Left and Center: Jessica circa, 1986
Right: Age Progressed to age 32
Vital Statistics at Time of Disappearance
Missing Since: June 5, 1986
Missing From: Lexington, Lexington County, South Carolina
Classification: Non-Family Abduction
Date Of Birth: December 3, 1981
Age: 4 years old
Height and Weight: 3’0″ and 32 pounds
Distinguishing Characteristics: Caucasian Female, Brown hair, Brown eyes, Jessica has a small scar on the upper area of her forehead and ear piercing scars on both of her ear lobes, she has a small brown colored birthmark on her right buttock, she had a wart on her left hand at the time of her 1986 abduction, her fingernails were freshly painted, Jessica might use the nickname “Jessie”
Clothing/Jewelry Description: A pink/white t-shirt and a pair of white panties
NCMEC Number: 601626
Details of Disappearance
Jessica was abducted from Lexington, South Carolina on June 5th 1986. On the day of her disappearance, Jessica and her family worked in yard of their mobile home which was located between Red Bank and Pelion. The family went inside and had lettuce, tomato, and bacon sandwiches for dinner. Her mother, Debra, described the events that day as being normal and recalled nothing out of the ordinary happening.
Debra painted Jessica’s nails that night and she requested to sleep with her mother. Jessica had slept in her mothers bed the night before. However, Jessica’s older brother had an ear infection so he would be sleeping in their mothers bed that night. Between 11:30 pm and 12:00 am, Jessie crawled into the double bed she shared with her six year old sister, Rebecca. She fell asleep afterwards.
At some point between the time Jessica fell asleep and 9:00 am, an unknown intruder broke into the mobile home. Rebecca woke up and saw a man standing over the bed she and Jessica were sleeping in. He bent over and lifted Jessica out of the bed and took her out of the bedroom. Rebecca said he managed to do this without waking up Jessica and he had her slumped over his shoulder.
The individual left the house through the front door. Debra woke up the next morning to Rebecca calling out and requesting cereal for breakfast. However, a chaotic scene awaited Debra throughout the house. In the children’s bedroom, the floor was littered with what appeared to be School papers. The front door was also opened and the family dog was inside the home wandering about.
There was evidence of a home break in. The curtains in the living room window were ripped and the screen had been taken out. It is believed this is where the abductor entered. Debra frantically searched all around the home and even underneath it for Jessica but couldn’t find her. She then questioned Rebecca about what happened.
Rebecca told her mother “Shes gone. The man with the magic hat and the beard took her last night.” She was frantic and didnt understand why Rebecca didn’t call out when her sister was being taken. Rebecca later recounted that she was paralyzed with fear and couldn’t remember falling asleep again after that.
Debra immediately reported her daughters disappearance. She was questioned about her daughters whereabouts and recalled how she had kicked her boyfriend out of the house just days before Jessica went missing. She said her reasons for kicking him out were what she described as possessive behavior and alcohol use.
After she was interviewed by authorities, Debra called her boyfriend and accused him of taking her daughter. She demanded to know where she was but he claimed he didn’t know where Jessica was and appeared surprised by the call. He was questioned various times by investigators but he maintained his innocence in the case.
Jessica’s family felt close friends might’ve abducted her but no one was named as a suspect in her disappearance and her abductor wasn’t identified at the time. Investigators came up with little to no trace of Jessica and she was never seen again. Investigators at one point suspected that Jessica’s father, David Romero Gutierrez-Ruiz, was possibly behind her disappearance.
David and Debra divorced in 1983 when Jessica was two years old. He was reportedly living in Mexico City, Mexico in late 1985. However, he was in the United States at the time of his daughters disappearance. He previously made comments that he would “get the children.” He was located in California and was ruled out as a suspect in Jessica’s disappearance.
When investigators searched the home where Jessica was taken from, they found a single fingerprint on the window that was used to enter the house. The print was on the outside of the window indicating it belonged to Jessica’s abductor. The print was described as being fresh and not weathered. It was sent to be tested by the FBI but no matches were made at the time.
Debra believes a family acquaintance was the one who took her daughter that night. The acquaintance was a man who was 27 years old in 1986. He lived in West Columbia at the time of Jessica’s abduction. Several weeks after she disappeared, the man stole a van from Lexington County and drove to North Carolina. There, he broke into the home of a woman and raped her as she slept.
The man was arrested and convicted for the crime. He was sent to serve prison for the rape. While in prison, the man confessed to a fellow inmate that he kidnapped a girl from Lexington County, South Carolina. He claimed that he was wearing a tall cowboy hat when he took the child. He also stated he killed the girl and buried her in a landfill.
The inmate went to authorities with his confession and sent a letter to Debra about the mans confession. Investigators allegedly questioned the suspect and he offered to tell them everything in exchange for immunity. His request for immunity was denied and he refused to speak on the subject. Authorities searched a landfill near Jessica’s house but no remains were found.
The mans fingerprint did match the one found on the window that Jessica’s abductor used to get inside of the home. Debra was able to locate a vehicle that belonged to the family friend and it was abandoned when she found it. She located fibers inside of the car that she stated were linked to Jessica.
He was not charged with Jessica’s kidnapping or murder as the solicitors office refused to go forward with charges. They’ve felt that there was not enough evidence to pursued charges and gain a conviction in the case. He was released from prison in 1997 and has been free and out ever since then. He is a convicted sex offender.
Debra continues to believe her ex-boyfriend had something to do with her abduction. Him and the family acquaintance denied ever meeting with each other. However, Debra remembers them meeting and talking at a gathering held at a Waffle House weeks before Jessica’s abduction.
Debra has criticized the investigation into her daughters abduction since 1986. She has stated there was a “lack of action” by police when her daughter was first reported as missing. Sheriff James Metts was one of the lead investigators on the abduction case. He and Debra had a heated phone conversation just two days after Jessica’s disappearance.
Debra had called the sheriff because she feared investigators had been pulled off Jessica’s case for the day. The call consisted of Debra and Metts arguing about the case and it got to a point where Metts said he would take all the men off the case and go home. Debra had the transcripts of the call and the recording released to the public in 2007.
Metts questioned why she recorded the call but it wasn’t Debra who recorded the call. The police wire tapped the phone in Jessica’s home in case someone with ransom demands called. No one did call big the wire tap did record the heated phone call between Metts and Debra. She said she released the call over two decades later because it was a big part of the case.
Debra also said she feared what Metts would do if she released the phone call earlier on. She didn’t want him to remove any investigators off of Jessica’s case. Metts battled the claims and said he couldn’t take any investigators off of the case and that he actually added more to the case.
Debra has also accused authorities of mishandling the evidence recovered in Jessica’s case and has called the officials of Lexington County “corrupt.” She believes they are either simply holding back on making an arrest in the case or are too scared to do it.
Metts was later arrested in June of 2014 on charges for taking bribery, wire fraud, and conspiracy. He allegedly helped illegal immigrants avoid detection at Lexington County Jail. He was convicted of all charges brought against him and was sentenced to one year and a day in prison. He was ordered to pay a fine and was given two years probation. He was released from jail in April of 2016.
The solicitor who denied that charges should be filed in Jessica’s case was a man named Donald Myers. He was the 11th Judicial Circuit Solicitor previously. He has been arrested multiple times for DUI and other alcohol related offenses while driving. He at one point threatened a South Carolina Victims Rights director who was helping Debra.
He called the director, Sherrie Carney, and said “You, and you get that woman off my ass, or I’ll take you for everything you own. She is a squeaky wheel, demanding oiling, and she’ll get no greasing from Lexington County. Debra wonders why the solicitor is so persistent to not press charges against the family friend in Jessica’s case. He tried two murder cases without a body after he denied charges in Jessica’s case.
As mentioned previously, a lot of evidence in Jessica’s case was badly mishandled. This was due to failure to follow the chain of command which involves protecting evidence. The evidence was supposed to be stored in an environmentally controlled area but while Metts was adding additions to the sheriffs office, Jessica’s files were put in a tin shed out behind the office.
On January 6th 2022, authorities arrested the man who had been suspected of involvement for many years and formally identified him as Thomas Eric McDowell. He was 27 years old when he took Jessica in 1986 and was living in Lexington County at the time. He has been charged with kidnapping, murder, and first degree burglary in connection to her disappearance.
McDowell was living in Wake Forest, North Carolina at the time of his arrest and is presently being held in a Wake County Detention Center with no bond. Investigators haven’t discussed much of the evidence or reason(s) that led to McDowell’s arrest but he will be tried by the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office.
Jessica was described as spunky and a caring sister at the time of her disappearance. Debra fought for many years to bring justice for her beloved daughter and continues to hope for her recovery. Her remains have not been located and foul play is suspected in her disappearance.
If you have any information concerning this case, please contact:
Lexington County Sheriffs Office 803-359-8230