“Who Knows What All This Man Has Done?”

Date Published 01.09.08
I can’t recall a single murderer who began his violent streak in late middle age. Crimes of passion, sure, but I’m talking here of the methodical killer, the one who has a plan and a successful system for destroying evidence.

Even the most casual TV viewer is familiar with the clichéd criminal profiler and his hypothesis: the killer will be a white male, the profiler says, in his late twenties or early thirties. And indeed, on TV and in life, he almost always is.

There are several reasons for this. Violent offenders often begin as young demented daydreamers. They get older, and the fantasy isn’t enough anymore. By their late twenties they usually have their own car and have acquired some basic interpersonal skills. They start to see how they could pull something off.

It’s also around this age that their inadequacies become painfully stark. While their peers build careers and start families, violent offender types are unable to sustain relationships and keep jobs. They become angry and seek targets for their fury.

For the would-be murderer, early adulthood is a combustible time because independence vies with vestiges of adolescent impulsiveness; rage has all the youthful energy it needs. Experts say serial murderers rarely begin at middle age or late middle age because by that time people have mellowed.

Which is why my heart sank when I read about the disappearance of a young Georgia hiker on New Year's Day. Meredith Emerson, 24, and her dog Ella were last seen on Blood Mountain in Vogel State Park. A missing hiker in snowy woods could have been a lost cause, but investigators were in luck: multiple witnesses came forward to say they recalled a weathered older man and his dog interacting with Meredith and Ella on the trail. Police soon discovered Meredith's sunglasses, water bottle, and dog leash near her car in the parking lot. They also found an expandable police baton; a hiker recalled that the older man had a similar baton clipped to his belt.

Meredith Emerson with her dog Ella

The older man in question was quickly identified as Gary Michael Hilton. On Friday, after two days of searching for him, police found Hilton at a convenience store in suburban Atlanta. He was attempting to vacuum his 2001 Chevy Astro van and wash the inside with bleach and water.

Hilton is 61. On a message board about the case, one writer posted a single thought: "Who knows what all this man has done?"

It certainly appears that he has done terrible things to Meredith Emerson. Clues that something horrible had happened came fast and quick. Ella, Meredith’s black lab, was found roaming the parking lot of a QuikTrip store in the town of Cumming. Investigators searched the QuikTrip’s trash bins and found three blood-soaked fleece shirts, along with Meredith’s wallet and driver’s license. They also found part of a bloodstained seat belt, which matched a missing part of seat belt cut from Hilton’s van.

Records revealed Hilton made a call from a public phone at the QuikTrip store on Friday afternoon, and surveillance photos showed him attempting to use Meredith’s credit card at two area banks. Hilton was arrested and charged with kidnapping with intent to cause bodily injury. For several days he refused to cooperate. Then yesterday, after Meredith's father gave a moving plea to the public for information on his daughter's whereabouts, Hilton broke down and told investigators where to find her body. She was recovered last night in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management area, about an hour from where she was last seen.

Hilton’s background --- a sometime drifter who lived out of his van --- is still fuzzy, but the one statistic that is known is worrisome: his age. A 61-year-old man doesn’t just decide to start behaving like a serial killer. He got caught late in the game because of sloppiness, and sloppiness is often the result of over-confidence; his over-confidence likely comes from getting away with murder for many years.

How many murders? Those of us who follow crime stories recognized ominous similarities between Hilton and other unsolved cases almost immediately.

The first one that occurred to me was the case of Irene and John Bryant. The elderly couple, avid hikers, disappeared in October while visiting the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. Investigators discovered that on October 21 a 911 call had been made from the Bryants' cell phone but the call didn't go through. In early November the couple's SUV was found near a hiking trail; Irene's body was recovered nearby. John Bryant is still missing and presumed dead. Someone wearing a yellow slicker similar to John Bryant's withdrew $300 from the Bryants' bank account in Ducktown, Tennessee the day after the 911 call was made. Ducktown is about 40 minutes from where Gary Michael Hilton abducted Meredith Emerson.

Both crimes occurred on hiking trails. Both victims (Meredith and Irene) died from blows to the head. In both cases the perpetrator later used the victim's ATM card. The unknown suspect in the Bryant case who appears in ATM surveillance photos is described as tall and lanky; Hilton is 5'10 and weighs 160 pounds.

Perhaps most chilling: witnesses in Meredith's case who came forward to describe Hilton to police said he was wearing a yellow jacket.

Surveillance photo of suspect in yellow jacket using the Bryants' ATM card

While following the Bryant case I’d half-wondered if the same suspect was responsible for the unsolved murder of a Florida nurse. Cheryl Dunlap, 46, disappeared on December 1 from the Tallahassee area. On December 2, 3 and 4 a tall, lanky man wearing a homemade mask used Dunlap’s ATM card to withdraw money. Dunlap’s body was discovered several weeks later in the Apalachicola National Forest.

Many hundreds of miles separate the two crimes, though, and because the circumstances of Dunlap’s abduction and murder are unknown, I wasn’t sure enough details matched. Eerie, lanky ATM bandits and dead bodies in national forests made me uneasy, but I wasn’t sure it was the same guy.

Today investigators revealed they are looking closely at two other unsolved cases in connection with Hilton: John and Irene Bryant, and Cheryl Dunlap.

Several weeks ago Tallahassee investigators released to the public surveillance photos of the Dunlap suspect as he approached the ATM. On an online forum populated by local residents posters obsessed and speculated about the photos, theorizing about what the mask was made of, and whether or not other people were in the background. One of the most animated debates concerned the unknown object hanging from the suspects left hip area. Some thought it looked like a scanner of some sort; others thought it was a tool belt. I could never figure it out.

Dunlap suspect in front of the ATM...notice something hanging from his left hip area

This afternoon I glanced at the photo again, wondering if it could be Hilton. As I studied the image I remembered that a witness from New Year's Day in Vogel State Park said that Hilton had an expandable baton clipped to his belt.

I did a quick image search for “expandable baton holders” and found the following images:

Then, this afternoon, WSB-TV in Atlanta posted dashcam footage of a deputy questioning Hilton last October at a campground in Georgia.

In the video, Hilton appears to be wearing the exact same hat as the Dunlap suspect.

As information becomes available in the next few days, I’ll post more about Hilton and my suspicions about his connection to other unsolved cases, including an infamous one more than a decade ago.

In the dashcam video, Hilton can be seen telling the deputy that he is a former paratrooper; I’m guessing that’s a lie. Then he says something that probably sounded innocuous at the time.

“What I’m doing now is I’m on perpetual field maneuvers,” Hilton says.

I’m scared to learn exactly what that means.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.