What Happened To Serial Killer Gary Hilton, Aka The National Forest Killer?

Overhead search helicopters scanned the deep woods of Blood Mountain for a missing hiker. On the ground, a massive search party including law enforcement officers with tracking dogs scoured the rugged North Georgia terrain, according to The Atlanta Constitution. On New Year's Day, 2008, Meredith Emerson went hiking and never returned. Police soon had a suspect in her disappearance in custody. His name was Gary Michael Hilton and he would eventually admit to murdering the 24-year-old hiker and would tell them where to find the body. "The head will be missing," he told the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (via "Real Life Nightmare").

This wasn't the first murder Hilton had committed. Besides the case in Georgia, he would appear in court in both Florida and North Carolina for three other murders all involving hikers, according to The Charlotte Observer. As in the Emerson case, Hilton often robbed, kidnapped, killed, and then dismembered his victims to forestall identification, per Oxygen. He also hid their remains in national forests leading to his moniker as The National Forest Killer. Today, Hilton, 77, sits on death row in Florida awaiting his end.

Georgia and Florida

The capture in Georgia of Gary Michael Hilton for the murder of Meredith Emerson would help solve other murder cases in the Southeast. "During this investigation, I got phone calls from several different states because they had missing hikers in their forests," John Cagle, the GBI lead investigator on the case, told "Real Life Nightmare." In Georgia, Hilton pleaded guilty to murdering Emerson and a judge sentenced him to life without parole. But it would be a case in Florida that would put the serial killer on death row.

On December 1, 2007, Cheryl Dunlap disappeared while visiting the Leon Sinks Geological Area in Leon County, Florida, according to the Florida Supreme Court decision in the case (via Casetext). A hunter discovered the dismembered body of the 46-year-old nurse and Sunday school teacher two weeks later in the Apalachicola National Forest. Eyewitnesses placed Hilton near the scene and investigators tied Hilton through evidence, including DNA, to the murder. In February 2008 a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and related crimes and a judge, on the jury's recommendation, sentenced Hilton to death. He is currently awaiting his execution at the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida, per the Florida Department of Corrections.

Death row and another conviction

While already on death row in Florida, federal prosecutors in North Carolina charged Gary Michael Hilton with another pair of vicious murders. An elderly couple, John and Irene Bryant, disappeared in October 2007 while hiking in the Pisgah National Forest in Transylvania County, North Carolina, and later turned up dead, per the Asheville Citizen-Times. Federal authorities transported Hilton to North Carolina to face the charges. He initially pleaded not guilty. Then in April 2013, Hilton changed his plea to guilty and admitted beating Irene Bryant, 84, to death and then shooting her 79-year-old husband, killing him, after forcing him to withdraw money from an ATM, per The Charlotte Observer. Federal authorities had jurisdiction in the case since Hilton murdered the couple on federal land.

A judge sentenced Hilton to four life sentences. Afterward, Hilton returned to Florida. By this time, the Florida Supreme Court had already upheld his death sentence. In 2018, a judge again denied the serial killer a new trial in the Florida case, per WCTV. Besides Hilton's four known victims, authorities believe he may have committed as many as four other murders, according to Oxygen. He told Florida investigators that he hadn't murdered anyone before the fall of 2007, per the Florida Supreme Court decision. "I just, I got old and sick and couldn't make a living and just lost, flat lost my [expletive] mind for a while, man," he told them. "I couldn't get a grip on it."