Crimes of Serial Killer Gary Michael Hilton

A Grisly Trail of Death Through Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina

Autumn Landscape of the Blue Ridge Mountain Range
Laura Clay-Ballard / Getty Images

Gary Michael Hilton is an American serial killer who murdered and beheaded four hikers in Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia between 2005 and 2008. Hilton is sometimes referred to as the "National Forest Serial Killer" since most of his victims' bodies were found in national parks. Although convicted in only four cases, he is believed to have committed many more killings.

Trail of Death

In January 2008, Hilton was sentenced to life in prison in Georgia for the death of Meredith Emerson, 24, of Buford, Georgia. After that case, authorities from Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida began piecing together evidence left behind by a trail of bodies that fit Hilton's modus operandi. He was subsequently charged with and convicted for three additional murders.

In April 2011, Hilton received a Florida death sentence for the murder of 46-year-old Cheryl Dunlap. Two years later, in 2013, he was sentenced in North Carolina to four life sentences for the 2007 deaths of John Bryant, 80, and Irene Bryant, 84.

The Meredith Emerson Case

On New Year's Day 2008, 24-year-old University of Georgia graduate Meredith Emerson went hiking on Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest with her dog Ella, which she had done on many previous occasions. This time, however, she failed to return from the hike. Witnesses remembered seeing Emerson talking with a gray-haired man who appeared to be in his sixties and had a red dog named Dandy.

Emerson used her wits and martial arts training to fight off her attacker for four days, desperately trying to save her life. Eventually, she suffered a blow to the head that incapacitated her. Hilton killed her and left her decapitated body in the north Georgia mountains.

After Emerson's disappearance, investigators working the case found surveillance photos of Gary Michael Hilton trying to use Emerson's ATM card. In February 2008, Gary Michael Hilton was indicted, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to life in prison—all in a single day.

The Cheryl Dunlap Case

On April 21, 2011, Hilton was convicted for the February kidnapping, robbing, murder, and dismemberment of Cheryl Hodges Dunlap, a 46-year-old Sunday school teacher from Crawfordville, Florida. Dunlap's decapitated body was discovered in the Apalachicola National Forest.

Despite efforts to fight it, Hilton had been extradited to Florida to face charges for Dunlap's murder. He'd avoided the death penalty in Georgia but would not be so lucky at his second trial. A Tallahassee jury of six women and six men deliberated for only one hour, 20 minutes before unanimously recommending a death sentence for the serial killer who'd avoided execution in Georgia. 

The John and Irene Bryant Case

In April 2013, Hilton pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four additional life sentences in federal prison for kidnapping and murdering an elderly North Carolina couple in Pisgah National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina.

Hilton had been camping scouting for potential victims before selecting and ambushing the Hendersonville couple who were out for a hike on October 21, 2007. He killed Irene Bryant using blunt force. 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 personal identification number to access money from an ATM.

Mr. Bryant's body was found in Nantahala National Forest. A day later, on October 22, 2007, Hilton used the Bryants’ ATM card in Ducktown, Tennesee, to withdraw $300. Federal authorities became involved with Hilton's prosecution after autopsy results showed that John Bryant died of a gunshot to the head from a .22 Magnum firearm.

Other Possible Victims

Hilton is believed to have killed Rossana Miliani, 26 and Michael Scot Louis, 27, among others. On December 7, 2005, Rossana Miliani disappeared while hiking in Bryson City. A shopkeeper told the police that Miliani, who appeared very nervous, came into her store with an older man who looked to be in his sixties. The witness reported that they purchased clothing and that the man told her he was a traveling preacher. It was later learned that Hilton had stolen Miliani's bank card and was trying to use it. Miliani was beaten to death but Hilton was not charged. 

On December 6, 2007, the decapitated and dismembered body of Michael Scot Louis was found in Tomoka State Park near Ormond Beach, Florida.

The Aftermath and Legacy

Hilton remains on death row. A judge delayed his appeal in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January 2016 declaring Florida's death penalty law unconstitutional.

In a chilling footnote to the case, it came to light that Hilton had once been involved in the development of a murder movie that bore similarities to the crimes for which he was eventually convicted. An Atlanta attorney, who also produces movies, revealed that in 1995, Gary Michael Hilton helped him come up with the plot for the film "Deadly Run."