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The National Forest Serial Killer

Updated: Jul 1

Gary Michael Hilton Victims

Rossana Miliani:

On December 7, 2005 Rossana Miliani had disappeared from hiking in Bryson city. A witness told the police that she came into her store, very nervous, with an older man that looked to be in his 60’s. The witness told the police that all they bought was clothes and that the man told her that he was a traveling preacher. They found out later that Hilton stoled her bank card and was trying to use it. Rossana died from being beaten to death by Hilton.

Cheryl Hodges Dunlap:

In 2006 Cheryl Dunlap was reported missing by her best friend when she didn’t show up to church one Sunday morning. Later the police found her body alongside the highway, her body decapitated.

John and Irene Bryant:

On October 21, 2007 the body of Irene Bryant was found a little ways from the couple’s car. The couple disappeared after taking a hike in the Pisgah National Forest. John was found and said to have died from a gunshot wound to the head.

Michael Scot Louis:

On December 6, 2007 the body of Michael Scot Louis was found killed at Tomoka State Park near Ormond Beach, Florida. Michael was found decapitated and dismembered body parts.

Meredith Emerson:

On January 8, 2008 the body of Meredith Emerson was found in the North Georgia Mountains. Meredith had been hiking when Hilton attacked her with a army knife. She fought him and was screaming while doing so. Hilton knew that he needed to get her to stop so he gave her two black eyes. Later, Hilton asked Meredith to give him her pin number to her credit card but when she kept giving him the wrong number thats when Hilton got mad and killed her. The police said that Meredith fought to save her life for four days when she lost the battle and Gary killed and decapitated her.

Trail of Death: The Hunt for Gary Hilton

He stalked the remote hiking trails of the southern United States, leaving a trail of death in his wake...

They called him the National Forest Serial Killer. Between 2007 and 2008, Gary Hilton stalked the backcountry paths of the southern United States, leaving a trail of death in his wake: the 2007 slaying of John and Irene Bryant in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest, the 2007 slaying of Cheryl Dunlap in Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest, and the 2008 slaying of Meredith Emerson in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest.

True crime writer Fred Rosen knows all about Gary Hilton. He tracked the killer for years while writing his book Trails of Death: The True Story of National Forest Serial Killer Gary Hilton. Now Rosen brings the hunt for Gary Hilton to life in this thrilling three-part investigation, published exclusively on The Lineup.

In Florida, if you kill somebody, they give you a million dollar defense with all kinds of experts, then the jury convicts you and the judge sentences you to death.

That’s what happened in February 2010, when convicted serial killer Gary Hilton first came to trial. I was there for all of it. It was the first and only time I have been in a courtroom where a judge pronounced death on someone. It was quite emotional for me, because by then, I had backtracked Hilton from birth to the present. I knew the human potential that had been squandered, and the human lives that were lost.

Hilton’s 2010 death sentence should have been the end of his case—but it wasn’t. Flash forward to January 19, 2016. Death row inmate Gary Hilton was supposed to stand before a judge in Tallahassee, this time requesting a new trial on the basis of inadequate counsel.

But by a vote of 8-1, the Supreme Court stuck down Florida’s death penalty statute, requiring the state legislature to rewrite it. Suddenly, Hilton had a reprieve.

Justice has a funny way of working out—even for a killer as dangerous as Hilton.

In 1963, a seventeen-year-old Gary Hilton enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was sent to West Germany, and assigned to the Davy Crockett Platoon—named after the coonskin cap-wearing King of the Wild Frontier. Crockett had been a hero to kids like Hilton growing up in the 1950’s.

There were nineteen men in the special platoon. Their task? Simple. Direct and deploy the Davy Crockett missile, an XM-388 nuclear projectile launched from either a 120 millimeter (XM-28) or 155 millimeter (M-29) recoil-less rifle.

According to the Brookings Institution, it was the smallest and lightest nuclear weapon ever developed by the United States military, designed for use against Soviet troop formations.

With a maximum range of 1.24 miles, the Army’s brilliant idea was to arrange these units armed with hand-held nuclear weapons across West Germany, establishing an impenetrable perimeter against an armed Soviet insurgence. If the Soviets appeared on the horizon, word would, supposedly, go up the line to the President of the United States, who would then make the decision whether to fire or not.

The members of the Davy Crockett Platoon were supposed to be carefully screened for psychological fitness. How, then, did Hilton get in?

The Army didn’t seem to mind that earlier in 1959, when he was thirteen-years-old, Hilton had shot Nilo DeBag, his stepfather, who in Gary’s mind had taken away his mother. That first time he tried to kill another human being, Hilton failed. He only wounded DeBag and not mortally. DeBag, it seemed, was a forgiving man. He decided to give his stepson a second chance and refused to press charges. Hilton was briefly confined to a mental hospital for the attack and then released, eventually making his way into the Davy Crockett Platoon.

In truth, being a member was a suicide mission. The Davy Crockett soldiers would be blown to hell and back if they ever fired the nuclear-tipped missile. And perhaps it was precisely this stress that caused Hilton to crack up while serving.

A few years into his service, Hilton began hearing voices, and soon suffered a full-blown schizophrenic breakdown. The Army put him into a mental hospital, where he was drugged up on Thorazine. Rather than give him a Section 8 psychiatric discharge, the Army chose to give him an honorable discharge instead. He was released from the Army in 1967, at the age of twenty-one. There’s no record that any Army personnel followed Hilton into civilian life, to see how he functioned in society.

Hilton was a good-looking guy; he was a long distance runner, and, according to some tests, possessed a genius-level IQ.

But whether it was Hilton’s painful childhood, his deteriorating mental state, or the lingering trauma of a childhood injury that left Hilton partially scalped, the man just couldn’t sustain a relationship or keep a good job. He bounced around the South throughout the 1970s and 80s. At the dawn of the millennium, after burning through multiple marriages and jobs, Hilton found himself in Atlanta, Georgia, working as a roofer at the age of fifty-four.

If Hilton had one passion, one comfort that offset the instability of his professional and personal life, it was the outdoors. In 2007, he and his ever-present companion, dog Dandy, hit the road in his Dodge Astro van. They drove north, leaving the state of Georgia and crossing into North Carolina, to the Pisgah National Forest just outside of Asheville.

It was here that Gary Hilton first encountered senior citizens Irene and John Bryant while on a hike through a remote section of the park. And it was here, among the old-growth trees of the Appalachian wilderness, that Hilton decided to murder them.

In 2005, roughly two years before he claimed his first victim, serial killer Gary Hilton abandoned a van in the Tray Mountain area of White County, Georgia. He received a citation for doing so, but didn’t answer it. A warrant for his arrest was issued and put into the Federal database.

Here’s the thing about serial killers: They don’t just start murdering in their 60s. Something has to set them off, or seriously disturb their day-to-day lives.

The worst you could say about Hilton before he committed murder was that he was a conman and petty thief. But that all changed when a Georgia physician prescribed him Ritalin, despite the fact he did not suffer from ADD.

In Georgia, Hilton had worked for years as a “tin man” for John Tabor, who ran a home siding business in the Atlanta area. Tabor not only employed Hilton, he provided him a home on one of his properties. Soon after Hilton began taking Ritalin, which acts as a stimulant for those without ADD, his demeanor changed. He grew irritable and confrontational, acted out, even threatened Tabor with violence. It wasn’t long before Hilton lost his job and his home on Tabor’s property.

Cut loose, Hilton hit the road in his Chevy Astro van with Dandy, his dog and ever-present companion, popping Ritalin as he went. Hilton preferred national parks, and so he headed north, leaving Georgia in 2007 and entering North Carolina’s Pisgah National Park. How he came to befriend Irene and John Bryant, senior citizens married for 55 years, is unknown.

What is known is that shortly after the couple went hiking on October 20, 2007, they disappeared. Someone used the couple’s ATM card at a bank 75 miles away. Irene turned up dead roughly three weeks later on November 9, her skull fractured in multiple places. John remained missing. His body wouldn’t be found until 2008.

Hilton, meanwhile, left North Carolina, driving south into Georgia. He stopped to set up camp on a private hunting preserve in Cherokee County. A local noticed his presence and called police to make a complaint; a deputy drove out to kick Hilton off the property. Upon arrival, the deputy ran Hilton’s license through a state database; no outstanding warrants in the Peach State. At the time, there was no requirement that the license be run through the Federal database, so it wasn’t.

If Hilton’s license had been checked at the federal level, the deputy would have caught his outstanding warrant for that unanswered citation from 2005. Hilton would have been arrested there and then, two people would be alive, and this article would stop right here.

Sadly, nothing of the sort took place. The deputy told Hilton to pack up his gear and clear out. He was free to go.

Leaving Cherokee County, Hilton drove south, crossing into Florida and entering the Apalachicola National Forest outside Tallahassee by the middle of November. Despite another run-in with a park service officer on November 17, Hilton was let go with a warning not to exceed the park’s 14-day camping limit. And once again, his name was not cross-referenced in a federal database for outstanding warrants.

The details surrounding Hilton’s abduction of 46-year-old nurse Cheryl Dunlap on December 1, 2007 in the Apalachicola National Forest remain a mystery. Just five feet four inches, Dunlap had thick wavy brown hair, brown eyes, and thin lips. She was a mother and devoted member of the evangelical Christian River of Life Church. Soon after her disappearance, Cheryl’s car was found with a flat tire on Crawfordville Highway parked just outside the park’s entrance. She may have been attempting to flag someone down for assistance when Hilton came upon her.

A few days after the discovery of Cheryl’s car, security camera footage surfaced of a man in a rubber mask attempting to use Dunlap’s bankcard at area ATMs. Then on December 15, Apalachicola park rangers noticed buzzards picking over a large carcass. They realized it was the body of a woman as they grew closer, with gaping wounds on the torso and legs. Then they noticed what wasn’t there: Both hands had been cut off, and the head was missing.

The body would eventually be identified as the missing Cheryl Dunlap.

While authorities scoured the area for clues to their killer, Hilton hit the road. By the end of 2007, he was back in Georgia, just in time for New Year’s Eve.

On January 1, 2008, Hilton and Dandy set out for a hike on Blood Mountain outside of Atlanta. That’s when he ran into Meredith Emerson, who was also enjoying a New Year’s Day trek with her dog.

Hilton tried abducting her, but the martial arts-trained Emerson resisted. A powerful 24-year-old, Emerson put up a good fight. But Hilton, trained in hand-to-hand combat from his days in the Army, eventually got the better of her. Once subdued, he marched her down the mountain to his van.

Inside, he tied Emerson down, drove away and held her prisoner for days. This time, however, Hilton failed to clean up his trail. Other witnesses had seen them on the mountain that day. They alerted authorities and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation soon identified Hilton as the primary suspect in Emerson’s abduction. Police continued to scour Blood Mountain, despite the fact that attempts to use Emerson’s bankcard had been made at ATMs many miles away.

News of the abduction went national. It soon caught the attention of John Tabor, Hilton’s former boss at the siding business. When Hilton called him to ask for money, Tabor knew Hilton was the prime suspect in Emerson’s disappearance. Strangely, Tabor waited over an hour to inform the Georgia Bureau of Investigation about the call.

Authorities were able to trace it to a pancake house off of Blood Mountain. By the time they arrived, however, Hilton was gone.

A few days later, in DeKalb County, Hilton was spotted in a parking lot, removing items out of his van and tossing them into a dumpster. A phone call was made.

“The guy you’re looking for is cleaning out his van,” the witness told police in a 911 call.

DeKalb County deputies rushed to the scene, their sirens screaming and dome lights flashing. This time, Hilton didn’t have time to escape. He offered no resistance as police put him into custody. Soon, Hilton found himself in an interview room, turned over to the GBI. He readily admitted to killing Emerson, speaking in bursts. He was looking to make a deal.

In exchange for a full confession and leading Georgia police to Emerson’s body, Hilton would get life in prison without possibility of parole. He did just that. Under heavy escort, Hilton led authorities to a remote road in Dawson Forest, 35.7 miles south of Blood Mountain, where he had buried Emerson’s body. Clearly, the GBI had been looking for Emerson in the wrong place. Just like Dunlap’s corpse, the head was gone. I buried it nearby, Hilton told police. He had beheaded Emerson in an attempt to obscure identification.

As Georgia authorities pieced together the murder of Meredith Emerson, Florida law enforcement officers were connecting the dots between Emerson and Dunlap; their killer was the same guy. But unlike Georgia, Florida was not going to make a deal.

Gary Hilton had avoided a death sentence in Georgia because authorities, and the family of his fourth victim, Meredith Emerson, were desperate to find the twenty-four-year-old’s body. So they struck a deal with the killer. If he agreed to lead authorities to her body, Hilton would avoid the death penalty, receiving life in prison.

Hilton acquiesced.

Irene Bryant, Hilton’s first victim, had been killed on federal land, Pisgah National Forest, in Transylvania County, North Carolina. His third victim, Cheryl Dunlap, had also been killed on federal land, in the Apalachicola National Forest, located in Florida’s Leon County.

Authorities suspected that Irene’s husband, John Bryant, abducted alongside Irene in 2007, was Hilton’s second victim. As of January 2008, however, John was still missing.

With the Georgia deal signed, sealed, and delivered, the question then became who would next indict Hilton: Florida or the federal government?

Sheriff David Mahoney of North Carolina’s Transylvania County had the answer. While he jostled with the U.S. Attorney over who had jurisdiction to prosecute Hilton for Irene Bryant’s murder, he spoke to me.

“Well, Florida does have a fast track on the death penalty, doesn’t it,” he mused.

It was a question of odds.

From 1976 to 2007, the federal government had executed just three people on capital murder charges. In that same period, Florida had put sixty-four people to death, averaging two a year.

On February 2, 2008, the skeletal remains of John Bryant were recovered in Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. The incentive to get Hilton to the Sunshine State for a death penalty showdown picked up steam. Hilton was successfully extradited to Florida, where he would soon stand trial for the murder of forty-six-year-old Cheryl Dunlap.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement had found and identified Dunlap’s body, sans fingers and head. As in the Emerson case, Hilton had mutilated the body in a desperate attempt to obscure identification; it didn’t work. Forensic analysts used a portion of Dunlap’s thigh muscle to identify her.

Like all death penalty cases, Hilton’s wound its way through pre-trial motions. I was there for all of it, and as the case progressed, I began thinking about the man himself. Was Hilton, the third 60-year-old serial killer in United States history, a natural born killer or had he been twisted into one?

I hit the road to Hialeah, Florida, where Gary Hilton lived as a teenager. I met up with Hilton’s childhood friend Dino Sclafani, who took me to their old haunts and reminisced about the good times he shared with his old buddy.

Another high school friend told me about the time he and Hilton played together in a band. Hilton showed genuine talent, he said. I tracked down one of Hilton’s old sweethearts as well, who had a far darker tale to tell. She told me that Hilton once confessed to an incestuous relationship with his mother while he was a boy.

In February 2011, after two years of pre-trial hearings, Hilton stood before a judge at a Tallahassee courtroom. At the end of the four-week trial, the jury convicted Hilton of first-degree murder and recommended he be put to death.

The judge agreed, and officially pronounced the death sentence.

In the wake of the trial and sentencing, Dateline NBC did a two-hour investigation into Hilton and the trail of death he cut across the southern United States. I was interviewed for the show. It seemed as if the Hilton case was finally closed, but it wasn’t.

January 19, 2016: Hilton was due in Tallahassee for a hearing, where he planned to request a new trial on the basis of inadequate


He never made it.

Instead, on January 12, the United States Supreme Court delivered a decision that changed the rules of the game for Florida’s death penalty statute.

The challenge came from the case of Florida man Timothy Lee Hurst. Hurst was convicted in the 1998 murder of his co-worker, Cynthia Harrison. A Florida penalty-phase jury convicted Hurst of the crime, and recommended that the judge impose a death sentence. The judge agreed and sentenced Hurst to death.

Hurst’s lawyers challenged the decision and brought the case before the Supreme Court. In January 2016, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court.

“We hold this sentencing scheme unconstitutional. The Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death. A jury’s mere recommendation is not enough,” Sotomayor wrote.

Suddenly, all executions in Florida, including Hilton’s, were put on hold.

“We are currently waiting on the Florida Supreme Court to rule in the Hurst case, ” says Georgia Cappleman, the prosecutor who convicted Hilton. “They have to decide whether Hurst is retroactive,” she continued, though she and others do not believe it is.

In the event that Florida rules otherwise, and the Hurst decision is retroactive, the whole death penalty scheme in Florida will be set asunder. Sentences would be scrapped, and all prisoners on Death Row—including Hilton—would be subject to re-sentencing.

The Florida legislature is currently drafting a new law in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court decision, and what the Florida Supreme Court will decide this February.

“We are trying to delay prosecuting new death penalty cases. If we have to, we will postpone the penalty phase until the legislature gives us a new scheme,” Cappleman told me.

As for Hilton? He’s back in prison, watching and waiting. At the moment, he has all the time in the world.

Trails of Death: The True Story of National Forest Serial Killer Gary Hilton by Fred Rosen

Source: Murderpedia:

Gary Michael Hilton gets 4 life sentences

Friday, April 26, 2013

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — A drifter previously convicted of killing and beheading hikers in Florida and Georgia was sentenced Thursday to four additional life sentences in federal prison for kidnapping and murdering a North Carolina couple in a national forest.

Gary Michael Hilton, 66, pleaded guilty in March 2012 to killing John and Irene Bryant in 2007. Hilton camped out for victims before he ambushed the Hendersonville couple, who were in their 80s, as they hiked in the Pisgah National Forest in Transylvania County. He also pleaded guilty to robbery and firearms offenses.

U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger ordered that Hilton's federal life sentences be served consecutively with an earlier life sentence for murdering 24-year-old hiker Meredith Emerson in northern Georgia in 2008. Federal sentences do not have the possibility of parole.

Hilton was already on Florida's death row for killing Cheryl Dunlap, 46, of Crawfordville, Fla., who was found dead in north Florida's Apalachicola National Forest where Hilton had camped. Emerson, of Buford, Ga., and Dunlap were beheaded.

The bodies of the four victims were found over a span of several months starting in late 2007.

Gary Michael Hilton, suspected serial killer, gets death penalty in Fla. for 2007 beheading murder

By Caroline Black - CBS News

February 22, 2011

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - After an hour of deliberations, a jury unanimously recommended Monday that Gary Michael Hilton, the drifter found guilty in the 2007 slaying of a nurse whose beheaded body was found in a national forest, should get the death penalty.

Circuit Judge James C. Hankinson said he will give "great weight" to the jury's recommendation.

Hilton was found guilty last week of killing 46-year-old Cheryl Dunlap, a Sunday School teacher and Florida State University nurse, who was found dismembered in a national forest in the Florida Pandhandle, where the 64-year-old drifter used to camp.

"We are extremely pleased with the death verdict and even more so that it was unanimous. Obviously the jury saw what needed to be done to bring justice and that's what Mr. Hilton got today and Ms. Dunlap and her family got," prosecutor Georgia Cappleman told CBS affiliate WCTV as she left the courtroom.

State Attorney Willie Meggs said he was surprised by the unanimous verdict, but said if there were ever a case for it, this was it.

However, the decision was bittersweet for Dunlap's close friend, Gloria Tucker, who was satisfied with the decision, but said it would not bring justice for the loss of her dear friend she knew as "Sherri."

"I don't think any family members got justice," Tucker said. "He's no equal for Sherri. She grew up with a bad home life and grew up to be a lovely person."

Hilton's defense attorneys sought to persuade the jury that his unhappy childhood, a lifetime of emotional abuse and drug abuse contributed to a "perfect storm" that led to the killings.

Hilton had already been sentenced to life in prison in Georgia for pleading guilty to killing 24-year-old hiker Meredith Emerson of Athens, Georgia, about a month after Dunlap disappeared.

Hilton is also a suspect in at least three other killings, two in North Carolina and one in Florida.

Hilton pleads guilty, gets life for killing hiker

January 31, 2008

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Gary Michael Hilton pleaded guilty Thursday to killing hiker Meredith Emerson, and was sentenced to life in prison.

Hilton, 61, wore an orange jumpsuit and bulletproof vest as he sat somberly through the sentencing.

He was charged with kidnapping with intent to harm and malice murder in Emerson's January 4 death.

The 24-year-old University of Georgia graduate disappeared on New Year's Day while on a hike in the North Georgia mountains with her dog.

Emerson's parents gave emotional statements in court.

"I feel that no punishment for Mr. Hilton is too great," said her father, David Emerson. "I only pray that he suffers immensely for his heinous acts."

Susan Emerson, the victim's mother, said she was not sorry that prosecutors took the death penalty off the table.

"I feel like he should stay alive and slowly rot," she said. "As far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as justice in this case. Nothing will bring our daughter back."

Dr. Kris Sperry, the state's chief medical examiner, concluded Emerson died of blunt force trauma to the head and was decapitated after death.

Witnesses said they saw Emerson on Georgia's Blood Mountain with Hilton.

Days later, Hilton led authorities to her body, reportedly in a deal to avoid the death penalty.

"Anyone's emotional reaction would have appropriately be that this defendant deserved the penalty of death," said Lee Darragh, Hall County District Attorney at a news conference following Hilton's plea.

But after much deliberation, research and consultation with other prosecutors, Darragh decided a life sentence "in practical terms" is a "death penalty in and of itself."

"The most appropriate course was to have this defendant take responsibility for the death of Meredith Emerson through his guilty plea today," he explained.

Hilton would not be eligible for parole until he is 91 years old. "He will most likely die in prison and most certainly never see the light of day again," said Darragh.

Emerson's family agrees with the sentence, a family spokeswoman said.

"Today is the last day of a very long month, but January on its last day is a safer place than January on its first," Peggy Bailey told reporters. "There are sources of joy that will lead our families through the suffering and on to healing."

Investigators also suspect Hilton in the October slaying of Irene Bryant and the presumed death of her husband, John, in Transylvania County, North Carolina, said Sheriff David Mahoney. Authorities haven't specified what evidence they have.

Hilton also is the suspect in the death of Cheryl Dunlap, 46, whose body was found in December in Apalachicola National Forest, southwest of Tallahassee, Florida, according to authorities.

Supreme Court of Florida


No. SC11-898





[March 21, 2013]

Download PDF • 93KB

Gary Hilton : The National Forest Killer

FULL 4.5 hour GBI background interview with serial killer Gary Michael Hilton



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