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

Jessica Gutierrez was taken from her home nearly 36 years ago.

LEXINGTON, S.C. — Lexington County deputies have announced an arrest in the kidnapping and killing of Jessica Gutierrez, a child who went missing more than 35 years ago.

Deputies announced Tuesday that they arrested Thomas Eric McDowell, 61, of North Carolina. McDowell is charged with murder, kidnapping and first-degree burglary, officers say.

Gutierrez, who was just four years old, was taken from her home on South Lake Drive in Lexington back in June of 1986. Only a few months ago, investigators announced they were reexamining the case.

RELATED: Lexington deputies, SLED, FBI take new look at kidnapping case from 1986

“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 Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon. Ten FBI field offices were involved in the reexamination of the case last year, he added. 

An arrest warrant states a fingerprint was identified as belonging to McDowell. He was later identified through a photo lineup. The warrant states he made "statements to other sources" that he had kidnapped the victim and killed her. 

“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."