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Who Is Gary Hilton, The National Forest Serial Killer?
In late 2007, a serial killer murdered and robbed John and Irene Bryant, Meredith Emerson and Cheryl Dunlap before leaving them in National Parks.
It's not uncommon for people to become lost when hiking in national parks. As the National Park Service states on their website, hikers sometimes become disoriented or injure themselves while in the parks.
But when at least four people were found brutally murdered and dismembered in parks across the southeastern United States, investigators realized Mother Nature wasn't to blame. They would eventually learn that the perpetrator of such violent crimes was Gary Hilton, a man in his 50s who targeted unsuspecting nature lovers.
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Though he's been named a suspect in the murders of multiple individuals — Judy Smith, 51; Kason Knapp, 20; Rossana Miliani, 26; and Michael Scot Lewis, 27 — Hilton has only confessed to four.
Who were the National Forest Serial Killer Gary Hilton's victims?
Investigators had their first inkling that something sinister was afoot when avid hikers John, 80, and Irene Bryant, 84, failed to return after hiking the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina on Oct. 21, 2007. Their son, Bob Bryant, reported them missing to police around Nov. 2, after which search efforts were organized, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Initially, it was believed that the couple could've been injured. Brevard Rescue Squad Brian Kreigsman told the Asheville Citizen-Times on Nov. 7 that Irene even attempted to call 911 on her cell phone around 4 p.m. on Oct. 21, but it never went through.
Then, in the process of searching for the couple, investigators learned that the couple's credit card had been used in Ducktown, Tennessee, more than 100 miles away.
Investigator's worst fears were realized on Nov. 10, 2007, when search and rescue volunteers discovered a woman's body covered in leaves just 25 meters from where the Bryants had parked their SUV, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported. It would take three days to confirm it was Irene, as the body couldn't be physically identified. An autopsy would show that she had been bludgeoned to death.
The FBI joined the investigation after Irene's body was found because the murder occurred on federal land. As part of their efforts, they offered a $10,000 award for information on the individual who had stolen the credit card. And since John hadn't been found, it was assumed he was still alive, possibly abducted by the wanted individual.
Eventually, on Feb. 3, 2008, hunter Mark Waldrop found a human skull in the Nantahala National Forest in Georgia. It was later determined to be that of John Bryant.
By the time that John's remains were found, authorities had recovered the decomposing body of 46-year-old mother of two Cheryl Hodges Dunlap, who worked as a nurse at Florida State University's student health center. She had been reported missing on Dec. 2, after she failed to show up to teach a Sunday school class, according to ABC News. Like the Bryants, Dunlap's credit card had been used by an unidentified white male following her last known sighting.
Her body was found in the Apalachicola National Forest, located in the Florida Panhandle, by a group of hunters two weeks later, on Dec. 17, 2007.
In the eventual trial, prosecutors stated that Hilton had abducted Dunlap while she was reading by the Leon Sinks Geological Area and kept her captive for two days, before ultimately murdering and dismembering her, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
A month after murdering Dunlap, Hilton zeroed in on his next victim: Meredith Emerson.
The 24-year-old had left a note for her roommate stating that she was going hiking with her dog, Ella, at the Vogel State Park in Georgia on New Year's Day, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. When she failed to return, search and rescue efforts began — though it was Hilton who would lead authorities to her remains.
How was Gary Hilton caught?
Authorities had already issued appeals to the public asking for information about a man matching Hilton's appearance in connection to the murders of Dunlap and the Bryants. So when multiple individuals saw a man matching the suspect's appearance at a Chevron near Vogel State Park, they called in to the tip-line, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. When authorities arrived at the gas station on Jan. 5, 2008, they found Hilton and took him into custody.
While in custody, Hilton ultimately confessed to killing Emerson, telling authorities from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that he attacked her while she was hiking and she fought back, according to NBC News.
"She wouldn't stop," Hilton said. "She wouldn't stop fighting. And yelling at the same time. So I needed to both control her and silence her."
After beating the young woman, he held her and the dog Ella—the Labrador retriever was later found safe—in his van, demanding she tell him the PIN number to her credit card, the outlet reported. However, Emerson repeatedly gave him the wrong PIN, so after three days, he tied her to a tree and killed her with a tire iron, though he described it as "hard" because they had "spent several good days together."
Investigators also found a bloody top and a blood-stained seatbelt at a gas station where Hilton had attempted to use Emerson's credit card, according to the Associated Press. Hilton had apparently tried to clean his car following the murders.
Hilton ultimately led investigators to Emerson's body in exchange for prosecutors dropping the death sentence, according to the Baxter Bulletin.
Where is Gary Hilton now?
He went on to stand trial for Dunlap's murder in 2011, with a jury returning a guilty verdict and recommending the death sentence. A year later, he pleaded guilty to five counts for the robbery, kidnapping and murder of John and Irene Bryant. He was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences, according to the Department of Justice.
Hilton is currently on death row in Florida, where he is held at the Union Correctional Institute. He is 76.