lexington girl more than three decades ago will stay in jail after a judge denied bond to Thomas Eric McDowell on Friday.

McDowell’s appearance at the Lexington County bond court was his first court appearance in South Carolina after he was charged with kidnapping, murder and burglary in the 1986 abduction of Jessica Gutierrez. Records show he was booked into the Lexington County jail Thursday after being arrested last week in North Carolina.

Jessica was 4 years old when she was taken in the middle of the night from her Lexington County home by an intruder. Her body has never been found.

Kinli Abee with the S.C. Attorney General’s Office told Magistrate Judge Arthur Myers that McDowell is considered a flight risk because he lives out of state and has an extensive criminal record, including time spent in a North Carolina prison for sexual assault.

Debra Gutierrez, Jessica’s mother, told the court she still considers McDowell to be a danger.

“I don’t think the community is safe if he’s roaming the streets,” Gutierrez said. “For 36 years, I didn’t have the first idea if my baby girl was alive or dead.”

McDowell spoke little during his short court appearance. He told the court he did not have an attorney or the money to afford one. Myers told McDowell the court could assist him in acquiring a public defender.

Kinli Abee, Assistant Attorney General, represents Thomas McDowell in Lexington County bond court on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022. McDowell is charged with the abduction of Jessica Gutierrez in 1986.
Kinli Abee, Assistant Attorney General, represents Thomas McDowell in Lexington County bond court on Friday, Jan. 14, 2022. McDowell is charged with the abduction of Jessica Gutierrez in 1986.

Afterwards, Abee said McDowell will likely have another court appearance in March. Bond on the murder charge must be set by a circuit court judge.

Debra Gutierrez told the media afterwards that the day she heard McDowell had been arrested was her “independence day.” She encouraged other parents of missing children not to give up hope that justice will still be done.

“My daughter isn’t the only unsolved crime in this county,” Gutierrez said. “In every one of them somebody knows something, and they need to step up... If you’re in prison and you know you aren’t getting out, please tell these parents where their children are.”

Debra Gutierrez thanked law enforcement and private investigators for working to keep Jessica’s case alive for so long.

“For 20-some-odd years, I talked to God and the devil,” she said, “and the only thing that got me through some days was believing she was still alive.”

Jessica’s sister Rebecca Gutierrez says more effort needs to be put into finding missing children of color like her sister, who had a Mexican American and Native American ancestry.

“Families of color don’t get the same effort from law enforcement, from the community or from the media,” Rebecca Gutierrez said. “My heart goes out to all families who have a missing child.”

Even after all this time, Debra Gutierrez sounded hopeful that her family is as close as it has ever been to having a definitive answer to what happened to her daughter.

“I intend to find my daughter,” she said. “And I hope to do just that.”

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