Gary Michael Hilton

This case is one in which shows that maybe my strategy of going through my list of names one by one is not necessarily the best way to go.  Prior to taking on this new way I would start my day going through the list of names until I came across one that really struck me.  I felt, and sometimes still feel, like I write about the cases best when my mood of the day allows me to be intrigued by the story.  I have openly admitted that "serial killers" is not really "my thing" which some find odd considering they are so prominent when discussing true crime.  I think the reasons they do not interest me as much is because so many victims get "lost" in the story of the killer and the element of "surprise" is kind of lost in these cases too.  What I mean is that as you go through the story of most serial killers you will find that they almost all had a "rough" childhood or at least faced legal trouble or strange behavior early in life.  Then you get to the point of thinking, "ok, who is next."  By the time you are done and you have a list of victims in front of you, you know that obviously this person has some "issues" or as my husband says, "volumes."  This was not the good boy next door who did something that seemed out of character to so many people.  Now of course people can argue that Gary Ridgeway (The Green River Killer) and Dennis Rader (BTK) appeared to be normal people, hence the fact they were able to kill for so long.  But really they were not and the signs were there, they just were not noticed.  At any rate, this was the next name on my list.....

Gary Michael Hilton would be known as the "National Forest Serial Killer" because all of the murders that they can for sure seemingly attribute to him were committed in national parks, in three different states.  Hilton was eventually caught and sentenced to death in Florida.  However, due to issues facing the death penalty in that state it is unclear, if or when he may face execution.  

As I stated in the beginning, so many people who go on to become serial killers show signs early on.  This is true with Gary Michael Hilton.  In 1959, at the age of thirteen he shot his stepfather.  He was only wounded by the boy and decided that he wanted to give Gary a second chance and declined to file charges. Gary was put in a mental hospital for a short period and released.  In 1963, when he was seventeen Gary enlisted in the Army. A few years later he had what was described as a schizophrenic breakdown where he was hearing voices and such and was again placed in a mental hospital for a short period of time.  He was granted an honorable discharge from the Army in 1967 at the age of twenty-one.

It seems that for the next thirty years or more he just kind of lingered.  There seems to be either no evidence or no investigation into just what he may or may not have been up to until 2007 when he got his dog "Dandy," got in his Astro Van and "hit the road."  Those who knew Gary Hilton claim that he always seemed to do best when he was outdoors and he had a deep love for animals, especially dogs.  I find this love of animals interesting.  I do believe the evidence against him showed this to be true but what is interesting about it is that many serial killers have been known to be cruel to animals, especially small ones and it is said many got their start by killing animals.  There seems to be no evidence of this with Gary Hilton.

On October 21, 2007 seventy-nine year old John Bryant and his eighty-four year old wife, Irene went on one of their weekly hiking trips to Pisgah National Forest in Asheville North Carolina.  They were never heard from again.  Their son did not report them missing for nearly two weeks however so a search did not begin very quickly.  Investigators would learn that on the 21st Irene Bryant had attempted to make a 9-1-1 call but that due to the dense area the signal was lost and did not reach a dispatcher.  Due to the area locating the cell phone was nearly impossible.  Investigators also learned that the day after the couple had gone missing their ATM card had been used to withdraw money.  The person on the video camera at the ATM was neither John or Irene but between the quality of the footage and the fact the person had covered themselves in a "hoodie" an accurate description of the person could not be given.

On December 1, 2007 nurse, Cheryl Dunlap went missing in a national park in Florida.  Her decapitated body would be found on December 15th.  Just as with the Bryants a few months earlier in North Carolina it was discovered that Cheryl's ATM card had been used to withdraw money after her disappearance. And, just as the case was before the camera was unreliable other than to prove that the person using the card was not Cheryl.

Then on New Years Day of 2008 Meredith Emerson had taken her dog, Ella with her on a hike in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia and never seen again.  Witnesses would say they had seen Meredith speaking to an older man on the trail. The man, his dog and the vehicle he was driving were described by witnesses.  This information was released to the media.

On January 4, 2008 a man called 9-1-1 to report that he saw what he believed was the van in which the police were looking for.  It was at a gas station in DeKalb George and the man reported that it looked as if someone was cleaning it out.  The caller indicated that the man, and the dog described by the media also matched reports.  Officers quickly descended on the area, just before the man was about to use bleach on the van.  The man, Gary Michael Hilton, was arrested and the van was taken for forensics.  

This case did not last long.  In fact, I have never heard of a case in which it was opened and shut so fast.  Meredith had last been seen on January 1st and by January 30th Gary Hilton pleaded guilty to her murder and was sentenced to life with parole in thirty years.  Hilton had taken investigators to her body with the agreement that a death penalty would not be sought.  He admitted to investigators that he had kidnapped her on New Years Day but that he had kept her for a period of four days in order to obtain her PIN number.  She had apparently repeatedly given him the wrong one.  He admitted then that he could not bring himself to kill her dog, Ella, who had been found the day Hilton was arrested.  Meredith had been left some sixty miles from where she had been taken.

Apparently officers were certain that this could not have been Hilton's first and only murder and they sent out the information to other departments.  While it seems that he would plead not guilty in the murder of Cheryl Dunlap, it also appears that he may have confessed, so I am a bit confused in this aspect. This would be the only case in which he was taken to trial but strangely I could find little about the proceedings.  Much of what I could find was very vague and many of the links to articles I found were no longer working so I have little details as to what exact evidence was given.  All I can say is that in February of 2011 he was convicted and sentenced to death for the crime.

In 2012 Hilton would plead guilty in North Carolina in the kidnapping and murders of John and Irene Bryant.  He would be sentenced to life in prison.

In January of 2016 a section of Florida's death penalty law was struck down as unconstitutional.  I am going to be honest and say that I have read the ruling made and the case in which it pertained and I was left a bit confused as to just what happened and why.  Part of me believes that the jury in that case may have possibly recommended a life sentence and yet the judge sentenced the man to death based on information that had not been presented to the jury. I could be wrong in this assessment and reality is that it matters little in the scheme of the ruling as it simply stated that ruled it was "not sufficient for a judge to determine aggravating factors to be used in considering death penalty. In March of 2016 a new statute was passed that stated that ten jurors must agree to a death sentence but that if less than ten agreed the defendant would be sentenced to life.  This was to prevent hung juries in sentencing phases, which quite honestly I do not agree with.  In October of 2016 this too was struck down by the courts and from the way I understand it Florida cannot present another death penalty case until this is resolved.

So, what does this have to do with Hilton?  Just after the initial ruling in January 2016 Hilton was to have an appeal heard.  In light of the courts decision the defense asked for a delay in ruling until after the death penalty issue is resolved.  The judge granted this delay. However, the prosecutor in the case claims that the ruling by the courts against the part that was unconstitutional did not affect Hilton's case as his jury ruled unanimously for the death penalty.

While Florida used to be one of the states leading in the execution of criminals it appears this will not be the case for some time.


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