Inside Wild Crime Season 3: Investigating the National Forest Serial Killings

Wild Crime is a captivating true-crime series from ABC News, highlighting the complexities of investigating crimes that take place in America’s wilderness. A gripping addition to the true crime genre, the docu-series has been enthusiastically received by viewers and critics alike for its in-depth investigations and compelling narratives. 

The popular show is now returning for a highly-anticipated third season titled Wild Crime: Blood Mountain and it revolves around the case of Meredith Emerson, an experienced hiker who mysteriously vanished on Blood Mountain in Georgia. As investigators unravel her case, they soon identify Gary Hilton as a person of interest. Before long, authorities came to believe Hilton was involved in multiple other disappearances.

The current season of Wild Crime promises a compelling exploration of the Emerson case, tracing the trajectory of the investigation and Hilton’s suspected crimes. But, if while you’re watching, you’re looking to learn more – CrimeDoor has compiled all the relevant case details for you right here.

Meredith Emerson Case

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Meredith’s Background

A University of Georgia graduate, Meredith Emerson had an immense love for the outdoors, often choosing to hit the trails with her black Labrador retriever, Ella. The National Forests were her go-to spots, offering solace and a chance to rejuvenate in the arms of nature. Emerson was an avid hiker and was well-equipped for these trails, making it all the more perplexing when she went missing on New Year’s Day in 2008.

Details Surrounding Meredith’s Disappearance

Emerson set out with Ella for a solo hike on the Appalachian Trail within the Chattahoochee National Forest on January 1, 2008. Fellow hikers later reported seeing her engaged in conversation with a man fitting Hilton’s description, accompanied by his dog. After she didn’t return home, her desperate friends initiated a search that soon ballooned into a full-scale investigation.

Investigation Insights

The authorities led a comprehensive search. They initially found Emerson’s water bottle and sunglasses, followed by her dog Ella, who was found roaming free in a grocery store parking lot 60 miles from the hiking trail. Later, a bloody fleece top and Emerson’s baton – she was an experienced martial artist – were discovered. Hilton’s van was captured in a security camera footage at a local bank, withdrawing money using Emerson’s ATM card.

Compiling this data, the authorities identified key patterns, pieced together the harrowing timeline of events, and zeroed in on Hilton as the prime suspect. Hilton had slipped up when he attempted to clean his van, discarding crucial evidence in a dumpster that was subsequently traced back to him.

Hilton’s Arrest & Meredith’s Case Resolution

Hilton was arrested on January 4, 2008, and under rigorous interrogation, he confessed to Emerson’s murder. He agreed to lead authorities to her body, concealed in a remote area of the forest, in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table.

Although this was a tragic ending, Hilton’s arrest and conviction brought a measure of closure to an agonizing period. The apprehension of Hilton also opened the path to connecting him to similar crimes, painting a chilling picture of a serial killer whose hunting ground was the unsuspecting tranquility of National Forests.

Meredith Emerson’s tragedy was a painful wake-up call that initiated a dialogue about safety in outdoor pursuits, and her legacy continues to impact changes in hiking communities across the country.

Cheryl Dunlap Case

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Cheryl’s Background

Cheryl Hodges Dunlap was a beloved nurse and Sunday school teacher at a local Baptist church in Tallahassee, Florida. Known for her generous spirit and devout faith, Cheryl, like Meredith Emerson, had a love for nature. The tranquil environment of the National Forest served as a sanctuary for her, providing comfort and peace from everyday life.

Circumstances of Cheryl’s Disappearance

Cheryl went on a trip to the Apalachicola National Forest in December 2007, a journey she undertook regularly. However, the seemingly routine trip took a horrifying turn when she suddenly went missing. Friends and family were alarmed when she didn’t show for church services, and they immediately contacted the authorities.

Details of the Investigation

In the early stages, the investigative team found Cheryl’s car by the roadside just outside the National Forest, intensifying worries about her safety. The search in the dense forest was exhaustive, and investigators were initially unable to identify any concrete leads.

Shortly thereafter, security footage from a local bank captured a masked individual attempting to use Cheryl’s ATM card. This became the critical piece of evidence that led law enforcement to uncover Cheryl’s horrifying fate. This footage proved instrumental in the investigative process, facilitating the identification of Hilton as the suspect based on his method of operation.

Hilton’s Confession & Cheryl’s Case Resolution

Gary Hilton was arrested in January 2008 for the murder of Meredith Emerson. Following that arrest, investigators connected him to Cheryl Dunlap’s case. Under questioning, Hilton confessed to Emerson’s murder.A grand jury indicted Hilton in Florida for her murder later that year.

Cheryl’s lifeless body was later discovered by law enforcement in the Apalachicola National Forest.

Cheryl Dunlap’s tragic fate served as a stark reminder of the lurking dangers even in places of peace and serenity. Her murder shook her community to the core but also reinforced their commitment to unity and resilience in the face of such an atrocity.

John And Irene Bryant Case

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Background of the Bryants

John and Irene Bryant, hailing from Tecumseh, Michigan, were living their golden years in full bloom. This elderly couple was famous in their circle for their zest for life and love for the great outdoors. Nature enthusiasts and devoted hikers, their retirement was marked by frequent trips exploring America’s beautiful landscapes.

Their most poignant expedition was their trip to the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina in October 2007 – a trip that should have been a joyous encounter with the natural world they loved.

The Couple’s Disappearance

The Bryant’s immersive journey into the embrace of the wilderness turned horrific as they crossed paths with Gary Hilton. After the Bryants failed to check in with their family, a standard practice during their trips, alarm bells were raised. The couple, who had been hiking for decades, was not the type to lose their way.

Unique Investigative Challenges in the Bryant Case

The search for the Bryants posed significant challenges for law enforcement. Irene’s body was discovered quickly, and John’s was only found three months later. The shock came when money was withdrawn from the couple’s bank account miles away in Ducktown, Tennessee. The ATM camera captured a masked man driving a Chevrolet Astro van, strikingly similar to the van Hilton was known to operate.

However,  investigators could not connect these dots immediately due to a lack of communication and collaboration between different jurisdictions – a misstep that allowed Hilton to remain at large.

The Final Verdict: Hilton’s Conviction and Resolution of the Bryant Case

In January 2008, federal investigators identified Hilton as the chief suspect in the Bryant case, following his arrest for Meredith Emerson’s murder. Confirmation arrived in February 2008 when a hunter in North Carolina stumbled upon John’s remains off a forest service road, not too far from where Irene had been found.

Federal prosecutors charged Hilton with the murders of John and Irene Bryant in April 2008.

However, due to various legal complexities, it wasn’t until 2012 that Hilton pled guilty to murdering the Bryants.  Hilton received multiple life sentences for both murders.

Gary Hilton: The National Forest Serial Killer

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Background and Criminal History

Born on November 22, 1946, in Atlanta, Georgia, Gary Michael Hilton grew into notoriety as the National Forest Serial Killer. Following a stint in the army, Hilton spiraled into a life of crime beginning in the 1970s. Starting with non-violent crimes such as drug possession and theft, his rap sheet expanded over several decades.

What set Hilton apart was his lifestyle. He embraced a nomadic existence, predominantly living out of his white 2001 Chevrolet Astro Van among the secluded beauty of America’s National Forests. Given his deep familiarity with these geographical features, he would exploit them for sinister purposes.

By the early 2000s, Hilton’s crimes took a horrifying turn as he started committing violent offenses. His victims were indiscriminately chosen, merely sharing his deep-rooted affinity for the tranquil forests. Hilton craftily blended in with the regular crowd frequenting these places and entrapped innocent lives crossing his path.

Circumstances Leading to Hilton’s Capture

As 2007 gave way to 2008, Hilton’s violent killing spree culminated in the brutal murders of John and Irene Bryant, Cheryl Dunlap, and Meredith Emerson, triggering a coordinated manhunt by law enforcement agencies.

Hilton used a calculated, manipulative approach for his kidnappings. Often leveraging his dog to gain his victims’ trust, Hilton would then abduct them and use their credit cards to withdraw cash. Ironically, this pattern eventually led to his demise.

The law enforcement agencies, already on high alert due to the string of murders, linked Hilton to Emerson’s disappearance when her credit cards were used to withdraw money. Hilton’s image was captured by ATM CCTV footage, providing investigators with a concrete lead.

The tide turned in favor of law enforcement when a witness noticed Hilton attempting to clean his muddy van at a car wash. With this key observation, local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies closed in on Hilton and arrested him at a convenience store parking lot in Norcross, Georgia, on January 4, 2008.

Additional Insights on the National Forest Serial Killings

These serial killings have been recorded as some of the most chilling criminal cases in American history due to the violent nature of Hilton’s crimes and the serene setting in which they occurred. Here are some additional insights:

Hilton’s Modus Operandi and Victim Profile

Hilton’s modus operandi typically involved selecting victims who engaged in recreational activities in National Forests, often accompanied by their dogs. He would then kidnap the victims, frequently using his own dog to build trust or catch them off guard. Following the abductions, Hilton would keep the victims alive for days, using their debit or credit cards to withdraw money until he eventually chose to kill them.

Legal Proceedings and Sentences

Gary Hilton was initially tried in Georgia for Meredith Emerson’s murder. He pleaded guilty in March 2008, effectively foregoing a trial process, leading to a life sentence. Hilton was later extradited to Florida in 2011 to stand trial for Cheryl Dunlap’s murder. He was sentenced to death in April of the same year.

In 2013, Hilton was scheduled for yet another trial for the murders of John and Irene Bryant in North Carolina. However, a plea agreement was reached in which Hilton pleaded guilty to his crimes. He was given four additional life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The Aftermath

The far-reaching impacts of these horrific crimes would trigger changes in the way local, state, and federal agencies communicate and coordinate their efforts during investigations. It also led to the creation of the “Meredith Emerson Memorial Fund,” a scholarship aimed at helping other students study in France. Meredith had a passion for French culture and language.

National Forests’ Role In Investigation Challenges

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Difficulty and Challenges

The National Forests’ sprawling landscapes inherently provided a significant challenge for investigators working on the Cheryl Dunlap, Meredith Emerson, and the Bryants’ cases. The remote and expansive terrain made search efforts difficult. In the case of the Bryants, John’s body was not discovered until months after his wife Irene, showing how difficult it can be to locate evidence in vast wilderness areas.

Moreover, the National Forests’ topography can make it difficult to conduct searches, particularly when looking for someone who doesn’t want to be found, like Gary Hilton. He primarily chose such locations because they offered some anonymity and security due to lower law enforcement presence and the difficulty of locating a person in such large, remote regions.

Meanwhile, what a lot of people may not realize, is there is a sort of FBI of the National Parks System, called the Investigative Services Branch (ISB). The ISB handles serious crimes within national parks. In 2019, the ISB investigated 674 cases, with 59% involving “crimes against persons.

Inter-Jurisdictional Collaboration

These cases also underscore the importance of inter-jurisdictional and inter-agency collaboration. In all three states, law enforcement was able to link Hilton to these crimes due to the similarities in the cases and Hilton’s modus operandi of targeting hikers in forested areas.

Wild Crime explores how such collaborations can be essential in solving crimes, particularly in larger, remote areas like National Forests where crimes can often cross county, state, and even national borders.

In conclusion, the isolated nature of National Forests certainly amplified the complexities in capturing Hilton and solving these cases. Wild Crime showcases how investigators navigate such challenges and use available tools, both technologically and procedurally, to ultimately deliver justice.

Final Thoughts

Wild Crime’s latest season (starting November 30th, 2023) offers a dynamic exploration of crime investigations in the vast wilderness of America’s National Forests. It achieves a compelling blend of storytelling and investigative journalism, showcasing the innate challenges in solving crimes removed from urban settings.

While the series focuses mostly on Emerson, we also see how authorities eventually linked Hilton to the murder of Dunlap, and the Bryant couple as well. As the series to continues to underscore the challenges of crime investigation in remote geographical areas, we can be thankful for the determined investigators who brought the National Forest Serial Killer to justice.

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Lou Nightingale
Author: Lou Nightingale

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