Details of Disappearance
Jessica was sleeping in a bedroom with her two sisters in her family's Lexington, South Carolina mobile home during the evening hours of June 5, 1986.
An unknown intruder or intruders entered into the house sometime between 11:30 p.m. that evening and 9:00 a.m. on June 6, the following morning. The intruder(s) apparently broke in through the living room window and removed the screen and curtains. The abductor(s) then removed Jessica from the bedroom and left the residence through the front door.
Jessica's mother discovered the crime scene and her disappearance on the morning of June 6; her six-year-old sister, Rebecca, stated she had been taken by "the man with the magic hat and the beard." She has never been heard from again.
Rebecca, now an adult, remembers seeing a man lift Jessica out of the bed and carry her away. She stated the man was able to do this without waking Jessica. Rebecca had been too frightened by what she saw to tell anyone until the next morning, when Jessica was discovered missing.
Just a few days before Jessica disappeared, her mother, Debra, had broken up with her boyfriend and kicked him out of the house for alcohol use and what she described as possessive behavior. Debra accused her ex-boyfriend of abducting Jessica, but he said he had no idea where she was. The man was questioned repeatedly by police, but never charged. Jessica's father was ruled out as a suspect in the case, as he had been living in California at the time of her abduction.
The longtime suspect in Jessica's abduction is Thomas Eric McDowell, a friend of the family who was 27 in 1986 and had served time in a North Carolina prison for rape. His fingerprint was found on the window of Jessica's bedroom. It was the only fingerprint on the window; Debra stated she cleaned the windows every night.
In 1987, McDowell allegedly told a cellmate that he had kidnapped a girl in Lexington County and buried her body in a landfill there. He mentioned that he was wearing a tall cowboy hat at the time of the kidnapping. His cellmate told authorities about his statements, and when police confronted McDowell, he offered to confess if he got immunity from prosecution for the crime. Immunity was denied and McDowell did not speak any further on the subject.
In January 2022, McDowell was charged with murder, kidnapping and first-degree burglary in Jessica's disappearance. A photo of him is posted with this case summary. Authorities haven't released much information about the evidence against him.
Debra still believes her ex-boyfriend is somehow involved in the case. The ex-boyfriend and McDowell denied knowing each other, but Debra says they met each other at a gathering several months before Jessica disappeared.
Jessica's remains have never been found, but foul play is suspected in her case due to the circumstances involved.