They called him the National Forest Serial Killer. Between 2007 and 2008, Gary Hilton stalked the backcountry paths of the southern United States, leaving a trail of death in his wake: the 2007 slaying of John and Irene Bryant in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest, the 2007 slaying of Cheryl Dunlap in Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest, and the 2008 slaying of Meredith Emerson in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest.
True crime writer Fred Rosen knows all about Gary Hilton. He tracked the killer for years while writing his bookTrails of Death: The True Story of National Forest Serial Killer Gary Hilton. Now Rosen brings the hunt for Gary Hilton to life in this thrilling three-part investigation, published exclusively on The Lineup.
In Florida, if you kill somebody, they give you a million dollar defense with all kinds of experts, then the jury convicts you and the judge sentences you to death.
That’s what happened in February 2010, when convicted serial killer Gary Hilton first came to trial. I was there for all of it. It was the first and only time I have been in a courtroom where a judge pronounced death on someone. It was quite emotional for me, because by then, I had backtracked Hilton from birth to the present. I knew the human potential that had been squandered, and the human lives that were lost.
Hilton’s 2010 death sentence should have been the end of his case—but it wasn’t. Flash forward to January 19, 2016. Death row inmate Gary Hilton was supposed to stand before a judge in Tallahassee, this time requesting a new trial on the basis of inadequate counsel.
But by a vote of 8-1, the Supreme Court stuck down Florida’s death penalty statute, requiring the state legislature to rewrite it. Suddenly, Hilton had a reprieve.
Justice has a funny way of working out—even for a killer as dangerous as Hilton.
In 1963, a seventeen-year-old Gary Hilton enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was sent to West Germany, and assigned to the Davy Crockett Platoon—named after the coonskin cap-wearing King of the Wild Frontier. Crockett had been a hero to kids like Hilton growing up in the 1950’s.
There were nineteen men in the special platoon. Their task? Simple. Direct and deploy the Davy Crockett missile, an XM-388 nuclear projectile launched from either a 120 millimeter (XM-28) or 155 millimeter (M-29) recoil-less rifle.
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According to the Brookings Institution, it was the smallest and lightest nuclear weapon ever developed by the United States military, designed for use against Soviet troop formations.
With a maximum range of 1.24 miles, the Army’s brilliant idea was to arrange these units armed with hand-held nuclear weapons across West Germany, establishing an impenetrable perimeter against an armed Soviet insurgence. If the Soviets appeared on the horizon, word would, supposedly, go up the line to the President of the United States, who would then make the decision whether to fire or not.
The members of the Davy Crockett Platoon were supposed to be carefully screened for psychological fitness. How, then, did Hilton get in?
The Army didn’t seem to mind that earlier in 1959, when he was thirteen-years-old, Hilton had shot Nilo DeBag, his stepfather, who in Gary’s mind had taken away his mother. That first time he tried to kill another human being, Hilton failed. He only wounded DeBag and not mortally. DeBag, it seemed, was a forgiving man. He decided to give his stepson a second chance and refused to press charges. Hilton was briefly confined to a mental hospital for the attack and then released, eventually making his way into the Davy Crockett Platoon.
In truth, being a member was a suicide mission. The Davy Crockett soldiers would be blown to hell and back if they ever fired the nuclear-tipped missile. And perhaps it was precisely this stress that caused Hilton to crack up while serving.
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A few years into his service, Hilton began hearing voices, and soon suffered a full-blown schizophrenic breakdown. The Army put him into a mental hospital, where he was drugged up on Thorazine. Rather than give him a Section 8 psychiatric discharge, the Army chose to give him an honorable discharge instead. He was released from the Army in 1967, at the age of twenty-one. There’s no record that any Army personnel followed Hilton into civilian life, to see how he functioned in society.
Hilton was a good-looking guy; he was a long distance runner, and, according to some tests, possessed a genius-level IQ.
But whether it was Hilton’s painful childhood, his deteriorating mental state, or the lingering trauma of a childhood injury that left Hilton partially scalped, the man just couldn’t sustain a relationship or keep a good job. He bounced around the South throughout the 1970s and 80s. At the dawn of the millennium, after burning through multiple marriages and jobs, Hilton found himself in Atlanta, Georgia, working as a roofer at the age of fifty-four.
If Hilton had one passion, one comfort that offset the instability of his professional and personal life, it was the outdoors. In 2007, he and his ever-present companion, dog Dandy, hit the road in his Dodge Astro van. They drove north, leaving the state of Georgia and crossing into North Carolina, to the Pisgah National Forest just outside of Asheville.
It was here that Gary Hilton first encountered senior citizens Irene and John Bryant while on a hike through a remote section of the park. And it was here, among the old-growth trees of the Appalachian wilderness, that Hilton decided to murder them.
Join us next week for the second installment of Trail of Death: The Hunt for Gary Hilton
True crime writer Fred Rosen is the author of numerous books, including Lobster Boy, Deacon of Death, Did They Really Do It? and Needle Work. His book on the Hilton case is Trails of Death: The True Story of National Forest Serial Killer Gary Hilton.
Cover of "Trails of Death: The True Story of National Forest Serial Killer Gary Hilton" via TitleTown Publishing; All other photos courtesy of the author.