The following research on Gary Michael Hilton can be heard on the Among the Dirt and Trees true crime podcast.
Heading out into the woods can bring a special kind of thrill. On one hand, it allows you to step outside and leave behind the troubles of everyday life. On the other hand, it can be filled with dangers in the form of cliffs, toxic plants, natural predators, and some unnatural predators too. When we head out for a quick hike or a backpacking trip, most of us assume that we will make it back at the end of the trip. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.
A Violent Beginning
Ordinarily when I talk about a case, I focus on the crime and the killing, but there is a lot of interesting information available on the killer, so I thought it might be interesting to explore the killer in this case a little more. In 1946, Gary Michael Hilton was born in Atlanta, Georgia. There isn’t that much notable information about his childhood until he hit his teen years. At the age of 13, Gary Hilton shot his stepfather in the stomach.
Over the years, I have known a lot of people who haven’t gotten along with step parents. Sometimes it’s because of residual emotions, but sometimes it is because the person really brings some issues and disrupts the family. Regardless, I’ve never once heard anyone talk about wanting to physically harm a step parent, much less act on it.
The kind of child that can pick up a gun and shoot to kill shows a predisposition towards violence that really isn’t healthy. I’m no professional, but hey, that is my opinion. The good news is that his stepfather survived the ordeal. The bad news is that he refused to press charges. Gary Hilton was placed in a mental hospital for some time, but was ultimately released for his attempted murder.
At the age of 17, Gary Hilton was assigned to the Davy Crockett Platoon in the United States military, which was a small group of military personnel assigned to use a specialized missile that would likely kill them if they ever actually needed to use it. It was an incredibly tense high-pressure position, and ultimately, Gary’s mental health took a plunge.
Several years into his service, he began to experience a wide range of mental health problems. He started hearing voices to start and ultimately he had a psychological breakdown. The army sent him to another mental hospital and he was treated for some time before being discharged. Interestingly enough, they opted to honorably discharge him instead of giving him a psychiatric discharge.
After he was released, the military just kind of cut their losses and let him loose.
Heading Into The Woods
So, what does a man with a genius-level IQ and a history of mental illness do with his free time? For Hilton, the answer was obvious: head out into nature. He loved spending time running around outside and exploring the woods with his dog.
For a while, this was fine. It was a good thing for him and helped him to cope with what was going on in his mind, but ultimately, he ended up talking to doctors many years later. This time, the doctor decided to treat him for ADD. Now, having a psych degree, I’ve got a lot of opinions on this. For the longest time, I didn’t want to consider being a psychiatrist purely because of the medication element.
It’s no secret that we have a bad habit of overprescribing and incorrectly prescribing psychiatric medications, and it puts people at serious risk. ADD and ADHD medications like the one given to Gary Hilton are largely over prescribed, even to this day. While these medications help a lot of people, they also harm a lot of others. I don’t think that being given Ritalin turned Gary Hilton into a serial killer, but I do think that prescribing a stimulant to someone with a known history of psychosis is a horrible combination that likely amplified some of the other problems that he had going on.
Gary Hilton’s first killing was of a woman named Rossana Miliani in 2005. She was last seen alive with Hilton by a store owner near the woods. Presumably, Hilton abducted her while she was on a hike. The owner remembered him because he had decided to claim that he was a traveling preacher. Pairing this with how nervous Rossana looked, it raised a few flags. Something that surprised me was that Hilton actually tried to use her bank card, which seems like an obvious way to get caught, but ultimately turned out to be a constant in his killings. Later, Rossana was found beaten to death.
Hilton’s next victim was another sad circumstance with a woman who was alone named Cheryl Hudges Dunlap. Her friends reported her missing when she didn’t show up for church. Being devoutly religious, this just didn’t sit right. It was unlike her to not show up without reaching out, so the flag was raised that something might have happened. By time police found her, she was left on the side of a highway in 2006. Even worse, she was decapitated.
Crimes like this always hit different for me. I’ve always been very dedicated to making sure that someone always knows where I am. While I don’t think that it will stop someone from harming me, I’ve always kind of held tight to the belief that the sooner someone realizes I’m gone, the more likely it is that they will be able to find me sooner rather than later. Any true crime show makes you understand how important timing is when it comes to finding someone. It’s why so many of us send messages to loved ones before we go somewhere alone and why we’ll call someone when we walk home alone at night. It’s a scary world that we live in, and there is always the potential that someone like Hilton is looking for their next victim.
With Cheryl Dunlap, she was last seen one day before she was reported missing. The turnaround time on her disappearance was that fast and they still couldn’t save her from Hilton. Just like he did with Rossana, Hilton used Cheryl’s card to withdraw money at the ATM. He wore a mask and a hat to obscure his identity, so they couldn’t find him.
Police were able to find Cheryl’s vehicle broken down on the shoulder of a highway where they had received information on a vehicle of interest, but they were never able to find any additional information until years later. The community mourned the loss of a talented young nurse.
An Older Couple’s Last Hike
When you think of a couple in their 80s, you probably don’t think about people who are living a totally active lifestyle. But, the next two victims of Hilton were exactly that. Despite being in their 80s, these two were always out and about. They loved nature and they loved the great outdoors. It was their happy place until it wasn’t anymore.
When Irene and John Bryant went out for a hike in a national forest. It was October – and hiking lovers know that hiking in fall is just a different experience. The world looks beautiful, you can never get too hot, and there is this amazing crispness to the air that cannot be beat. Unfortunately, this hike would be their last. A few weeks later, Irene’s body was found. She died from blunt force trauma to the head. John on the other hand was found later. He was shot. Like the other murders, Hilton went to the ATM and pulled out money. This time, he was hidden by a hood that covered his face.
Though every single one of Gary Hilton’s crimes was a complete tragedy, his 2007 killings of the Bryants were even more devastating specifically because they could have been avoided. In 2005, Gary Hilton acquired a warrant after abandoning a vehicle. In 2007, the same year that he killed these victims, Hilton was questioned by police after setting up camp on private property, but when they ran his license, nothing came back. This is because there was no requirement to check federal databases at the time. Since he was in a different area, they didn’t even question it. But, if they had, he would have been arrested and two people would likely still be alive.
A few months later in 2007, another victim surfaced. His name was Michael Scot Louis and he was found a ways away from the beach in a local state park. What makes this case so interesting is that it took a while to link this murder to Hilton. In fact, for a long time, police believed that Michael was actually killed by his girlfriend at the time – and this is where it gets weird. Michael’s body was not in good condition when it was found. He was dismembered and his body was found by a fisherman in pieces.
While this is well in line with Hilton’s actions, police strongly believed that Michael was murdered by his former girlfriend. Why? Because ten years later, she was charged with killing another boyfriend IN A SIMILAR FASHION. Now, I’m not really looking to go into that case too much, but suffice it to say that the boyfriend was also dismembered. He was shot. It was violent – and that really made me think. I can’t speak to the motives of the girlfriend-slash-killer in this situation, but I have to wonder if it wasn’t somehow influenced by Michael’s grisly death. It seems like it there has to be an obvious connection. I’m not sure if this was some kind of bout of psychosis that manifested in the form of mirroring a tragedy that affected her on a personal level or if poor Michael just knew a statistically significant amount of killers in his twenties, but learning this was just shocking to me. I really feel like her actions must have been influenced by Michael’s death. Whether that was just caused by some sort of mental break or she had some darker secrets that manifested after Michael passed away, this detail was too big for me to ignore.
Hilton’s final known victim – though I say this cautiously because we truly don’t know how many people he killed – was Meredith Hope Emerson. She was out for a hike near the Appalachian Trail when someone spotted her walking with an older man and her dog. Police now know that the older man was Hilton, but this story is different than the others.
Meredith Emerson was not just any victim. She was trained in martial arts and was able to fight Hilton for quite some time. While he did manage to subdue her, she was a fighter and she managed to fight for her life for four full days. What makes this even more disturbing was that Hilton was the one to detail it out himself. He claimed that Emerson fought him until her last breath – and well.
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Hilton hiked with Emerson for some time. Most women wouldn’t be too worried about an older gentleman like him. She probably thought that she was just being nice and friendly – and serial killers have used this against victims for some time. Ultimately, Hilton fell behind and Emerson continued the hike. When she made her way back down, he was waiting for her – and he had a knife. Hilton demanded her credit card, but Meredith was not having any of it. She actually grappled him for his blade and baton. She was fighting and screaming, and Hilton was probably pretty shocked.
To subdue her, Hilton punched her multiple times in the face. He blackened her eyes and broke her nose – and while you know I don’t love sharing these details, I am breaking my rule to show you just how badly she was hurt when she decided to KEEP FIGHTING. Hilton hit her so hard that he broke his hand. It was a grisly battle.
To get her to calm down because they were both so badly injured, he told her he only wanted her ATM card and pin. He led her down the mountain through side trails – a fact which shows how well he knew these natural areas – and led her to his van.
Wrong ATM Pin
Meredith managed to stay alive for three more days by repeatedly giving him the wrong pin for her ATM card when asked. She was buying herself time, but police still didn’t find her. Ultimately, Hilton tied her to a tree and bludgeoned her to death with a tire iron.
And this is where it gets shocking again. After killing Meredith and a slew of other people, Hilton finally cracked. His breaking point? Despite murdering countless people, he could not bring himself to harm her dog. So, he let the dog go and the dog was found nearly 60 miles away from where they had been before.
I know that I’m always upset whenever we talk about killers harming animals, and I have an obvious soft spot for dogs specifically because of my own fur ball, but I think that this is such an interesting twists. So many serial killers hurt animals for fun. Like with humans, they just lack that connection. They don’t really process other beings as living beings that are worthy of life, but this man murdered a ton of people and then couldn’t bring himself to hurt the dog of the woman that he had just killed. I can’t tell you what it means, but it really is interesting.
In the end, someone spotted Hilton trying to clean out his van and bleach it, and they called the cops. The interesting part? The person who called them was actually a boss who realized that he must be the suspected killer. Police arrived and arrested him. He escaped the death penalty by leading police to the body of Meredith, and then the charges just kept coming. What makes this fascinating is that because of his different crimes, he could be passed around through court systems – and everyone wanted him to end up in Florida for his subsequent charges because Florida is known for its higher-than-average death penalty numbers.
He was given the death penalty, but the death penalty hit a snag in Florida in response to another case. In 2020, an appeal was heard in court, but it was quickly shut down. No one in the court system believed that Hilton was anything more than a cold blooded killer. For now, he remains in prison. He will never be free again, but we have no way of knowing if he will be killed or die in prison instead.
A big part of what surprised me about this case is that generally older men don’t come off as a threat, and I feel like a lot of us feel that way. We get this idea in our head that older folks are softer or weaker, but that just isn’t true, especially with modern weaponry. This man killed plenty of people in his 60s, and chances are that he won’t be the only killer of his kind. We may never know if he killed throughout his lifetime or if he developed a disturbing hobby once he hit his retirement age, but we can all be glad that he is locked away where he can’t do any more harm.
Well, that is all that I have for this case, but I do just want to say thank you so much for sticking with me through this crazy weather while I worked to get you guys a good episode. I hope that this serves as a reminder that we can all take extra steps to protect ourselves in the forest, but nothing changes the fact that there will always be bad people who are willing to do bad things – and prepared as you may be, sometimes they still win.
When you head out in the woods, always be prepared. Be prepared for flash floods and forest fires. Be prepared for rabid animals or starving mountain lions. Be prepared for random injuries and setbacks. And more importantly, be prepared for nature-loving serial killers.
As always, if you want to learn more about true crime and the show, please feel free to connect with me on Instagram or Twitter using the tag ATDATPOD. And, don’t worry. I’ve got more episodes coming this week for you so we can catch up on the time that was lost! Thanks, guys!