Gary Michael Hilton aka the "National Forest Serial Killer", is known for committing a series of murders in wilderness areas, some involving hikers, between 2007 and 2008.
I’m 1959, when he was 13 Gary Hilton shot and wounded Nilo DeBag, his stepfather, who in Gary’s mind had taken away his mother. Nilo decided to give his stepson a second chance and refused to press charges, instead he was sent to a local mental hospital and was later released. Yet, despite this crime, in 1963, 17 year old Gary successfully enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to West Germany.
A few years into his service, he began hearing voices, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was put into another mental hospital and given an honorable discharge. He left the Army in 1967.
The murder of Meredith Emerson is an incredible story of a woman who bravely fought off a depraved man and managed to stay alive for over 3 days in his company. Her murder ultimately led to his arrest.
Meredith, from Buford, Georgia, decided to go for a hike with her dog Ella on January 1st 2008 to Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Blood Mountain is the highest peak on the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail and the sixth-tallest mountain in Georgia. Meredith left a message for her room mate on a chalk board saying "Taking Ella hiking. Hope you had fun." When Meredith didn't show up for work on January 2nd, her friends and boyfriend became concerned and began a search of areas she had marked in various hiking bskullsulls. They eventually came across her car parked in the Blood Mountain trailhead area.
Meredith appeared to have met Gary Hilton and his dog Dandy on the trail and struck up a conversation whilst walking together. At some point Hilton attacked Meredith with a knife but, a blue belt in KyukiDo, she bravely fought back, but eventually she was overpowered as Hilton also carried a police baton.
On that same day, hiker and ex-cop, Seth Blankenship was walking the trail and noticed it had been torn up like there had been a fight, with water bottles, a leather dog leash, sun glasses, a police baton and a women’s hair barrette on the ground. Minutes earlier, Blankenship saw a toothless, elderly man with a sheathed police baton walking near a young woman carrying that leash. He’d mistakenly thought they might be a father and daughter. He got a gut feeling something was wrong after finding the scattered gear and spoke to Bill Clawson, another hiker who was with his son and then-fiancé.
They had spotted a scruffy man hiding in the woods. The man seemed impatient, as if waiting for the family to leave. Clawson and Blankenship walked back to where they had seen the stranger, but with no luck, he was gone. Blankenship continued the search until dusk and Clawson left the items found on the trail at a local store. Both men did not call the police.
The Union County sheriff ’s office and other local emergency personnel conducted the first search after Meredith was reported missing. Then the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) was asked for assistance on January 2nd, 2008. Clawson saw a TV bulletin about Meredith's disappearance and called the sheriff with what he had seen a day earlier. On the morning of January 3rd, authorities held a news conference to announce a “person of interest” in the case, a man hiking with a dog. John Tabor was watching CNN before lunchtime and realised he knew the suspect. Gary Hilton had done marketing work for his house siding business, Insulated Wall Systems, for the last ten years and he gave authorities Hilton's details and that he drove a white Chevrolet Astro van with a certain tag number.
Whilst Hilton was at the Huddle House restaurant in Marble Hill and two hours after the GBI interviewed Tabor by phone, Hilton called him, first from a cell phone and minutes later from a pay phone at the restaurant to ask for money. He told Tabor to leave a check for him at a DeKalb County business Tabor owned. Surprisingly. Tabor didn't report the conversation to the authorities blaming fear and it was only when an agent called Tabor for follow up information that anyone was informed. Police headed to the business, but Hilton never showed up to collect the money.
Meredith survived for nearly 72 hours after being kidnapped by Hilton, held captive in his van as he drove town to town unsuccessfully trying to withdraw money from her Wachovia bank account using three different ATM machines. Each time, she gave him bad PIN numbers, causing failed transactions and a record of their location. Unfortunately, agents did not get a record of Emerson’s ATM card withdrawals until January 4th, when it was too late.
Hilton, when able to get any money, returned to the forest to bludgeon her to death and decapitate her. He let her dog go.
On January 4th 2008, a witness at a Chevron gas station called police and stated that "the guy you are looking for is cleaning out his van." The police quickly arrived on scene and were able to stop the accused before he could bleach the interior of the van. Gary Michael Hilton was arrested and charged with Emerson's murder.
The prosecution agreed to take the death penalty off the table if Hilton would lead investigators to her body. He agreed, confessing that he had asked Emerson for her debit card PIN and that when she failed to give him the correct number, he kept her for four days before killing her. Hilton stated that when it came to the woman herself, "It was hard … you gotta remember we had spent several good days together."
On January 30th 2008, Gary Hilton plead guilty to the murder. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility for parole in 30 years.
Cheryl Hodges Dunlap, 46, had disappeared on December 1st 2007, in the Apalachicola National Forest. She lived in Crawfordville, south of Tallahassee and was a nurse at Florida State University's student health centre. She was a mother of two grown up kids and a devoted member of the evangelical Christian River of Life Church.
After failing to arrive at church to teach her Sunday school class which was very unusual and also did not show up for work on Monday morning at the Student Health Centre at Florida State University, Cheryl was reported missing on December 3rd. On December 4th, her car was found with a flat tyre parked just outside the National park’s entrance. She may have been attempting to flag someone down for assistance when she was abducted.
On December 2nd, 3rd and 4th, security camera footage showed a man in a rubber mask attempting to use Dunlap’s bankcard at ATMs. Money was withdrawn, suggesting that the person in the surveillance footage knew Dunlap's PIN number. Detectives staked out the ATM location for a week, but the suspect did not return.
On December 15th hunters in the Apalachicola park noticed buzzards picking over a human body and on closer inspection they saw that both hands and the head were missing.
Following the arrest of Hilton for Meredith Emerson's murder, he confessed to Cheryl's killing when presented with compelling evidence of his involvement, including his attempted disposal of one of Cheryl's boots at the dumpster at the time he was put into custody.
In 2011, Hilton was tried for Cheryl Dunlap's murder and was sentenced to death.
On October 21st 2007, John and Irene Bryant encountered Hilton whilst hiking in the Pisgah National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina. Hilton killed Irene Bryant, using blunt force, and her body was later found by authorities several yards from where the couple had parked their car.
Hilton then kidnapped her husband, took his ATM card and coerced him into providing his PIN through the use of force, violence and intimidation. John was then taken in Hilton's van to Nantahala National Forest and shot in the head with a .22 magnum firearm. The following day Hilton used the Bryants’ ATM card to withdraw $300.
Several strong matches for John Bryant’s DNA were discovered in Hilton's van when he was arrested on January 4th, 2008. In 2012, he plead guilty to the kidnapping and murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
On December 7th, 2005, Rossana Miliani, 26, had walked into a general store in Bryson City, North Carolina, with an older man with graying hair. The man told a clerk he was a preacher who travelled to campsites around the nearby Appalachian Trail. According to the clerk, Rossana looked nervous. The two bought a sleeping bag and walked out. That was the last time anyone saw her alive. Two years after her disappearance the store clerk phoned the authorities to say he might have recognised Gary Hilton with Rossana that day in 2005 although this has never been confirmed.
The torso and legs of Michael Scot Louis, 27, of South Daytona, were discovered on December 6th, 2007 in black plastic bags on the banks of the Tomoka River inside Tomoka State Park. His head has never been found.
Michael's Firebird was found in the parking lot of his apartment complex. The keys were still in the ignition, but the car was a considerable distance from Louis’ apartment, "the length of a football field.” Although authorities had a suspicion that Hilton committed the crime but he was not charged.