Gary Hilton: The Killer Behind The Shocking Decapitation Of 4 Hikers

Gary Michael Hilton was a drifter who enjoyed violence and torture. When the bodies of 4 hikers were discovered in 2007 and 2008, the true nature of his disturbing fixation horrified the nation.

Gary Michael Hilton doesn't cause the same fear as infamous psychopaths like Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, and David Berkowitz, though his horrifying crimes should send shivers down the spines of anyone who enjoys hiking.

This three-year murder spree left at least four people dead, and their bodies spread across national parks in three states. Described by a judge as "one of the evilest creatures to stalk the trails of North Carolina," Gary Hilton had no regard for human life and took pleasure in the suffering of those who had the misfortune to cross his path.

The Life Of The National Forest Killer

Gary Hilton: The Killer Behind The Shocking Decapitation Of 4 Hikers

Like many serial killers, Gary Hilton's early life was complicated. Born on 26 November 1946, Hilton grew up fearing his militant father and resenting his mother, whom he saw as spineless. His mother remarried in 1958, and the presence of another man in his home enraged the teenager, who saw his stepfather as having stolen his mother's love from him. In 1959, 13-year-old Gary Hilton shot his stepfather, severely injuring him and resulting in an extended stay in a mental institution.

Fuelled by rage, Hilton channeled this into his career choices and joined the US army when he turned 18. Excelling as a paratrooper, he was known by his superiors and comrades as a capable, if quiet, soldier and donated all of his energy into his training.

In 1967, Hilton suffered from a schizophrenic attack that resulted in medical discharge from the service. This unfortunate twist sent him spiraling into a deep depression and would prove to seal the fates of his future victims.

Unmotivated and adrift, Hilton turned to drink and prostitutes to fill the hole in his gut. With multiple charges for public intoxication and solicitation under his belt by the age of 32, it's safe to say that Hilton's behavior betrayed his deep inner turmoil.

Hilton did not struggle to make emotional connections - however, keeping them alive was a different matter. Marrying his first wife Sue in 1969, the couple was divorced less than two years later, with Sue citing irreconcilable differences between the pair. The following decade saw two more failed marriages, with the third and final matrimony lasting just over six months.

Gary Hilton was able to find escape in nature, often disappearing on camping trips for days at a time without telling anyone where he was going. But, unfortunately, this penchant for the great outdoors would eventually become the stage for his more daring and distressing crimes.

Gary Hilton's Crimes

Gary Hilton: The Killer Behind The Shocking Decapitation Of 4 Hikers

Gary Hilton did not begin as a murderer. By the time he found his first victim, he already had a reputation for being a cruel drunk, favoring prostitutes, and having a slew of misdemeanors behind him. He was well-known to local police and was a regular tenant of drunk tanks and cop shops.

These sins, however, were just a starting point for a murder spree that would soon horrify a nation.

The Murder Of Meredith Emerson

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On 1 January 2008, Meredith Emerson went for a hike with her dog, Ella, through the Blood Mountains in Northern Georgia. Emerson was young, pretty and popular, and was described by friends and family as 'an absolute angel' who would do anything to help others.

Hiking along the well-marked paths in the national park, Emerson was stopped by a man with a dog who appeared disorientated. Feeling sympathy, she cautiously approached the emaciated and confused older man and asked if he needed help.

This would be her downfall. Gary Hilton lunged at her as she approached, his skinny frame belying wiry muscles and almost heroic strength. Far from being dehydrated and confused, Hilton had been following Meredith Emerson for miles, keeping his distance until he could get around her and put on his 'help me' act.

Gary Hilton: The Killer Behind The Shocking Decapitation Of 4 Hikers

Emerson was trained in martial arts and jujitsu, but she could not escape, and Hilton soon overpowered her, forcing her to the ground before dragging her into the bushes. The trail, chosen by Emerson for its natural beauty and isolation, was too far from the park information hut for her screams to reach helpful ears.

Hilton kept Emerson in captivity for four days until finally, on 4 January, he bludgeoned her from behind with a car jack until she stopped breathing. Her decapitated body was discovered in the park on 4 January 2008 and would lead to the revelation of prior occasions where his dark and murderous soul came to light.

John And Irene Bryant

Gary Hilton: The Killer Behind The Shocking Decapitation Of 4 Hikers

On 21 October 2007, four months before discovering Meredith Emerson's mutilated body, two retirees decided to take to Pisgah National Forest for a hike through the wilderness. Both avid hikers, John and Irene Bryant, knew the area well and had prepared for a couple of days in the national park. They informed family members and the park registry of their intentions and set off into the trees.

That was the last time anyone would see them alive.

Two weeks later, park rangers found their maroon Ford Escape parked in the lot of the park gateway. They hadn't contacted anyone in the previous fortnight, and family members had reported them missing, with concern that they had injured themselves in the rambling wilderness.

The Henderson County Sheriff's office launched a search party of more than 30 volunteers, dogs, and helicopters to find the lost couple. Though they didn't disclose it at the time, the police feared the worst; Irene's phone records revealed that she had attempted to call 911 the day that she and her husband had disappeared.

On 10 November, police helicopters reported a visual on a woman's body, semi-clad and half-covered in leaves. The search party descended on the area, and a Chapel Hill coroner identified it as Irene Bryant. She was bloodied, beaten, and the cause of death was identified as bludgeoning with a blunt instrument. Police, shocked by the state of the corpse, declared a homicide on federal land and issued a $10,000 reward for information leading to the person who had committed the horrifying crime.

Gary Hilton: The Killer Behind The Shocking Decapitation Of 4 Hikers

Trawling through the couples' records, police soon discovered that a $300 withdrawal had been made from an ATM in Ducktown, Tennessee using Irene's bank card. CCTV cameras showed a man in a yellow raincoat, his face semi-obscured by the dirty hood. John Bryant was still missing, and it was feared that whatever had happened to Irene would be his fate too.

It would be weeks before any new information emerged. Then, one month after Meredith Emerson's body had been discovered, a hiker named Mark Waldrop was hunting game in Pisgah National Park, almost 100 miles away from where Irene Bryant's body had been found. Moving through the trees, he spotted a gleaming white mound that was out of place in the muted greens and fawns of the forest.

Upon closer inspection, Mark realized that it was a human skull and immediately called the police. Searching the surrounds, he quickly discovered a pelvis and spine, half-hidden in the underbrush. There was no clothing, belongings, or identifying objects nearby, but the case of the two missing hikers had been widely publicized, and Mark began to suspect just who the bones belonged to.

Two days later, after DNA testing, the Chapel Hill coroner confirmed what the hunter had theorized: John Bryant had been found. He had been shot in the head.

Cheryl Dunlap

Gary Hilton: The Killer Behind The Shocking Decapitation Of 4 Hikers

Cheryl Hodges Dunlap, a retired nurse from Crawlsville, Florida, needed a break. So, loving the great outdoors since her childhood, she decided to take a hike in the Apalachicola National Park. Fresh air, beautiful scenery, and above all, solitude - everything she thought she needed.

When Cheryl didn't report to her job at the Florida State University in Tallahassee on 3 December 2007, her colleagues reported her missing to local police. Her white Toyota Camry was discovered abandoned just north of the county line, its doors and glovebox open. Her phone was off, and she hadn't attempted to make any calls since she left for her hike. Police scoured the area but could not turn up any results and hoped to find Dunlap alive.

On 16 December, another hunter named Ronnie Rentz passed through the park with his dogs to track some seasonal game. His dogs began acting strangely and took off the trail into the nearby brush, barking wildly. When Ronnie followed them, he discovered the rotting body of a white woman, her clothes covered in blood. Police were initially unsure if the body was Dunlap's and sent it off to the local medical examiner for testing. The results came back within hours: they had indeed found the final resting place of Cheryl Hodges Dunlap.

While her body had been found, her head was not with it.

Authorities raced through Cheryl's phone and bank records, soon discovering that someone had used her card to withdraw close to $700 from various ATMs nearby Tallahassee. A suspicious green truck had also been seen in the area around the time of Cheryl's death, containing a disheveled older man with a dog, but the tips weren't conclusive, and police were left scrambling.

It would be Meredith Emerson's murder that would finally lead to the capture of the National Forest Killer.

The Arrest And Capture Of Gary Hilton

Gary Hilton: The Killer Behind The Shocking Decapitation Of 4 Hikers

Just hours after police discovered the items belonging to Meredith Emerson, a local man named Stephen Shaw phoned police claiming that Gary Hilton was cleaning out his car behind a grocery store in Northern Georgia. The vehicle in question was a green van, matching the description of that driven by the prime suspect in what had been dubbed the National Forest murders.

Police apprehended Hilton, and upon searching his van, found an array of evidence. Batons, knives, chains, and a bayonet lay strewn across the floor, as well as his Forestry license, a BB gun, and some dog food. DNA matches confirmed that the knife was used on Cheryl Dunlap, and Gary Hilton was taken into custody.

Gary Hilton: The Killer Behind The Shocking Decapitation Of 4 Hikers

Though police didn't question him on the drive to the station, Gary Hilton immediately confessed to his role in the deaths of Meredith Emerson, the Bryants, and Cheryl Dunlap. His words could not come quickly enough, and the confession ran semi-rambling and nonsensical for the entire five-hour drive. He claimed that he was a "genius" and that the murders resulted from "losing my job, and losing my fucking mind for a while."

Once they reached the jail, Hilton attempted to bargain with the police. He offered to show them the location of Dunlap's head, and the bayonet used to puncture her tires and tell them every detail of the Emerson and Bryant murders. Despite detailing his descent into homicidal mania, Hilton expressed only one regret: he was sloppy enough to get caught.

The Trial Of Gary Hilton

Gary Hilton: The Killer Behind The Shocking Decapitation Of 4 Hikers

Gary Hilton's trial for the murder of Cheryl Dunlap began on 31 January 2011, following multiple delays and postponements. With the murders already in the public eye, most pre-trial evidence was sealed to avoid influencing potential jurors. However, the fury of the public and the bereaved families was so great that Gary Hilton had to wear a bulletproof vest for the duration of his trial.

The trial ran for nearly three weeks, during which psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, and psychological pharmacists were called to testify. Perhaps the most damning evidence came from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Nick Bridges when he recounted how Hilton had remarked to him that the world was 'either kill or be killed.'

It came as no surprise to anyone when on 22 February 2011, the jury returned its recommendation of the death sentence for the murder of Cheryl Hodges Dunlap. The court finally agreed to consider Hilton's difficult childhood, mental health diagnoses, and possible head injuries as a juvenile. On 11 April, sentenced Gary Hilton to death for the murder of Cheryl Hodges Dunlap.

On 27 March 2012, Gary Hilton pleaded guilty to the murders of John and Irene Bryant. His last-ditch attempt to avoid the death penalty saw him claim responsibility for the murder, kidnapping, and robbery in a move that angered and devastated the couple's loved ones.

"He should have been put to death a long time ago...the practical outcome of this is that Hilton will suffer no additional penalties for the murder of John and Irene Bryant. These two are freebies."

Robert Bryant, son of John and Irene Bryant, said.

Gary Hilton's plea was accepted in April the following year, and he was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences for the murders of John and Irene Bryant.

Where Is Gary Hilton Now?

Gary Hilton: The Killer Behind The Shocking Decapitation Of 4 Hikers

As of 2021, the National Forest Killer remains on death row in Florida. While his heinous crimes may have fallen from the public's consciousness, he will never be forgotten by the families and loved ones of those he so brutally murdered.