Death in the Woods: the National Forest Serial Killer

Gary Hilton's chilling mugshot
Allthatsinteresting | Cobb County Sheriff’s Office

News & Politics
Tara Sigler

There are 154 national forests in the United States, covering 294,275 square miles. That's bigger than the entire state of Texas - so it's easy to imagine that these vast swathes of woodland contain their share of deep, dark secrets.

One of those secrets was a series of vicious murders. The killer was 61-year-old Gary Hilton, a strange drifter with a violent temper and a troubling past.

When asked about the remains of his murder victim, Meredith Emerson, Gary Hilton said these chilling words about the body: “The head will be missing.”

Meredith was just one of Hilton's victims, brutally murdered and hidden deep within vast national forests. He was convicted of four slayings, but there may have been many more.

Trying to Murder His Step-Father

Downtown Tampa, Florida, in the late 1950's
youtube | NA

Gary Hilton was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1946. When he was very young, his mother Cleo learned that her "husband" William had four other wives in four different towns. When Gary was only two years old, his mother filed for and received an annulment since her marriage had never been valid.

When Cleo relocated to Florida, young Gary seemed to be adjusting well to his new life. However, he struggled in school and had a short attention span and impulse issues (what would likely be diagnosed as ADHD now).

When Gary was 8, his mother re-married Nilo, a man who trained racehorses. The marriage was unstable, and his step-father was verbally abusive. When Gary was 13, he shot Nilo intending to murder him. Nilo survived, and Gary was briefly sent to a psychiatric facility.

He was not further punished, but Cleo was fed up. When Gary was 15, she asked friends to take him off her hands. He lived with the couple for the next two years and took up playing the drums.

He then returned home to Cleo and dropped out of school to play the drums in a club but was fired when they learned he was underage. With no other prospects, he joined the Army. He struggled with alcohol abuse and was removed from the paratrooper program.

In 1967, he claimed to be hearing voices and was believed to be having a schizophrenic break. He received an honorable discharge and was returned to the US.

A Modern-Day Highwayman

Pisgah National Forest, where John and Irene Bryant were murdered
UsNews | Sean Pavone

Hilton's life began a downward spiral. He spent years committing phone fraud by scamming various companies, pretending to be an agent for charities, and pocketing their donations for himself. He was caught and arrested but pled down to a misdemeanor.

However, the scandal cost him his relationship with his third wife. Aside from the solicitation charges, Hilton was also arrested for drunk driving, carrying a gun without a license, and drug possession.

Eventually, he turned to murder.

Hilton decided to stop working in 2007, having failed at yet another job. He began to live out of his van, traveling around and murdering hapless hikers to steal from them.

His first confirmed victims were killed in the Pisgah National Forest.

Nature-Loving Couple Gone Missing

Victims John and Irene Bryant
thenotsogreatoutdoors | NSGOPod

John and Irene Bryant were a retired couple in their 80s who shared a passion for the outdoors and loved to hike. The gentle elderly couple was no match for the vicious Hilton, who had likely already been killing for several years, as his first suspected victim Judy Smith was murdered in 1997.

Hilton bludgeoned Irene to death and kidnapped John, taking him to various ATMs to rob him before returning to the woods and shooting John in the head. Then Hilton dismembered the bodies to avoid identification.

Headless Horror in the Woods

The monstrous killer is finally arrested in 2008
allthatsinteresting | YouTube

The Bryants were murdered in October of 2007; in November, Irene's body was found, and it was evident that she'd been murdered. John was still missing. But Hilton wasn't done killing. His next victim was 46-year-old Cheryl Hodges Dunlap, a nurse from Tallahassee. She was noticed missing on December 3, 2007.

Her decapitated body was found in the Apalachicola National Forest on December 16.

The next victim was 24-year-old sales manager Meredith Hope Emerson, who was hiking in Vogel State Park when Hilton found her. When she was reported missing, witnesses described a strange, threatening older man following her, accompanied by his dog. Hilton was known as a disturbed drifter in the area and was immediately suspected.

Awaiting Death Behind Bars

Hilton in 2021, when the Florida Supreme Court upheld his death sentence
WWSB | Florida Supreme Court

Hilton had forced Meredith to camp with him for several days before finally killing her. On January 5, police found Meredith's missing dog by a dumpster - a dumpster that contained bloody items belonging to the missing girl and a bloody seatbelt.

Two anonymous phone tips alerted police that Hilton was seen giving his van a suspiciously thorough cleaning. He was arrested. His van was missing a seatbelt that matched the one found in the dumpster with Meredith's belongings.

To avoid the death penalty, Hilton confessed. However, he was also found guilty of Cheryl Hodges Dunlap a month later and given the death penalty. Then he was found guilty of the murders of John and Irene Bryant, to which he also confessed.

To this day, this cold-blooded killer sits behind bars, awaiting execution. He has appealed multiple times, but due to the overwhelming evidence of his brutal crimes, every appeal has been denied.

It is uncertain when Hilton will be put to death, but one thing is sure: if executed in prison, his death will be far less painful and horrifying than the deaths of all those missing hikers.