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.
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.
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, 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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.