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Neighbor of Jessica Gutierrez recalls first finding out about disappearance

A cold case in the Midlands that has been open for 36 years, may be closing soon. An arrest has been made in the kidnapping and murder of Jessica Gutierrez in 1986.

LEXINGTON, S.C. — After 36 years, a man has been arrested for the kidnapping and murder of 4-year-old Jessica Gutierrez. Records now show Gutierrez was taken from her home by Thomas Eric McDowell in the middle of the night. 

On Thursday, McDowell was arrested in Raleigh, North Carolina and held in the Wake County Detention Center. According to arrest warrants, fingerprints and a police lineup led to his arrest. 

RELATED: Arrest made in killing of Lexington County girl who disappeared in 1986

"I was shocked because it happened right in our backyard," said Steven Caughman, a former neighbor to the Gutierrez family. "Our family was just baffled how it had just taken place right behind our house."

Caughman has been living in his home for 40 years. He said that, out of the five original neighbors, he is the only one still living in that area. 

"When we moved out here in 1982, it wasn't nothing but woods, it was desolate," Caughman said.  "In fact, it was so quiet out here, it was kinda scary sometimes."

According to law enforcement, Gutierrez's body has not been found yet. Caughman told News19 that he was asleep and heard about the news the next morning. He added this was something he never forgot.

"Once in a blue moon, it would pop back up like, 'wondering what happened,' or 'Wondering what's happening, if they're ever going to find anybody,'" Caughman said. 

Back in September, the Lexington County Sheriff's Department, with the help of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the FBI, reopened the cold case. 

According to FBI Columbia Special Agent Susan Ferensic, the arrest was due in part to "the many years of dedicated investigative work by local, state, and federal partners," and "the resolve of citizens who never forgot Jessica." 

"Regardless of how long a child is missing, we will never stop searching for answers," Ferensic said in a statement. "And we hope that this arrest is a step toward healing for the Gutierrez family."

More than 3,500 case file pages were reviewed in September, according to Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon. Ten FBI field offices were involved in the reexamination of the case in 2021, he added. 

The South Carolina Attorney General said they will be prosecuting the case, and McDowell will be extradited to the Midlands for court. A date hasn't been set.