It was a case that resonated with just about everyone who followed it. On New Year’s Day 2008, Meredith Emerson set out for a vigorous hike up Union County’s Blood Mountain with her black Labrador retriever mix, Ella. There she encountered a grizzled, toothless drifter searching for his next victim. AJC’s Rhonda Cook and Christian Boone talk about covering that story years ago, as well as talk to the lead GBI agent on the case John Cage, who is still moved by the very thought of Emerson, ten years later. Atlanta Journal-Constitution (December 31, 2017)
Oxygen’s Dateline: Secrets Uncovered featured ‘Mystery on Blood Mountain’ which is the true crime story of the ‘National Forest Serial Killer’ Gary Michael Hilton. The show started with the missing Meredith Emerson of Buford, Georgia who set out on a hike at Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest with her rescue dog Ella. Meredith’s roommate became concerned when she never came back home and never showed up to work the next day. Meredith was reliable and never missed work so her roommate called the police department. Meredith’s friends and family and the local sheriffs office began a search for Meredith who was initially considered a missing hiker. Although the police found some disturbing items during their search for Meredith. The items were located in an area where the ground was disturbed, possibly a sign of a struggle and they were especially concerned about the expandable police baton they found. Witnesses reported seeing Meredith with a strange looking man with a white van. A hiker took a picture of the van and the police sent out a be on the lookout for the van. Police learned that Meredith wasn’t the only missing hiker.
A witness, John Tabor, suspected the description of the unsavory character police were looking for was Gary Hilton and he reported this information to the police. The police showed Hilton’s picture to the hikers who saw Meredith and they identified Gary Hilton as the man they saw with Meredith. The manhunt was on. In the meantime, police learned that Cheryl Dunlap of Florida was missing as well. Cheryl’s daughter-in-law called the police after Cheryl didn’t show up for work. After a search was initiated, the police found Cheryl’s car abandoned and parked well off the highway. It appeared, one of the tires had been purposefully flattened. More people gathered to look for Cheryl after it was confirmed something was definitely. In the meantime, the police looked at Cheryl’s financial activity and found that a male subject was using her ATM card. The police staked out the ATMs, but the man never reappeared. In mid-December 2007, hikers found a female body missing it’s head and hands. The police took a DNA sample and it matched Cheryl Dunlap. Authorities learned of two more homicides in the National Forest in North Carolina and this detective suspected Hilton was involved in these unsolved murders to.
John and Irene Bryant retired in North Carolina close to the hiking trails they loved. They traveled extensively and both loved hiking; John hiked the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. The couple went for a day hike in the Pisgah National Forest and they never came back. One of their sons started looking for them and eventually found their car. And not long after they began their search, they found Irene Bryant’s remains not far from their vehicle. She was bludgeoned to death. The search continued for John Bryant. During the course of the investigation, detectives discovered a male subject was successfully using the Bryant’s ATM card. Meanwhile, detectives in North Carolina noticed similarities in the Bryant’s case and Meredith Emerson’s case. They observed the crimes were all occurring in the National Forests. Gary Hilton was a suspect in the disappearance of Meredith Emerson and a person of interest in other homicides in the National Forest. John Tabor worked with Gary Hilton and he saw things change with him drastically in 2007. Hilton was missing several teeth and claimed he removed his own teeth with a pair of pliers. Tabor fired Hilton and Hilton threatened to kill him. Tabor armed himself and took every precaution including contacting the police and a couple days later, Hilton left.
Tabor said he spent 10 years with Gary Hilton and it wasn’t until the end of their friendship that he noticed the deterioration. A lawyer who represented Hilton claimed he was a conman but admitted that Hilton assisted him with making horror movies. One of the movies they worked on together was called Deadly Run. It featured women who were taken to the woods and murdered. Hilton wanted to make things dark and include rape and more murder. Coincidentally, they shot a scene in the Chattahoochee National Forest where Meredith went missing. The pair eventually had a falling out after Hilton stole his dog. After Meredith’s murder, Gary Hilton called his old boss John Tabor and acted like he knew nothing about the manhunt for him. He said he wanted to get back to work and was looking for money he felt was owed to him. John Tabor agreed to meet with him to give him the money and then called the police. On January 4, 2008, the U.S. Marshall’s Service discovered activity on Meredith’s bank card. They were failed attempts which most likely meant Meredith didn’t give Hilton the right code. Gary didn’t show up to pick up the money. Meanwhile, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) got involved with Meredith Emerson’s missing persons case. Then one day someone reported that a dog was roaming around with no owner. The dog looked like Ella and an identity chip confirmed it.
While police were canvassing the location, they discovered some of Meredith’s belongings in a dumpster including her identification and her bloody clothing. Meanwhile, another person reported a sighting of Gary Hilton and his white van at a gas station. Police quickly arrived a the scene and arrested Hilton. Detectives attempted to interview Gary Hilton so they could find Meredith but he lawyered up. So investigators offered to cut a deal with Gary so they could retrieve Meredith Emerson’s body for her family. Hilton told them where she was located and the police found her remains in a wooded area. Investigators were stunned by Gary Hilton’s confession. He said he ambushed Meredith as she was walking down the trail. She fought back using her martial arts and was able to get two weapons out of his control, a knife and a police baton. Hilton admitted he fought back hard to subdue her. After he wore Meredith down, he tied her to a tree, and told her he was going to shoot her. Later he led her back to his van, tied her up, and then took her ATM cards. Meredith didn’t give him the right numbers, probably in an attempt to stay alive. He made camp with his captive in a remote forest. He tried the ATM card again the next day and still nothing so he returned to his van. He let Ella the dog go because he didn’t have the heart to kill the dog.
Gary Hilton admitted that he bludgeoned Meredith to death, decapitated her, and dumped bleach all over her body. In a stunning twist, Hilton would not talk about any of the other homicides the police believed he was involved in. Hilton was found guilty of Meredith’s murder and sentenced to life in prison in the State of Georgia. The prosecutor honored the plea agreement and removed the death penalty off the table. State and federal investigators in Florida and North Carolina continued their investigation. They learned Hilton was more than a vagrant in a van. He was an Army veteran, a college graduate, he got a pilot’s license on the GI Bill, and was married three times before the wheel’s came off. Hilton was raised by his mother and a step-father he claimed to not get along with. When he was 14 years old, he shot his step-father who lived; Gary was institutionalized. He later joined the Army and admitted his time in the Army was the only time he worked full-time. He admitted to being a career criminal; he was a scam artist. In his interview with the GBI, he had grandiose conversation about his life and touted his exceptionalism. Gary has a very high IQ and believed he was smarter than the investigators.
In January 2008, Mr. Bryant’s remains were discovered in the National Forest in North Carolina. And investigators in Florida believed Cheryl Dunlap’s case fit Gary Hilton’s modus operandi. The State of Florida indicted Gary Hilton in a capital murder trial for Cheryl Dunlap’s homicide but they were not allowed to enter any of the other suspected homicides or the Meredith Emerson case into evidence even to establish a pattern. In addition, the prosecution was not allowed to refer to the horror movie Hilton was involved with. A month after Cheryl went missing, Meredith went missing. So investigators went deep in the woods hoping to find additional evidence and they stumbled upon the head and hands of Cheryl Dunlap in a fire. It appeared someone had worked hard to destroy evidence. Unfortunately, no witnesses came forward to put Cheryl Dunlap with Gary Hilton so the prosecution had to make a connection in some other way. After they found the knife that Meredith wrestled away from Hilton, they found the link they needed to make the connection between Gary and Cheryl. The knife used in the Meredith Emerson abduction was the same knife used to decapitate Cheryl Dunlap.
Hilton’s homicide case for the murder of Cheryl Dunlap in Florida started in February 2011. This was a capital murder case and a death penalty case. Investigators left no stone unturned. They searched all of Gary Hilton’s belongings and his van and were able to make another connection. Cheryl’s DNA was found on Gary’s boots and his sleeping bag. In his defense, Gary Hilton declined to take the stand and his attorney claimed there was no direct evidence linking Gary Hilton to Cheryl Dunlap’s murder. The prosecution’s argument was compelling because Hilton was found guilty of first degree murder. And the prosecution was allowed to talk about Meredith Emerson’s homicide in the sentencing phase of the trial. The defense claimed Hilton suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury when he was a child and was also abused as a child. He was diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder and schizoaffective disorder. The prosecution’s rebuttal witnessed claimed Hilton was a psychopath who knew right from wrong. Gary Hilton was sentenced to death to by lethal injection in the State of Florida on April 21, 2011. Hilton was indicted in federal court in North Carolina for the murders of John and Irene Bryant and was a person of interest in other cases. Hilton filed an appeal in the State of Florida to have his death sentenced conviction overturned but the appeal was denied.
UPDATE: Gary Michael Hilton was found guilty of murdering Rossana Miliani, 26, Cheryl Hodges Dunlap, 46, John, 80, and Irene Bryant, 84, Michael Scot Louis, 27, and Meredith Hope Emerson, 24, between December 7, 2005 and January 4, 2008. Gary Hilton 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.
Source: ‘Mystery on Blood Mountain’ Dateline
Authorities met Tuesday to discuss possible links between Georgia murder suspect Gary Michael Hilton and cases in other states. -Associated Press (January 16, 2008)
Authorities say they have linked Gary Michael Hilton to the the slaying of a N.C. hiker and the disappearance of her husband. Earlier this month, he w as charged with killing a 24-year old female Georgia hiker. – Associated Press (January 17, 2008)
The man accused of killing a Hendersonville couple in the Pisgah National Forest was in court Monday morning. -WYFF News 4 (July 25, 2011)
A confessed serial killer, who pleaded guilty to killing two hikers from Henderson County, is sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without parole. Last year, Gary Hilton admitted to killing John and Irene Bryant as they hiked in the Pisgah National Forest in October 2007. -WLOS News 13 (April 25, 2013)
Gary Hilton was sentenced today for killing John and Irene Bryant from Henderson County in the Pisgah National Forest back in 2007. A federal judge gave Hilton four more life terms without parole. That’s on top of his Florida death sentence for a killing there, and a life term for a killing in Georgia. -WLOS News 13 (April 26, 2013)
A double murder case in the mountains involving a serial killer finally comes to a close almost six years later. Gary Hilton was sentenced today for killing John and Irene Bryant from Henderson County in the Pisgah National Forest back in 2007. A federal judge gave Hilton four more life terms without parole. -WLOS News 13 (April 29, 2013)
Murder of Meredith Emerson | Wikipedia
Gary Michael Hilton | Murderpedia
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