Serial Killers

The Cowden Family - Strange and disturbing murders in the U.S. wilderness

The Cowden Family murders Oregon

Richard Cowden (28), his wife Belinda (22), their children, David (5) and Melissa (5 months) and dog Droopy, went camping in the Siskiyou Mountains near Carberry Creek, Copper, Oregon, on August 30th to September 1, 1974, over the Labor Day weekend.

Seven months later, in April 1975, their bodies were discovered around 7 miles (11 km) from their campsite. The case remains unsolved and has been described as one of the most mysterious murder stories in American history.

The Cowden family lived in White City, Oregon and Richard worked as a logging truck driver. They travelled to the campsite in their 1956 Ford pickup truck.

The Cowdens loved to camp, but they had not planned to go camping that Labor Day weekend of 1974. Richard had planned to haul a load of gravel for his driveway and spend the weekend getting the job done. Unexpectedly, the truck broke down, so instead they decided to go up to the Siskiyou Mountains for a family trip away.

Carberry Creek, Copper, Oregon

On Sunday, September 1, Richard and David went to the Copper General Store on foot at approximately 9 am to buy some milk. They left the store and headed back to their campsite. This was the last sighting of the Cowden family.

That evening, Belinda's mother, who lived less than 1 mile from the campground, was expecting the family to come over for dinner on their way home. They failed to show and she went to the campsite to see if there was a problem.  When she arrived there was no sign of the Cowdens and the truck was parked up with the keys on a picnic table. A plastic dishpan full of cold water lay on the ground and Belinda's purse was in plain sight on the table. A diaper bag and camp stove were set up and a half-finished carton of milk was also present, which matched that bought at the store earlier in the day. Richard's expensive wristwatch and wallet were on the ground. There was also an opened pack of cigarettes, which were the brand that Belinda smoked. The truck appeared untouched and contained their clothing, with only the bathing suits missing.

Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon

Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon

After waiting for about an hour, Belinda's mother left the campground to notify the authorities after which the sheriff, troopers, and the District 3 Office of the Oregon State Police arrived at the scene. Officers searched the area until it grew so dark they couldn’t see a thing. Lieutenant Mark Kezar who headed the case would later state that the investigation had been "delayed for maybe a day" because of the lack of indication that anything violent may have occurred at the campsite. A state trooper, Officer Erickson, recalled: "That camp was spooky; even the milk was still on the table."

The following morning, on September 2, the Cowdens' pet Basset Hound, Droopy, was found scratching at the front door of the Copper General Store.

The search for the Cowdens was one of the largest in Oregon history and included state and local police, Explorer Scouts, the United States Forest Service, and the Oregon National Guard as well as hundreds of volunteers. The U.S. Forest Service searched 25 miles of roads and trails surrounding the campsite, and helicopters and planes were flown over the area equipped with infrared imaging. Despite this very large search effort, no sign was found apart from the dog. The official search of the area was suspended on September 7, but friends and relatives of the family spent many weekends and vacation time to continue looking.

The family had little debts, they were not behind on any payments and Richard made more than enough money to support his family. So it seemed unlikely they had voluntarily disappeared.  If didn't seem like robbery as the wallet, watch etc. were left behind. No bodies were found in the creek which ruled out accidental drowning. What happened to the Cowden family? Kezar and his colleagues were baffled.

Then seven months after the family vanished, on April 12, 1975, two gold prospectors were hiking through the woods near Carberry Creek when they discovered the decomposing body of an adult male tied to a tree on a steep hillside around 7 miles from the location of the Cowden's campsite. In a small cave nearby, the bodies of an adult female, a child, and an infant were discovered. The entrance of the cave was sealed with rocks to disguise it and hide the bodies. Positive identification of the bodies as those of the Cowden family was made via dental records.

Autopsies revealed that Belinda and 5 year old David had died as a result of .22 calibre gunshot wounds, baby Melissa had died from severe head trauma. Medical authorities were unable to determine the cause of Richard Cowden's death. 

Thinking of the possibility that Richard could have murdered his own family, detectives searched the area for a gun or other weapon. If Richard was indeed responsible for the death’s of his family and his own suicide, then some sort of weapon would still be around. No gun or weapon were ever found, not even the smallest clue to give police a lead.

Lt. Mark Kezar said afterwards that "The whole nature of the thing smacks of a weirdo," adding that the police know a lot they didn't feel free to discuss at that point.

The authorities believed that Richard and David returned to the camp after their trip to the store and the family went swimming in adjacent Carberry Creek later that morning. A short time later, probably before noon, the family was abducted at gunpoint, and most likely by someone they did not know. Kezar hypothesized that they were probably driven some distance away, forced up the steep slope where they were found, and at least three of them were shot.

One family from Los Angeles, California had arrived at the campground at 5 pm on September 1 and whilst walking in the park that evening, they witnessed two men and a woman parking nearby in a pickup truck. They said, "they acted like they were waiting for us to leave, and frankly, they made us nervous, so we moved on."

Based on the location of Belinda and the children's bodies inside the cave, Lieutenant Kezar suspected that the person responsible was a local resident who knew the area and was aware of the cave's location. After the family's remains were recovered, a resident of Grants Pass who had volunteered in the search told police that he had searched the cave where Belinda and the children's bodies were found in September 1974 and that they were not there at that time. To confirm the story, police had the man take them to the cave he had searched; it was the same cave where the bodies had been discovered.

Dwain Lee Little

Dwain Lee Little

Dwain Lee Little, has been implicated but never charged with the murders.  Little had been paroled from the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem on May 24, 1974, three months prior to the Cowdens' disappearances. On November 2, 1964, he had raped and murdered teenager Orla Fay Fipps, then aged only 15 years of age. State police were able to determine that Little had been in Copper over the Labor Day weekend at the approximate time the Cowden family were killed.

Little's girlfriend told law enforcement that she had seen him with a .22 caliber gun during Christmas 1974 and on January 12, 1975, his parole was revoked after she informed police. Little was paroled again on April 26, 1977 and on June 2, 1980, he picked up a pregnant twenty-three-year-old named Margie Hunter, whose car had broken down near Portland, Oregon. He sexually assaulted and beat her but she survived. and Little was charged and convicted of attempted homicide and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. He was never cooperative with mental health treatment and refused to discuss any of the murders he is accused of.

Police believed that the two men and woman in a truck reported by the Los Angeles family at the campground were in fact Little and his parents, as their truck matched the description provided by the family. Little and his parents denied any knowledge of the Cowdens' disappearances; however, a miner who owned a cabin nearby claimed that Little and his parents had stopped by on Monday, September 2, 1974, and signed a guestbook he kept for visitors.

Floyd Forsberg, an inmate who at one time shared a cell with Little, would later claim that Little confessed to the Cowdens' murders. 

Richard Cowden's father committed suicide a few months after the bodies were discovered but he was cleared of any involvement.

Over four decades on, the facts behind the Cowdens' murders remains unknown. Foul play for certain but was it Dwain Little or someone else. A brutal murder in America's wilderness.


The disturbing story of David Shearing and the Wells Gray Park camping murders in Canada

david shearing Wells Gray murders

In August 1982, Bob Johnson, 44, and Jackie Johnson, 41, and their daughters Janet, 13, and Karen went on a two-week camping trip with Jackie's parents, George Bentley, 66, and Edith Bentley, 59. Sadly it was the last family vacation they were ever to go on, cut short by a sadistic, brutal killer obsessed with young girls. A sad and depressing story of outdoor adventure gone wrong, bad luck and a mission by two Royal Canadian Mounted Police detectives to find the perpetrator of these awful crimes.

Wells Gray murder victims

The group travelled to the remote Wells Gray Provincial Park. a wilderness park located in east-central British Columbia, Canada, around 300 miles (478 km) to the northeast of Vancouver. It covers 5,250 square kilometres  (1.3 million acres) and is British Columbia's fourth largest park, after Tatshenshini, Spatsizi and Tweedsmuir. Before the arrival of Europeans, the Wells Gray area was a valued hunting ground to the Secwepemc (Shuswap), Tsilhqot'in (Chilcotin) and Canim Lake aboriginal groups.

They pitched camp at a secluded area near the old Bear Creek prison site with the Bentleys arriving with a truck and camper van with a boat on top.

Wells Gray Provincial Park

On August 16, Bob failed to return to work at Gorman Brothers Lumber in Westbank which was very unusual for the 25-year employee. The group was reported missing on August 23, 1982.

On September 13th, a mushroom picker reported finding a burned-out car near Battle Mountain Road in a clearing off a mountainside logging road with the driver's side door open, thirteen aerial miles from Bear Creek and north of the town of Clearwater.  On September 13, that was similar to the car that the Johnsons were driving. 

Police found a pile of burnt bones on the back seat which were later identified as that of four adults and in the trunk were the remains of two girls. The charred remains were that of the Bentley's and Johnson's. Because of the location of the vehicle, it was quickly assumed that a local was responsible for the murders. 

Johnson Car Wells Gray murders
Johnson car Wells Gray murders

Forensic investigation of the bone fragments found that they had been shot with a .22 calibre gun. Locals had seen the family camped at Bear Creek and a search of the area found six spent .22 calibre ammunition shells. The Bentley’s 1981 Ford truck and camper and their camping gear, boat and motor and other possessions were missing. Some beer caps of the brand known to be drunk by Bob Johnson were also found as well as full bottles cooling in a nearby stream. Two sticks with sharp ends, probably used by the two girls to roast marshmallows were also at the site. 

Replica of the Bentleys’ 1981 Ford camper truck

Replica of the Bentleys’ 1981 Ford camper truck

wells gray victims
wells gray victims

A Canadian wide manhunt was launched with some leads throwing investigators seriously off the scent. For example, two scruffy French-Canadian men were seen driving in a scamper van east towards Quebec but it turned out this was an unrelated vehicle. Many hours were wasted on these "wild goose" chases as the public phoned in thousands of sitings which all needed to be investigated.

But then on October 18, 1983, fourteen months after the murders with the trail running cold for the perpetrator,  the Bentley's camper truck was finally located by two forestry workers, near Bear Creek, on an old logging road near Trophy Mountain. The spot was only 15 miles from the murder site and 20 miles from where the Johnsons' car was located. It had been burned using an accelerant and was well hidden on the side of different mountain from where the car and bodies were found. It looked like there had been an attempt to drive it into a gorge but logs had blocked its path. The location confirmed a local was most likely involved as outsiders would have been unlikely to find the isolated spot.

David William Shearing who lived locally was identified by someone who told police that, over a year earlier, Shearing had enquired about how to re-register a Ford pickup and repair a hole in its door. Shearing lived three miles from the site of the murders and the police had never released the information about the bullet hole.

The RCMP found Shearing in Tumbler Ridge, north of Kamloops, where he was to appear in court in a few days on a possession of stolen property charge of a significant amount of tools. He was taken into custody for questioning. 

Despite his reputation and criminal record, Shearing came from a respectable family. His father, since deceased, had once been a prison guard and his brother was a sheriff. Shearing had graduated from high school and had successfully completed a heavy mechanic's course. 

David William Shearing

Royal Canadian Mounted Police detectives, Sergeant Mike Eastham and Constable Ken Liebel were convinced David Shearing was guilty from the beginning and tried to get his confidence. Eventually, they got him to confess to the crimes by getting him to relax and defer appointing a lawyer.

Initially, he was led to believe the arrest was related to a hit and run incident which he quickly confessed to before the detectives confronted him with the Bennett-Johnson case. Quickly, Shearing accidentally admitted to Eastham that he had heard the murders were committed at Bear Creek which was not information released to the public. After effort and persuasion, Eastham managed to convince Shearing to confess to the six murders and he eventually agreed to re-enact the murders and even to turn over the murdered family’s possessions. Crucially he handed the police a .22 calibre Remington pump-action rifle, which was forensically matched as the murder weapon.

Shearing initially stated in his confession that he shot the four adults as they sat around their campfire, then shot the girls as they slept in the tent, saying he only wanted to rob them. He told the RCMP that he loaded the bodies into their car, drove it by night to the mountainside, and set it on fire using five gallons of gasoline. He said he cleaned the campsite, then took the truck/camper back to his nearby property, only to burn it later when he discovered how difficult it was to re-register.

David Shearing pleaded guilty to six counts of murder on April 16, 1984, and was given a life sentence with no possibility of parole for twenty-five years. This was the maximum possible penalty for second degree murder and the first time in Canadian history that it had been handed out.

Following Shearing’s conviction, Mike Eastham re-interviewed him and got the disturbing truth behind the killings - paedophilia. He lusted over the young girls and was determined to sexually abuse them even if it meant killing the parents and grandparents.

Mike Eastham 2018

Mike Eastham 2018

He said he saw the family when they set up camp and spent several days spying on them, with a fantasy to have sex with Janet and Karen. At dusk on August 10, 1982, walked into the campsite with his rifle and shot Bob Johnson, then Jackie and then George and Edith in cold blood.

The two girls were already in their tent, ready for bed. Shearing said he looked in, told them a dangerous biker gang was around and their parents had run for help. While they stayed in the tent, he said, he loaded the bodies of their parents and grandparents into the back seat of the family car and covered the bodies with a blanket. Then he crawled into the tent with the girls.

Shearing told Eastham he kept the girls alive for nearly a week, staying with them both at his ranch and at a small fishing cabin on the Clearwater River whilst repeatedly raping them.

They left the cabin after they were nearly discovered. A prison guard was supervising prisoners from a local jail who were fishing on the river. He came to the door of the cabin to tell Shearing not to be alarmed. But Shearing hid the girls behind the door and told them to stay quiet. The guard noticed nothing unusual.

The next day, Shearing said he took the girls back to his ranch and on August 16th, one at a time, he took each girl for a walk in the woods, told her to turn around so he could urinate, then shot each sister in the back of the head. He took the bodies back to the Johnson family car, which he’d hidden and put them in the trunk. He drove the car to a secluded spot and burnt it.

To double-check the story, Eastham found the prison guard. He remembered the meeting exactly as Shearing had described it. Then, RCMP Constable Ken Leibel hiked through the bush to the fishing cabin. Shearing told Leibel he carved his initials on the wall there. Leibel found them next to a second set, JJ, for 13-year-old Janet Johnson.

In his ten-minute summation at Shearing's trail, Supreme Court Justice Harry McKay described the crime as “a cold-blooded and senseless execution of six defenceless and innocent people...a slaughter that devastated three generations in a single bound. What a tragedy. What a waste, and for what?”

In September 2008, David Shearing was up for parole. The National Parole Board ruled that he still had violent sexual fantasies, hadn't completed sex offender treatment and was not ready for freedom. His second application, in 2012, was also rejected when a petition with 13,258 signatures was presented to the National Parole Board. Shearing then applied again in 2014, then withdrew the request a month before the hearing. In the meantime, online and paper petitions got 15,258 signatures urging the parole board not to release him. He now goes by his mother's maiden name, Ennis and is married to a woman he met whilst in prison.


Further reading and viewing

The Seventh Shadow : The Wilderness Manhunt for a Brutal Mass Murderer by Michael Eastham and Ian McLeod (1999, Paperback)

The Wells Gray Gunman

The Detectives The Wells Gray Gunman S1 E1  (Canada only)       

Gary Michael Hilton - The disturbing case of the National Forest Serial Killer

Gary Michael Hilton

As well as the risk of blisters, exposure, getting lost on the trail, injury, attacks by wild animals, altitude sickness and so on when venturing into the great outdoors, there is the remote chance you could be one of the unlucky ones who bumps into a serial killer. 

Gary Michael Hilton, 71, the so called "National Forest Serial Killer", is notorious for committing a series of murders in wilderness areas, some involving hikers, between 2007 and 2008. The murder of Meredith Emerson is an incredible story of a woman who bravely fought off a depraved maniac and managed to stay alive for over 3 days in his company. Her killing ultimately led to his arrest. 

In 2007, Hilton killed John and Irene Bryant (80 and 84 years) in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest, Cheryl Hodges Dunlap (46) in Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest and in 2008 brutally murdered Meredith Hope Emerson (24) in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest. Prior to this, he is believed to have killed Rossana Miliani, 26 and Michael Scot Louis, 27 and possibly many others as it seems unlikely he would have began his murder spree so late in life. 

He was sentenced to life in prison in Georgia on January 31, 2008, sentenced to death in Florida on April 21, 2011 and sentenced to four life sentences in North Carolina on April 25, 2013.

Gary michael hilton

About Gary Hilton

In 1959, when he was thirteen-years-old, Gary Hilton shot and wounded Nilo DeBag, his stepfather, who in Gary’s mind had taken away his mother. He 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. But despite this crime, in 1963, seventeen-year-old Gary Hilton successfully enlisted in the U.S. Army and sent to West Germany as part of the Davy Crockett Platoon.

A few years into his service, Hilton began hearing voices, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was put into another mental hospital and was given an honorable discharge. He left the Army in 1967.

After this he married three times but had no children. In 1969 to Sue in DeKalb County, Georgia; divorced in 1971 in Miami, Florida. Then on 24th August 1977 to Dina Evonne Baugh in DeKalb County, Georgia; divorced on 16th May 1978. Then on 19th March 1979 to Betty Sue Edwards Galloway, a security officer for Atlanta’s Stone Mountain Park; divorced 24th October 1979. 

Gary michael hilton

Hilton was a lover of the outdoors and often went out with his dog Dandy. This would become his killing ground as others enjoyed hikes in the forests and mountains of the Southern United States.

Samuel Rael, a lawyer and the producer of the 1995 independent movie "Deadly Run" said Hilton, a former legal client of his, came up with the plot of the movie, which is about a serial killer who holds women captive in the woods. The plot summary of the movie, "Respected and very wealthy Atlanta, GA-area realtor Bobby Wilson has a wife, son and daughter, but does some things unknown to them. He has a cabin on a rural tract 200 miles to the north, to where he often flies his airplane carrying abducted, minimally-attached females, who he there releases as game and fatally hunts. A girlfriend of a victim convinces a cop to help close in on Bobby."

Meredith Emerson, Murdered January 5th, 2008, Blood Mountain, Chattahoochee National Forest.

Meredith Emerson murder

Meredith Emerson, from Buford, Georgia, decided to go for a hike with her dog Ella on January 1st, New Years day, 2008 to Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. The place name of the location of her hike was to become apt. 

Blood Mountain is the highest peak on the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail and the sixth-tallest mountain in Georgia, with an elevation of 4,458 feet (1,359 m). It is located on the border of Lumpkin County with Union County and is within the boundaries of the Chattahoochee National Forest and the Blood Mountain Wilderness. 

Meredith left a message for her room mate on the 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 books. They eventually came across Meredith's car parked in the Blood Mountain trailhead area. 

Meredith Emerson Murder chalk board note

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 she bravely fought back. She was a blue belt in KyukiDo, having studied at AKF Athens, Georgia (The head instructor of the school, Ken Blumreich, awarded her a black belt posthumously at her memorial service). But eventually she was overcome as Hilton also carried a police baton.

Meredith Emerson

On that same day, hiker and ex-cop, Seth Blankenship was walking the trail and noted 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 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. 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 with their suspicions. 

Meredith Emerson Murder  and Ella the dog

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 the evening of January 2nd, 2008. The GBI is an independent, statewide agency that provides assistance to the state's criminal justice system in the areas of criminal investigations, forensic laboratory services and computerised criminal justice information.

Clawson saw a TV bulletin about Meredith's disappearance and called the sheriff with the information about 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 at about 6:30 p.m, an agent was informed when he called Tabor for followup information. DeKalb police headed to the business, but Hilton never showed up to pick up the money. During the late afternoon newscast, authorities released Hilton’s name and photo to the public. 

On January 4, a lawn care truck got stuck by a stream near where Hilton and Emerson were camped. The driver, Michael Andrews, walked toward Hilton to ask for help. Seeing the driver, Hilton jumped from a chair and headed toward him “as if trying to keep Andrews away from his van,” a GBI report states. Andrews then called police to help get his truck unstuck. Learning this, Hilton hurriedly loaded his van and drove off.  

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. Hilton then returned to the forest to bludgeon her to death and decapitate her. He let Meredith's dog, Ella go. Unfortunately, agents did not get a record of Emerson’s ATM card withdrawals until January 4th, when it was too late. 

On January 4, 2008, a witness at a Chevron gas station called DeKalb 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. Crime scene analysts obtained blood evidence that was matched to Emerson's DNA. Gary Michael Hilton was subsequently 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. Hilton agreed and successfully led investigators to Emerson's body. Hilton claimed 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 30, 2008, Gary Hilton pleaded guilty to the murder of Emerson. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility for parole in 30 years.

Cheryl Dunlap, Apalachicola National Forest, Murdered December 1st, 2007

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 20.23.08.png

Cheryl Hodges Dunlap, 46, disappeared on December 1, 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 Thagard Student Health Centre at Florida State University, Cheryl was reported missing on December 3rd. On December 4th, Cheryl’s Toyota Camry was found with a flat tyre on Crawfordville Highway parked just outside the park’s entrance, just before the Wakulla County line, on the southbound shoulder of U.S. Highway 319.  She may have been attempting to flag someone down for assistance when she was abducted.

Apalachicola National Forest

The Apalachicola National Forest is the largest U.S. National Forest in the state of Florida with 632,890 acres.

On December 2nd, 3rd and 4th, security camera footage showed a man in a rubber mask attempting to use Dunlap’s bankcard at area ATMs. The images showed a tall, thin man "apparently wearing gloves, a hat and some sort of mask in an obvious attempt to hide his identity" as he draws money from an ATM machine. 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 to the bank.

Hilton withdrawing money from ATM December 3rd 2007 with mask

Hilton withdrawing money from ATM December 3rd 2007 with mask

About 180 people turned out on Saturday, December 8th, to search a wooded area near where her car was found but did not locate Cheryl.

On December 15, hunters in the Apalachicola park near Bloxham Cutoff Road 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.

John and Irene Bryant, Murdered October 2007, Pisgah National Forest


On October 21, 2007, the 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. On October 22, 2007, at 7.37 pm,  Hilton used the Bryants’ ATM card in Ducktown, Tennesee, to withdraw $300.

Photos from the bank’s security cameras show a slender figure wearing a yellow raincoat, but the person’s face was obscured but consistent with Hilton’s height and physical stature.

Several strong matches for John Bryant’s DNA were discovered in Hilton's van when he was arrested on January 4th, 2008.

In 2012, Hilton pleaded guilty to the kidnapping and murder of the Bryants, for which he was sentenced to life in prison.

Rossana Miliani, disappeared December 7th, 2005, Bryson city

Rossana Miliani murder

On December 7th, 2005, Rossana Miliani, 26,  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 (or hiking bag) and walked out. That was the last time anyone saw her alive.

Rossana was suffering from a bi-polar disorder. 

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.

Rossana's father, Anibal Miliani,  was convinced that the man in the store was Hilton. “She called me most every night, to check in” he said. On December 6, 2005, she rang her dad from a Cherokee Ramada Inn roughly five miles from Bryson City. Rossana, who had taken the bus from south Florida to North Carolina earlier that day, told him she wanted to go hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Michael Scot Louis, 27, body found Tomoka State Park, Florida, December 6th, 2007 

michael scott louis murder

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 in South Daytona. The keys were still in the ignition, but the car was a considerable distance from Louis’ apartment, "the length of a football field.”

Louis’ unwashed laundry and two guitars were inside the car. The authorities had a suspicion that Hilton committed the crime but he was not charged.


The real "Wolf Creek" - the disturbing case of the backpacker murders in the Australian Outback

Ivan Milat Australian backpacker murders

Between December 1989 and April 1992 seven young backpackers went missing whilst hitchhiking between Sydney and Melbourne in Australia. At the time the cases caused plenty of fear amongst tourists in Australia but were quickly forgotten when the murderer was caught. For the teenagers it was a case of wrong place at the wrong time and is a very sad story for these unlucky hitchhikers.

Their bodies were all discovered in the Belanglo State Forest,  south west of Sydney and 80 miles west of the New South Wales city of Wollongong in Australia.

Bellanlgo State Forest, New South Wales

Eventually, serial killer, Ivan Milat, was convicted of the murders on 27 July 1996 and is currently serving seven consecutive life sentences, as well as 18 years without parole, at the maximum-security Goulburn Correctional Centre, an Australian super maximum security prison for males,  located in Goulburn, New South Wales.

The events were fictionalised in the movie Wolf Creek, a 2005 Australian horror film written, co-produced, and directed by Greg McLean, and starring John Jarratt.The story revolves around three backpackers who find themselves taken captive and after a brief escape, hunted down by Mick Taylor in the Australian outback. The film was ambiguously marketed as being "based on true events"; the plot bore elements reminiscent of the Ivan Milat murders and also Bradley Murdoch in 2001.

The opening sequence of the movie tells that "30,000 people are reported missing in Australia every year, 90% are found within a month, many are never seen again."

Mick Taylor Wolf Creek

Mick Taylor Wolf Creek

The movies were followed by a TV  series again starring John Jarratt, who portrayed Mick Taylor in the films. The first season of Wolf Creek consisted of six episodes and was released on 12 May 2016. It follows Eve, a 19-year-old American tourist, who is targeted by the crazed serial killer Mick Taylor, but survives his attack and embarks on a mission of revenge.[ The show was renewed for a second season of six episodes in February 2017, which was released on December 15, 2017. The story centres around Taylor meeting a coach full of international tourists.

The Australian Backpacker Murders - the victims

The victims were:

  • Deborah Everist and James Gibson (Australian), both 19, disappeared December, 1989

  • Simone Schmidl (German), 20, disappeared January 1991

  • Gabor Neugebauer, 21 and Anja Habschied 20 (German), disappeared in January 1992

  • Caroline Clarke, 21, Joanne Walters, 22 (English), disappeared April 1992

Background to the disappearances

All had stayed in Sydney backpacker hotels and had told relatives and friends of their plans before they left Sydney. They headed south along the Hume Highway, the 840 kilometres (520 mile) main link between Sydney and Melbourne.

James Gibson and Deborah Everist

James Gibson and Deborah Everist

Australian teenagers, James Gibson and Deborah Everist checked out of their hotel in Sydney's Surry Hills in December 1989, and set out for their home city, Melbourne, planning to stop on the way at a conservation festival in Albury, on the New South Wales-Victoria border.

The day after they left Sydney, a walker found Gibson's damaged camera on a roadside at Galston Gorge, north of Sydney. The finder took it home but did not report it for another month when there was publicity over the discovery in the same area of James' empty backpack. His name on the outside flap had been cut off, but the name inside was intact.

Simone "Simi" Schmidl

Simone "Simi" Schmidl

German national, Simone "Simi" Schmidl, left Sydney on 20 January, 1991, planning to hitchhike to Melbourne to meet her mother, Erwine Schmidl, who was flying from Germany to join her for a camping holiday.  She was last seen alive on a Sydney railway station, where she was catching a train out of the city. When her mother arrived in Melbourne from Germany two days later, her daughter was not at the airport to meet her as planned. She stayed in Australia for six weeks hoping Simone would show up but Simi didn't.

Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied

Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied

German couple, Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied, left the Backpackers' Inn at Sydney's Kings Cross on Boxing Day, 1991, to hitch south to Adelaide, then north to Darwin, from where they planned to fly home. Police remain mystified by reports that the couple were seen a few days after they left Sydney in a caravan park in Darwin, where they were said to have missed their flight to Indonesia. A discarded airline ticket was later found near their bodies when they were found.

Caroline Clarke from Northumberland and Joanne Walters

Caroline Clarke from Northumberland and Joanne Walters

British women, Caroline Clarke from Northumberland and Joanne Walters from South Wales arrived in Australia separately, but became friends and began to travel together. They wrote to their families at home of plans to see the Northern Territory, Uluru and the Nullarbor Plain in the Western Australian desert.

In April 1992, they left Sydney and planned to earn some money in Victoria picking fruit. They hitch-hiked first to Bulli Pass, on the Pacific Ocean coast south of Sydney, where they were last seen asking directions to the Hume Highway. From there nothing.

Discovery of the bodies

Bellanglo Forest and Humne Highway NSW

On 19 September 1992, two runners taking part in an orienteering event discovered a decaying corpse in the Belanglo State Forest in New South Wales, Australia. The following day, police found a second body and the bodies were soon confirmed to be of Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters. They were left near a network of fire trails which cross the forest, including such sites as "Executioner's Drop" and "Miner's Despair".

Joanne had been stabbed multiple times and wounds to her spine would have paralysed her. Caroline had been shot several times in the head and the police believed she had been used as target practice.

Despite a thorough search of the forest at the time no further evidence or bodies was found by police.

A year later, in October 1993, Bruce Pryor, discovered a human skull and femur in a particularly remote section of the forest. Pryor visited the Belanglo forest every week for 9 months trying to locate further clues after the discovery of the British girls bodies. Two bodies were quickly discovered and identified as Deborah Everist and James Gibson. Gibson's skeleton showed stab wounds and his upper spine had been severed causing paralysis. Deborah Everist had been savagely beaten, with her skull being fractured in two places, her jaw was broken and there were knife marks on her forehead. Gibson's backpack and camera had previously been discovered by the side of the road at Galston Gorge, in the northern Sydney suburbs over 120 kilometres (75 mi) to the north.

On November 1, 1993, a skull was found in a clearing in the forest by police sergeant Jeff Trichter. The skull was later identified as that of Simone Schmidl from Regensburg, Germany. Clothing found at the scene was not Simone's, but matched that of another missing backpacker, Anja Habschied. The skeleton showed stab wounds, including one which severed her spine.

The bodies of Habschied and her boyfriend Gabor Neugebauer were found on November 3rd, 1993 in shallow graves 50 metres (160 ft) apart. Anja had been decapitated, but, despite an extensive search, her head was never found. Neugebauer had been shot in the head.

All the bodies had been deliberately posed face-down with their hands behind their backs, covered by sticks and ferns. There were the remains of bush fires encircled by stones near the bodies, suggesting the killer had camped there and shell casings of the same calibre were also identified at each site. Beers bottles and cigarette butts were also scattered around.

Police investigation and arrest of the Backpacker Murderer

Since all the backpackers except Simi were travelling in pairs, and two of the pairs included men and one was an ex-soldier how did the killer manage to overpower them? Were there several killers at work? Did he or they drug the victims first?

After developing a profile of the killer, the police narrowed the list of suspects to a short list of 230, to an even shorter list of 32, which included the killer.

Paul Onions

Paul Onions

On 13 November 1993, New South Wales police received a call from Paul Onions from Willenhall in the West Midlands, U.K., who aged 23, had left his engineering job in England to backpack around Australia three years before.

On January 25th,  1990, Paul  took  a train to the Hume Highway to try to get to Victoria to earn some money picking fruit and whilst hiking along the road he came across a roadside transport cafe. As he was was leaving the car park, a moustached, smiling Australian walked over to him. `Where are you heading? Do you need a lift, mate?’ he asked ...He told Paul his name was Bill and he seemed a genuine and friendly man ... "After we set off in his four-wheel-drive, I talked about my family and plans in Australia and he chatted about the sort of work he did. He was quite cagey about his job and all he would tell me was that he spent a lot of time on the road ...".

Belanglo State forest

"Bill" stopped the vehicle close to the entrance to Belanglo State Forest, stepped out of the car and told Onions he was looking for some cassettes under the seat. Paul felt slightly suspicious so he followed him out of the car using the excuse that he needed to stretch his legs. After a couple of minutes they both got back in the car but seconds later Bill got out again and started rummaging under the seat. Bill pulled out a black revolver and pointed the gun straight at Onions. Then he reached under the seat again and pulled out a bag of rope. At that point, Paul undid his seat belt and ran for it under gunfire. Bill managed to catch up with Paul and dragged him to the ground. Somehow, Onions managed to get up and make another run for it into the path of an oncoming car driven by Joanne Berry who was with her sister and five children, which fortunately stopped, and he jumped into the back seat. As they drove off, Paul remembers the gunman standing with a stupid grin on his face which he could not get out of his head for years. 

Onions and Joanne Berry, managed to get to Bowral police station, where they gave detailed information about the attackers appearance, job and the type of 4X4 he drove, but staff merely handed him $10 to get back to the British High Commission in Sydney and the report lay filed in a drawer for years.

But after reading newspaper reports about the remains of several partially-buried bodies having been found in the nearby Belanglo State Forest, Onions called overseas from the UK to remind the cops there of the story of his own assault by the mysterious Bill.

On 13 April 1994, Detective Gordon found the note regarding Onions' call to the hotline five months earlier. Superintendent Clive Small immediately called for the original report from Bowral police, but it was missing from their files. Fortunately, Constable Janet Nicholson had taken a full report in her notebook, which provided more details than the original statement.

Based on these reports and other investigative work, police finally zeroed in on a man not called Bill but the infamous Ivan Milat.

Ivan Milat backpacker murders

Ivan Robert Marko Milat was born on 27 December 1944 in Guildford, New South Wales and was the fifth-born of fourteen children. He was employed as a road worker.

Police learned he had served prison time and in 1971 had been charged with the abduction of two women and the rape of one of them.

On Good Friday in April 1971, Ivan Milat picked up two young female hitchhikers near Liverpool train station.He pulled a knife, bound the girls and tells them, “I am going to kill you. You won’t scream, when I cut your throats will you?” He rapes one of the girls who manage to convince him to stop for cans of drink. With the help of men from inside a petrol station cafe, the girls manage to escape and Milat takes off. He is arrested, but facing both rape charges and two counts of armed robbery, he fakes his own death by leaving his shoes at the Gap, a renowned Sydney suicide spot.

Later that year, the police discover that Milat has fled to New Zealand but he was rearrested in late 1974 when he returns to Australia after his mother is taken to hospital suffering from a heart attack. He manages to escape conviction of both the rape charges and also the armed robbery counts.

It was also learned that both he and his brother Richard Milat worked together on road gangs along the highway between Sydney and Melbourne, that he owned a property in the vicinity of Belanglo, and had sold a Nissan Patrol four-wheel drive vehicle shortly after the discovery of the bodies of Clarke and Walters. Acquaintances also told police about Milat's obsession with weapons. When the connection between the Belanglo murders and Onions' experience was made, Paul Onions flew to Australia to help with the investigation.

On 5 May 1994, Onions positively identified Milat as the man who had picked him up and attempted to tie up and possibly murder him. Milat was arrested on 22 May 1994 at his home at Cinnabar Street, Eagle Vale. Homes belonging to his brothers Richard, Alex, Boris, Walter and Bill were also searched at the same time by over 300 police. The search of Milat's home revealed a cache of weapons, including parts of a .22 calibre rifle that matched the type used in the murders, plus clothing, camping equipment and cameras belonging to several of his victims.

Milat appeared in court on robbery and weapon charges on 23 May. On 30 May, following continued police investigations, Milat was also charged with the murders of the seven backpackers. In March 1996, the trial opened and lasted fifteen weeks. His defence argued that, in spite of the evidence, there was no proof Milat was guilty and attempted to shift the blame to other members of his family, particularly Richard. But on 27 July 1996, a jury found Milat guilty of the murders. He was also convicted of the attempted murder, false imprisonment and robbery of Paul Onions.

Events following Milat's imprisonment

In 2012, Milat's great-nephew Matthew Milat and his friend Cohen Klein (both aged 19 at the time of their sentencing) were sentenced to 43 years and 32 years in prison respectively, for murdering David Auchterlonie on his 17th birthday with an axe at the Belanglo State Forest in 2010. Matthew Milat struck Auchterlonie with the double-headed axe as Klein recorded the attack with a mobile phone. This was the forest where Ivan Milat had killed and buried his victims.

Police believe that Milat may have been involved in many more murders than the seven for which he was convicted. In 2001, he was ordered to give evidence at an inquest into the disappearances of three other female backpackers, but no case was brought against him, due to lack of evidence. Similar investigations were launched in 2003, in relation to the disappearance of two nurses and again in 2005, relating to the disappearance of hitchhiker Anette Briffa, but no charges resulted.

Many believe Milat had help in killing his seven victims - with one possible co-conspirator being his sister. Judge Justice David Hunt said after Milat's trial he was convinced the killer could not have done his crimes alone, and a juror on the case made similar claims after the trial. Milat's own lawyer pointed at both Milat's brother and his sister, who shared a house with Milat at the time of the killings.

One key piece of evidence implicating Milat's sister, is that cigarette butts were found near the body of Caroline Clarke. Milat was not a smoker, but his sister was. Police said they interviewed the sister on several occasions but had no reason to believe she was directly involved. 

In December 2017, Milat unsuccessfully tried to appeal his convictions for the seventh time and he remains in the super max prison in New South Wales.

Belanglo State Forest memorial to back packer murders