Between 2005 and 2008, Gary Hilton stalked hiking trails across the American South, searching for people to mutilate. He took at least four victims before he was finally caught.
In 2008, 24-year-old Meredith Emerson had recently graduated from the University of Georgia with honors and had a bright future ahead of her — until she met Gary Hilton.
The pair crossed paths on New Year’s Day, while Emerson was hiking up Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest with her dog.
But four days later, Meredith Emerson was found decapitated. While Gary Hilton was quickly apprehended, it was soon revealed that Emerson wasn’t his first victim — and it wasn’t even the first time he’d decapitated someone. This is the harrowing story of Gary Hilton, the “National Forest Serial Killer,” and the grisly murder he committed on Blood Mountain.
Who Is Gary Hilton, The Serial Killer Behind The Blood Mountain Murder?
Born on Nov. 26, 1946, in Atlanta, Georgia, Gary Michael Hilton allegedly had a turbulent childhood. As a young adult, he joined the United States Army and became a capable paratrooper before he experienced a schizophrenic episode and was honorably discharged in 1967.
He went on to marry — and divorce — three times and was later racked up quite a rap sheet. Hilton was arrested for drunk driving, carrying a gun without a license, drug possession, and 21 counts of solicitation.
But until 2007, most who knew Gary Hilton saw him as an odd but harmless figure. Then, BlueRidge Now reports that people who crossed his path noticed an unsettling change in him. John Tabor, who worked with Hilton, told the publication that he seemed to transform from “a friendly grandpa” to something much more sinister. Suddenly, Hilton was missing a number of teeth and he told Tabor he had pulled them out with pliers.
“He said that he enjoyed his new look because it scared people,” Tabor told BlueRidge Now. “It was shocking to hear what he was saying.”
Hilton also threatened to kill Tabor, was seen walking around local hiking trails holding a knife, and had an odd exchange with a sheriff’s deputy who found him squatting on private property. Hilton told the officer that he was a paratrooper and called “Hey, I love ya,” as the officer drove away.
All this was certainly odd behavior. But Gary Hilton was doing much more than carrying a knife, squatting, and making empty threats.
The Grisly Crimes Of The “National Forest Serial Killer”
Today, investigators suspect that Gary Hilton may be behind several unsolved murders. These include the murders of Judy Smith, whose bones were found in Pisgah National Forest in 1997; Jason Knapp, who was declared legally dead after his disappearance in 1998 (his car was found parked at Table Rock State Park); Rossana Miliani, who disappeared after going for a hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2005, and Michael Scott Lewis, whose remains were found in Florida’s Tomoka River in 2007.
Investigators have noted similarities between these cases and Hilton’s established victims. Indeed, a store clerk even came forward in 2007 to say that she believed Milani and Hilton had entered her store together before Milani vanished, according to the Charley Project.
Though investigators aren’t sure if Gary Hilton killed Smith, Knapp, Milani, and Lewis, they are sure that he killed a at least four people in a short span of between October 2007 and January 2008.
On Oct. 21, 2007, married couple John, 80, and Irene Bryant, 84, failed to return from a hike in Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. Though investigators initially thought they’d perhaps been injured — and noted that Irene had attempted to make a 911 call on Oct. 21 that had not gone through — they soon discovered that someone had used the couple’s credit card in Ducktown, Tennessee 100 miles away from where they were last seen.
Shortly thereafter on Nov. 10, investigators discovered Irene’s body near where the couple had parked their car. She was so badly bludgeoned that she couldn’t be physically identified and her right forearm had been severed. John’s skull wouldn’t be found until February 2008, 16 miles away in Nantahala National Forest.
Meanwhile, investigators had another bloody case on their hands. On Dec. 2, 2007, a mother of two named Cheryl Hodges Dunlap was reported missing after she failed to show up to teach a Sunday school class. The day before, she’d gone to the Leon Sinks geological area in Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest to read. Hilton captured her there, kept her captive for two days, then killed her and dismembered her body.
Dunlap’s remains were found on Dec. 17 in Apalachicola National Forest.
Both the Bryants and Dunlap had been killed by Gary Hilton. And then, on New Years Day 2008, the serial killer crossed paths with 24-year-old Meredith Emerson on Georgia’s Blood Mountain.
The Murder Of Meredith Emerson That Got Gary Hilton Caught
On New Years Day 2008, Gary Hilton took his final victim: Meredith Emerson. He threatened her with a knife and demanded her ATM card. When Emerson fought back, Hilton punched her so hard that he said it broke his hand.
“She wouldn’t stop,” Hilton told investigators. “She wouldn’t stop fighting. And yelling at the same time. So I needed to both control her and silence her.”
Hilton further explained to authorities that he had forced Meredith Emerson to camp with him for four days while promising to let her go if she gave him her bank account information. Instead, Emerson gave him the wrong PIN numbers and insisted that they were correct. Hilton finally told her that she was “going home” before beating her to death.
He then decapitated her and left her body “covered by leaves and brush.”
Gary Hilton also stated that he could not bring himself to kill her dog. He said of killing Emerson, “It was hard… you gotta remember we had spent several good days together.”
Authorities were then alerted to Hilton as a suspect when a former police officer told local cops searching for Emerson that he had seen a gray-haired man in his 60s on the same trail as her that day.
Hilton confessed that Meredith Emerson was dead and told authorities where her body would be if they protected him from the death penalty. When he revealed her location, he said ominously, “The head will be missing.”
Gary Hilton was ultimately found guilty of killing Dunlap and the Bryants as well. Despite the deal he tried to cut with prosecutors, Hilton is currently awaiting execution on Florida’s death row.