21-year-old case could move to court with solicitor's approval
LEXINGTON COUNTY, SC (WIS) - Jessie Gutierrez has been missing for 21 years. Monday night, you heard the explosive phone conversation with Lexington County Sheriff James Metts that made Jessie's mother question the investigation. But now Metts and the mom are on the same page, saying there's a prime suspect in Jessie's disappearance. They say the problem is another Lexington County official is preventing an arrest.
A fingerprint, a jailhouse confession, and a hat is evidence a Lexington County mother says a jury needs to hear, evidence she believes will convict a West Columbia man in the disappearance of her little girl 21 years ago.
The sheriff in charge of the investigation doesn't disagree. "That's what's frustrating about the case. We've felt we knew who it was pretty much a day or two into that case, but we've been not able to convince the solicitor that we need to move forward as far as prosecution is concerned."
It was the night of June 7, 1986, and four-year-old Jessica Gutierrez and her sister were asleep in the same room. When her mother got up the next morning, Jessie was gone.
Debbie remembers something Jessie's sister said like it was yesterday. "In my ear, hear my daughter, seven-years-old saying, 'Momma, the man with the magic hat took Jessie last night.'"
The man with the magic hat - was it a clue in Jessie's disappearance, or the words of a frightened child?
In another piece of the puzzle, Debbie says police lifted a fresh fingerprint from Jessie's window. At first check, she says the print didn't match any criminal records, but 10 weeks later that all changed.
Debbie says a family acquaintance from West Columbia was arrested for breaking into a woman's house in North Carolina and raping her. Garnsey says his prints matched the prints on Jessie's window.
That man was sentenced to prison in North Carolina. That's where Garnsey says the acquaintance told a cell mate that he killed a little girl in Lexington County, and that he was wearing a big cowboy hat when he took her, and that he buried the little girl in a Lexington County landfill.
Deputies searched the landfill, but Jessie's body was never found.
Those are all details that Metts' office confirmed are true. That man in question is a convicted sex offender who has failed to register in South Carolina as required by law. His last known address is listed as Wake Forest, North Carolina.
Garnsey says he's been questioned several times about Jessie's abduction, raising the question - why have there been no arrests and no charges?
Debbie asks, "What's the problem? The problem fell with Donnie Myers."
Debbie says since day one investigators have told her they have a case, but the solicitor's office has disagreed. "They're afraid they can't win. I've heard that for years."
It's justice that Garnsey is worried she'll never live to see because of the Lexington County solicitor. "He's not God, one man that decides who's going to get tried and who isn't is not God. Why don't we get several people in here to look at the evidence?"
WIS News 10 wanted to ask Donnie Myers about that. In the past he has gone on the record saying there's not enough evidence to convict someone in court.
Does he still feel that way? Should someone else take a look at the case? Myers isn't commenting, his assistant only saying that he hasn't heard anything about the case in years.
Sheriff Metts says something his department is working on right now may change the solicitor's mind. "We have some evidence at the FBI as we speak that we hope may turn up something on this case, that will give us some additional probably cause that might enlighten the solicitor to move forward with prosecution in this particular case."
But even Metts admits that outside of a confession, or someone coming forward, the chance of some new evidence really making a difference after all these years is bleak. "I have not seen a case go that long. I have seen cases go a period of time and pop, but not 20 years, no."
Garnsey says she can't wait anymore. Win or lose, she wants to make a move in Jessie's case. "If she's not here, we know where she is. We need closure. Not just me - my children, my family, my mother passed two years ago. That's all my momma wanted too."
We plan on continuing to follow this story, and hope to be able to talk with Solicitor Myers.
We have gotten a lot of feedback after Monday's story. You may remember WIS obtained a tape where Sheriff Metts threatens Jessie's mother with pulling his investigators off her daughter's case:
Sheriff Metts: "What do you want me to do? Someone's got to hold your hand, or out working?"
Gutierrez Garnsey: "Listen here. I don't need you to hold me hand. I - and I don't need you to get smart with me either."
Sheriff Metts: "I'm not going to get smart with you but you're not going to get smart with me either lady. I've been up all night long working on your case and I don't need your smart mouth."
Gutierrez Garnsey: "Oh really?"
Sheriff Metts: "No."
Gutierrez Garnsey: "When I ask you questions I need answers."
Sheriff Metts: "We'll give you answers when we got answers to give. Now you mess with me, I'll pull all my people off and we'll go home and go to bed and forget about your case."
Gutierrez Garnsey: "What could the president do about that? You mean to tell me that if I mess with you - you would pull all your people off this case, and go home and forget about my child?"
Sheriff Metts: "That's right."
A lot of viewers asked who is the sheriff is accountable to? The answer, according to the South Carolina Sheriffs Association, is you, the voters. That is, unless he or she commits a crime. Then the governor's office or the attorney general's office could ask SLED to do an investigation.
County governments have no authority to discipline the sheriff.
Reported by Kara Gormley
Posted by Chantelle Janelle