On a cold, rainy afternoon in the Red Bank area, the calendar says Dec. 7, 2017. But for Debra Gutierrez, it’s still June 6, 1986.
That was the day an intruder entered her Lexington County home in the dead of night while Gutierrez and her children slept, picked up 4-year-old Jessica Gutierrez from her bed and carried her out of the Edmund-area mobile home. She was never seen again.
After more than 30 years of investigating and reviewing multiple leads – including an alleged confession by one suspect – prosecutors still say there is not enough evidence to file charges and get a conviction.
For Gutierrez, the past three decades have been wrought with grief, disappointment and anger, compounded by what she said was a lack of action by authorities when they had a stronger case against a suspect.
“I need to find my daughter,” said Gutierrez, now 60. “I don’t know how much time I have left.”
‘There just wasn’t enough evidence’
Since “Jessie” disappeared, investigators with the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department and State Law Enforcement Division pursued many leads.
In the years immediately after the girl’s disappearance, then-Sheriff James Metts and then-Solicitor Donnie Myers were at odds over whether charges could be filed. Metts thought there was enough evidence to make an arrest. Myers disagreed.
Gutierrez said Metts told her years after Jessie’s disappearance that “we had a stronger case in 1986.”
When Jessica disappeared, Ronald Reagan was president, the Oprah Winfrey Show was about to debut and the first laptop computer had just been released by IBM. Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” was No. 1 on the charts and the movie “Top Gun” had just been released.
The solicitor’s office last reviewed the case in 2008 and declined to prosecute, according to a letter sent from Myers’ office to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office. Guiterrez, a longtime critic of Metts and Myers, asked that the solicitor’s office not be involved in a 2015 review of the cold case, the letter states.
“(O)ur office spent a lot of time working with investigators in this case, from both SLED and Lexington County, and came to the conclusion that we would not be able to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Robert Kittle, a spokesman for Attorney General Alan Wilson, said Wednesday. “What made the determination is that there just wasn’t enough evidence. We got asked to look at it a long time after her disappearance, so witnesses’ memories had faded or, in some cases, witnesses have died during that time.”
Gutierrez isn’t ready to stop. She is seeking other options to have the case reviewed.
“The ball was dropped,” she said of the investigation. “I’ve seen cases tried on less evidence than what they have with my daughter.”
‘Everything was normal’
June 5, 1986, was an uneventful spring day for the Gutierrez family.
After working in the yard, the family ate bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches for dinner. “Everything was normal,” Gutierrez said. “I painted (Jessie’s) nails that night. She asked to sleep with me.”
Jessie had slept with her mother the night before, and her older brother had an ear infection at the time, so Gutierrez said she let her son sleep in her bed. Jessie went to sleep around midnight in the double bed she shared with her then-6-year-old sister, Becky.
‘Where is your sister?’
The next morning, Gutierrez said she awoke to Becky calling out and asking if they could have cereal for breakfast.
A chaotic scene greeted Gutierrez as she walked into her children’s bedroom. The floor was littered with what appeared to be school papers. The front door was open. The family’s dog was in the house and the curtains had been ripped off one of the windows.
“Where is your sister?” Gutierrez asked Becky.
“She’s gone,” Becky responded. “The man with the magic hat and the beard took her last night.”
Gutierrez said she pulled the covers off the bed, looked under the bed and then in the closet. No Jessie. Growing more frantic, she went outside to look around and under the mobile home.
“I’m calling for her and screaming for her,” she said.
Back inside the home, she grabbed Becky, shook her and screamed at her to tell her where Jessie was, Gutierrez said. But Becky kept saying she only saw “the man with the magic hat and the beard” take her little sister during the night.
Gutierrez recalled screaming at her daughter: “Do you realize how crazy that is? You’re telling me some man picked her up and just took her away, and you did what? Why didn’t you call for me? Why didn’t you scream?”
Becky later told her mother she was too afraid to say anything, and that she didn’t remember falling asleep after that.
‘He’s involved. I just cannot prove it’
Sleep never came for Gutierrez the night after she reported her daughter missing.
The next day, she said, she was grilled at the sheriff’s department by Metts and investigators over Jessie’s whereabouts.
Just days before the child disappeared, Gutierrez kicked her boyfriend out of the house for what she said was possessive behavior and alcohol use.
After her interview at the sheriff’s department, Gutierrez said she called the ex-boyfriend and accused him of taking Jessie.
“I don’t know where she is,” she recalled him saying. “What do you mean – is she missing or something?”
“To this day, in my gut of guts and my heart of hearts, I know he’s involved,” she said. “I just cannot prove it.”
That man was questioned repeatedly by Lexington County investigators but never charged, according to accounts in The State newspaper.
Jessie’s father, who was separated from Gutierrez, also was a suspect at one point, according to news reports. However, he was living in California at the time, and when federal authorities located him on the West Coast, he was able to prove he was there when Jessie disappeared.
A fingerprint, a cowboy hat and a confession
A fingerprint lifted from the window through which the intruder is believed to have entered was key for investigators, Gutierrez said. The print was sent to the FBI but couldn’t be matched, she said.
But several weeks after Jessie disappeared, a West Columbia man who was a family acquaintance stole a van in Lexington County and drove to North Carolina, where he raped a woman, she said. He was charged and later convicted and sent to prison.
While in prison, the convict told a cellmate about how he kidnapped a girl in Lexington County, and that he was wearing a tall cowboy hat when he did it, Gutierrez said. The cellmate relayed the confession to authorities and mailed a letter to Gutierrez explaining what the family acquaintance had told him.
The cellmate also told police that the other inmate claimed to have buried the girl in a landfill in Lexington County. That prompted a weekslong search of a landfill near Jessie’s home that turned up nothing.
Gutierrez told The State newspaper then, and again this month, that investigators questioned the suspect about her daughter’s abduction. He offered to tell all in exchange for immunity, but his offer was denied, investigators told her.
Officials never confirmed details of Gutierrez’s story. But Kittle said the Attorney General’s Office was aware of what she told reporters.
“We thoroughly reviewed and investigated everything we could with the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department,” he said when asked if the alleged confession was investigated and what resulted. “Unfortunately, after an exhaustive review of all of the evidence, there was insufficient evidence to move forward with a prosecution.”
This family acquaintance, and the ex-boyfriend Gutierrez kicked out days before Jessie’s disappearance, denied knowing each other, she said. However, she recalled them meeting and talking at a group get-together at a Waffle House several months before Jessie disappeared.
‘There was no Christmas’
An artificial Christmas tree sits by the front door in Gutierrez’s home, a sight that was absent for many years after Jessie disappeared.
“I quit having Christmas for my kids,” she said. “There was no Christmas after Jessie was gone. We’re not gonna celebrate jack.”
Gutierrez retired in 2010 from her job at the U.S. Postal Service.
She sold the trailer from which Jessie was kidnapped shortly after the girl’s. They moved away from Lexington County for a few months but later returned, and her oldest daughter, Kim, now lives with her about 4 miles from where Jessie was taken.
“I kept thinking, ‘She may come back,’” she said. “Someone may bring her back.”
Over the years, the investigation went into hopeful directions that inevitably led to one dead end after another. Jessie’s disappearance was featured on the TV shows “America’s Most Wanted” and “Unsolved Mysteries.” In 1991, Jessie was the first missing S.C. child whose photo was age-progressed using computer technology that was new at the time, according to news reports.
Gutierrez even flew to Kansas in January 1987 to look at a young girl who matched Jessica’s description, including scars and dental records.
“That was horrible,” she said. “I heard her voice before I even got to the (two-way mirror) to look at her, and I said, ‘That’s not her.’ ”
‘The devil that whispers in my ear’
Gutierrez said that two weeks after she reported Jessie missing, a detective told her that according to statistics on such cases, her daughter was dead.
Today, she does not think Jessie is still alive. But she holds on to hope. And despite her disdain for Lexington authorities, she has remained in the county in the event that someone needs to find her with information about her daughter’s case.
“I have to fight this little booger that sits on my shoulder, the devil that whispers in my ear,” Gutierrez said. “And he tells me every day of my life ... that my daughter is dead, that I will no longer see my daughter. But, I have managed to tell the devil: Get behind me, Satan.”
Time – and the lack of absolution – have taken their toll on Gutierrez and her family. For a while, she was addicted to prescription medication, and said she’s tried on more than one occasion to end her life.
“We don’t talk as a family about Jessie, because each one has been damaged and each one has their hurt,” she said. “It took me a year and a half to forgive my daughter (Becky) for not yelling that morning. I didn’t hate her; I just didn’t understand why she didn’t holler.”
As daylight faded outside Gutierrez’s home on a December evening, just days after what would be her missing daughter’s 36th birthday, she nodded toward the TV. An episode of “Dr. Phil” was airing and it reminded her of another episode about two parents whose adult son was struggling with addiction.
“If I’ve got a kid that’s lost in the dark, I’m not gonna stop searching for my kid until I find my kid,” she recalled the show’s host saying to the parents.
“My baby’s lost somewhere in the dark,” Gutierrez said, her voice cracking. “And I’m not gonna stop until I find her.”