The Hunter
Park Predators

[00:00:00.09]
If you want to listen to all eleven episodes of Park Predators plus a bonus episode right now, the only place to do that is stitcher premium. If you go to stitcher premium dot com and use the promo code predators, you'll get a free month of stitcher premium, which lets you access all of the Park Predators episodes right now. Ad free. That's stitcher premium. Dot com. Promo code. Predators. High park enthusiasts. I'm Delia Tambra, and this episode, we're taking you down south with us to Voegele State Park in Georgia.

[00:00:36.06]
This park is huge. It stretches for 233 acres and actually sits inside Chattahoochee National Forest. If you look up, you'll see a peak in that's called Blood Mountain. And this mountain is actually the highest point in the entire area. At the start of the new year in 2008, cold and snowy weather descended on this mountain. And when it finally lifted, Union County, Georgia, and the entire United States would never be the same. This is Park Predator's.

[00:01:26.01]
On January 1st, 2008, 24 year old Meredith Emerson set out on a hiking trip with her black Labrador retriever mix dog Ella. They plan to hike to the top of Flood Mountain on one of the park's popular hiking trails. Now, Meredith was no stranger to the mountains of Georgia. She was originally from Charleston, South Carolina, and she graduated college from the University of Georgia. So she was in these woods all of the time. And this girl loved to travel.

[00:01:52.08]
She loved to hike and explore. And she even spent time studying in France during her college years and learning to speak French fluently. In addition to studying foreign language, she'd also been involved in several honors societies on campus. And she was really enthusiastic about martial arts. She even earned her blue belt in Aikido. After graduating, Meredith began training Ella to become a physical therapy dog, and the two of them spent a lot of time together outdoors, working on Ellis skills of listening, obedience and being comfortable around people.

[00:02:25.01]
So Meredith and Ella venturing up Blood Mountain alone was totally normal for them.

[00:02:30.01]
Her friends weren't worried about them because she had hiked on her own so many times before. And whether by text message or phone calls, she always touch base with her friends or a family member. After a few hours. But this time was different. Meredith didn't return to her car in the parking lot after several long hours of not hearing from her.

[00:02:49.02]
Her friends started to worry and they were worried enough to call the police. Meredith was initially reported as an overdue hiker, which is something that happens all the time in nature areas and parks. But within a matter of hours, in Meredith's case, authorities began to suspect that maybe they had an abduction on their hands. When authorities started to search in the area, what they found was disturbing, to say the least. According to Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent John Kagle, some people who were walking the same trail, Meredith, had been reported finding a police baton, a few water bottles, a dog leash entreats, scattered in the area and a spot where the ground had been disturbed.

[00:03:31.02]
One of the people who noticed all of this stuff was a former law enforcement officer. So he took special note of the details, something every cop is going to do. And there was one detail that was most important to him. He told police that not long before discovering the scuffed up ground and all of the items scattered around, he'd noticed an older man and a young woman walking together back down the trail. They sort of passed him as they went by.

[00:03:56.08]
But because he and his friends hadn't seen the disturbed area and items yet, they just assumed the man and the woman were together, maybe a father and daughter, and they didn't stop them with this information in hand. Officers began to just spread around the area and they actually located Meredith's car where her friends said it was parked in the parking lot of the trailhead. But when they got there, there was no sign of Meredith or Ella. Police officers wanted to secure this car in case there were any clues inside that could tell them where Meredith was or if she was with anyone.

[00:04:28.04]
By the next morning, January 2nd, an all out search for Meredith unfolded with more than a dozen law enforcement agencies flooding to the area to get involved. Meredith's friends and family came in from out of town to help as well.

[00:04:43.05]
But right around this time, the weather conditions grew really bad. Snow was falling and the wind was blowing everywhere. And it made searching the area almost impossible. At this point, police are desperate for any information on where Meredith might be. They establish a tip line and they got help from the media to spread the word about her case. And it didn't take long before an interesting call came in from an unlikely source. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that a businessman from Atlanta named John Tabor called into police in the late afternoon of January 2nd and he said he might know who was involved.

[00:05:24.07]
John told police that he'd heard on the news the description of a white man in his 60s who was hiking in the woods and driving a white minivan. The description also said that this guy had a golden retriever dog. Instantly, John knew that that description fit someone who used to be one of his former employees.

[00:05:44.02]
John said that 10 years earlier he'd hired a man named Gary Hilton to do some part time work for him. He gave him jobs, like being a telemarketer or handing out flyers for his home siding company. John said that after a few years of working for him, Gary's demeanor took a bizarre turn and he started acting angry, delusional and threatening to the point where John just had to fire him. John said a few months earlier, in September of 2007, Gary had come to him and demanded that John give him ten thousand dollars.

[00:06:14.06]
And when John refused, Gary began threatening him and his family. And he also started leaving, harassing phone calls for John. He said that this got so bad with Gary that he told him he would press charges if he didn't stop. And John said he even would circle his neighborhood in Atlanta before going home just to make sure that Gary wasn't lurking around. John said at one point he even sent his family away from Atlanta and slept that night with a rifle and pistol near his bed.

[00:06:42.03]
He told the GBI that he hadn't called authorities right away when he heard Gary's description on the news. Instead, he did nothing. But oddly, right around the time that he was watching the news, he got a phone call from Gary. John says that Gary called from a Huddle House restaurant, sort of like a Waffle House or hot type restaurant. And on the phone, Gary apologized for causing problems for John. He begged for money and he wanted his job back.

[00:07:08.08]
Gary told John that he was in north Georgia near Blood Mountain. John played along in this phone call with Gary to keep him on the phone. And he even offered in the money that he was asking for. He told Gary that he could come to Atlanta, to his office the next day and pick it up. Now, a big problem with John's information about Gary is that he waited several hours, two or three hours from the time he recognized Gary's description on the news, got that call from Gary to then eventually alerting law enforcement.

[00:07:39.05]
So when officers rushed over to the Huddle House restaurant, which was just 10 minutes away from where they'd been searching for Meredith.

[00:07:46.02]
Gary was long gone.

[00:07:48.04]
At this point, police are confident they need to track down Gary Hilton. So they got his photo from the DMV system and that went out to the public and the news organizations and all law enforcement agencies in the country. Everyone was told to be on the lookout. January 3rd passed with no new leads and still no sign of Meredith. But on January 4th, police caught the break that they needed. Another tip came in that gave investigators hope Meredith was still alive.

[00:08:19.08]
This tip came from a lawn care truck driver who had called in. He said that he'd gotten stuck by a stream near where an elderly man and a young woman were camped in a white van. This driver says he needed assistance, so he walked towards the old man in the van to ask for help. He says as he's approaching the van, this guy just jumps up from a chair and heads towards him, almost like he's trying to keep him further away from the van.

[00:08:43.09]
And the young woman, according to the GBI, the old guy wouldn't help. This truck driver. So he just calls police and says, hey, I need help. Help me get my truck unstuck. And as he's making that conversation, he notices that the old man sees him on the phone calling the police and just packs up his van and the young woman and gets out of there. This information was good. Authorities were starting to feel some sense of relief that Meredith was still alive and maybe they had time to get to her.

[00:09:14.00]
But something they were about to find changed everything. That very same evening, investigators in Forsyth County who were already on high alert looking for any sign of Gary or Meredith, notified the GBI that they'd found some very suspicious items in a dumpster at a shopping plaza in that dumpster. They'd found bloody clothes, men's boots with blood on them and Meredith's person wallet. And if that wasn't bad news enough, these investigators told the GBI that they'd also found Ella Meredith's dog.

[00:09:50.07]
She was just wandering in a Kroger grocery store parking lot across the street from the dumpster. Now, all of this was looking pretty grim, but investigators were glad to have some kind of lead. However, it was feeling like they were always one step behind. Gary, thanks to the media pushing his picture out, though, and local citizens paying attention. They were finally able to catch up to him. Thanks to this nine one one call. Well, I think that the higher I have been the person of interest in the missing woman case is that this Chevron gap is not done already.

[00:10:28.01]
Chevron gas station. And we're. You get the van there. The van is here. The door, which is the Red Dog. I saw the man's face and I've gotten news.

[00:10:38.08]
And I know I know he's got a green sweatshirt and he's wearing a hat. I'm doing all the stuff out of the van.

[00:10:48.07]
So then I get a sleeping bag, you know, taking out all the trash picked up during an all out.

[00:10:59.04]
Like you said, GOP attack. And the dumpsters at the rear, the location of the dumpster.

[00:11:06.07]
Well, I can afford to buy my car wash. OK.

[00:11:11.05]
We're taking you all.

[00:11:13.02]
Stay right there. All right. There. Everybody is finishing up. You got to hurry up and get out of the ground. Take your word by word on our watch. Another way, San Diego Del.

[00:11:32.01]
Sure. I was thinking, you know, is there somebody in there?

[00:11:39.01]
Here you go.

[00:11:42.00]
Yes. Thanks to that nine one one caller picking up the phone and dialing. Police were able to make it to the scene where Gary was emptying his van. Alongside him was his golden retriever. And according to court records, when they got there, not only was Gary removing items like the nine one one caller had said, but they also found him vacuuming out the van, dousing it with bleach, and he even cut out one of the seat belts.

[00:12:08.01]
At this point, Gary realizes he's caught. He's done. They literally have him red handed trying to dispose of evidence in his van. So Gary began cooperating with authorities. There was only one thing that GBI wanted to know, though. Where was Meredith? But looking at the scene in front of them, investigators suspected that maybe the answer to that question was a little too late. And Meredith was likely dead while they had him in custody.

[00:12:36.00]
Detectives interviewed Gary for nearly five hours and he eventually agreed to show them where Meredith's body was. But in exchange, he wanted a plea deal which would take the death penalty off the table. Search teams eventually find Meredith's body covered with leaves and brush. Roughly 40 yards from a trail point in Dawson Forest. Now, I say her body was covered because that's exactly what investigators found, just her body. Meredith had been decapitated and her head was not in the surrounding area.

[00:13:08.04]
It would take searchers several hours to realize her head wasn't there. Meaning Gary had transported it somewhere else. The investigators realized that they were now dealing with two crime scenes. And after a little bit of time, Gary had sort of a second confession. And he eventually took detectives to where he had hidden Meredith's head. That location was in the woods by a fallen tree about an hour's drive away from her body. The more investigators talked with Gary, the more they understood that bizarre scene left on the trail that Meredith had gone missing.

[00:13:42.01]
Gary told investigators that while walking, he'd bumped into Meredith and Ella on that trail and they talked about each other's dogs when she passed him going up the mountain and he decided to hang back and lie in, wait for her to return. He believed he could overpower her and intimidator on him.

[00:13:59.00]
He was carrying that police baton and a large military knife. He said when he initiated an attack on Meredith, she fought him off on the trail. She used her martial arts skills and wits. And for this, I really applaud Meredith. She fought for her life. Gary says that at one point in their struggle, Meredith almost defeated him. But at one point, she stepped back and lost her footing.

[00:14:21.02]
And then he overcame her. After he grabbed her in gain control, he left his police baton behind and just used his military knife to dig into her side. And Walker back to the parking lot. He said he put her in his van and they drove away. But he returned and went back for Ella, something that Meredith had asked him to do after leaving the parking lot of the trail. Gary says he drove Meredith around to several attempts to get money out of her accounts, but none of those withdrawal attempts worked.

[00:14:51.00]
Investigators believe Meredith probably intentionally gave Gary the wrong PIN numbers to buy herself some time. What's really frustrating about this is that each of those failed withdrawal attempts was it noticed by bank staff until three days after Meredith went missing. So no one knew that someone was trying to use her cards. Gary says after that, he spent roughly three days with Meredith on the mountain in his van until he ultimately killed her in Dawson Forest. All the while, though, he assured her that he would let her go home.

[00:15:22.05]
In his confession, he says that on the day of the murder, he told Meredith that he let her go, but he knew that that was a lie because he had no intention of letting her go. He said her death was inevitable because she'd spent time with him. She'd seen his face and she knew all of the identifying features of his van. He also knew that police were everywhere looking for her. And if he didn't get rid of her soon, he would get caught.

[00:15:46.03]
He said when they arrived at Dawson Forest, he tied Meredith to a tree to make sure that she couldn't run away. I mean, after all, she'd already fought him tooth and nail back on the trail. After tying her up, he returned to his van for several hours to make coffee. He looked around for something to harm her with and eventually returned to the tree and bludgeoned her to death with a tire jack from his van. Per the agreement he made with law enforcement.

[00:16:10.04]
Gary pled guilty to Meredith's murder in early 2008, and he was sentenced to life in prison. But just as authorities were patting themselves on the back for a job well done and a case closed, it became clear that Meredith might not be his only victim. And Voegele State Park might not have been his only hunting grounds. For a long time, the extent of my cooking was opening up my freezer and thawing food that I froze like weeks before. Now I've gotten away from that and I'm not going back.

[00:16:45.00]
I use Hello, Fresh Olive. Hello, fresh is delicious.

[00:16:48.05]
Recipes are delivered right to my door and include fresh, pre measured ingredients that me and my husband love. Every week I have a new meal with high quality ingredients waiting for us. And because the recipes are so simple, I can whip up dinner in like 20 to 30 minutes. That makes my life so much easier. One of the best parts of using Hello Fresh is that we spend less money on groceries and waste less food over time. You can actually save up to 28 percent by using Hello Fresh versus your grocery store shopping trips.

[00:17:19.04]
Hello. Fresh offers the best value and delicious choice. And that's why it's America's number one meal kit. Go to hello fresh dot com slash predators Aidi and use code predators 80 to get a total of 80 dollars off, including free shipping on your first box. That's hello. Fresh dot com slash predators 80 and use code predators. Eighty four. Eighty dollars off your first box, including free shipping. Additional restrictions apply. Please visit. Hello, fresh dot.com.

[00:17:48.08]
For more details. When agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation were processing Geary's white van. They realized there was DNA evidence and blood in it that didn't belong to Meredith. And it didn't belong to Gary, meaning Gary must have had more victims. And as they start looking into other crimes in the area, there's a particular case that pops up on their radar. Not from Voegele State Park. This case was from the Nantahala National Forest all the way over in North Carolina.

[00:18:20.01]
And it wasn't one of a missing person or a murder person. In this case, there were two missing victims. The word Nantahala is a Cherokee word for land of the noonday sun in this forest. There's a gourd that sits where the sun only reaches to the valley at midday. Otherwise, it's dark, hidden in shadow where no one can see into it except when the time is right. This gorge in the surrounding forest sits in the southwest part of North Carolina, and it's a place known for a lot of outdoor activities.

[00:18:52.04]
There are over 600 miles of trails in this forest, and it's on one of these trails that a married couple, John and Irene Bryant, went missing in October of 2007. The Bryants were in their 80s and they'd been married for 58 years. The two of them loved the outdoors, hiking and nature. They often went on hikes or long walks together. And even at times, they traveled overseas to see exotic places throughout various points of time. John had actually completed the entire Appalachian Trail system, which is a huge feat, if you know anything about the outdoors or hiking.

[00:19:27.01]
The couple had lived in the Pacific Northwest, New York State and eventually wound up in the town of Horseshoe, North Carolina, right outside of Hendersonville. This was near the sprawling prisca in Nantahala National Forests because they had such a busy lifestyle of being outdoors. It actually took a couple of days for anyone to notice that John and Irene had gone missing. Like I said, they traveled a lot and even went overseas at some points. So when their adult children hadn't heard from them for a couple of days or their neighbors started to see newspapers piling up in their driveway, no one was too concerned.

[00:19:59.06]
But after the few days of not hearing from them turned into weeks. One of the couple's sons, Bob, officially reported his parents missing on November 2nd. Now, at the time, Bob was living in Texas and he would exchange e-mails often with his mom and dad. And they hadn't told him about any upcoming long trips or travel plans. He knew it was common for them to take long walks in and around the forest by their house. And he was worried that maybe after all this time, they were just lost or had gotten hurt.

[00:20:28.00]
Nothing else would explain their complete lack of communication if something had happened to them. Bob knew that his mom and dad had a lifetime of wilderness experience and would know exactly what to do to get help or find a way out. So the fact that they hadn't been heard from yet gave him a lot of concern that maybe something worse could have happened to them. By November 6th, authorities began searching for John and Irene, and Bob was traveling to North Carolina from Texas on his way.

[00:20:55.08]
He came across his parents Ford Escape SUV. It was parked on the side of Yellow Gap Road and Transilvania County. It was near a trail entrance to Pisco National Forest. This discovery led investigators to believe that the couple had parked there and gone hiking and they never returned. As authorities start to look into this case, they pulled a phone and financial records for John and Irene to see if there was any activity. And this is when they make an alarming discovery.

[00:21:24.09]
According to the Asheville's Citizen Times, at four o'clock in the afternoon of October 21st, a call was placed from Irene's cell phone to a nine one one operator. The signal from the phone was too weak or if something happened because the call never reached an emergency call center. Naturally, police want to know exactly where this call was made from. That will help them narrow down their search. But the cell provider was unable to tell police the G.P.S. coordinates of the pinging, unable to get far with that.

[00:21:55.01]
Police looked at the financial records for the couple and those were more enlightening. At seven thirty at night on October 22nd, the day after Irene's phone had attempted to call nine one one, someone had used the Bryants A.T.M. card.

[00:22:09.00]
They withdrew three hundred dollars from a bank in Ducktown, Tennessee.

[00:22:13.02]
That location is 25 miles away from the National Forest. The couple was hiking in. Thankfully, the bank that the a.T.M was at had security cameras and those images showed a slender figure wearing a yellow raincoat approached the A.T.M.. But that person's face was obscured. The only thing investigators knew was that the figure in those images was not John Bryant. And the police wanted everyone's help to identify this mystery person. So they released those images to the public, but no one came forward right away identifying this person.

[00:22:44.09]
It was just too hard to tell who they were from the pictures. At this point, it's now early November and searchers were continuing to scour the ground and forest near where John and Irene were hiking and where their son had found their car. After a few days on November 9th, searchers found Irene's body. She had been covered in leaves and sticks, and her autopsy revealed that she'd suffered blunt force trauma to her head, arms and legs. The medical examiner ruled that it was likely Irene had died on October 21st, right around the time her phone made that attempted nine one one call.

[00:23:20.09]
John, however, was not with her and there was no sign of him that ever turned up in that area. Irene's body was found just 100 yards from where their car was parked. So investigators believe that it was possible whoever killed her may have laid in wait near the trail and then watched the two of them walk into the park together after attacking her. The killer could have kidnapped John in order to rob them and use their bank card. It wasn't until way later in a weekend in early February 2008, over a month after Meredith Emerson's murder and Gary's arrest, that a hunter discovered John Bryant's skeletal remains.

[00:23:59.02]
He was 30 yards down an embankment in the Nantahala National Forest, really far away from where his wife's body had been found. John's remains were scattered down the side of a service road in the national forest. But unlike the blunt force trauma that Irene had suffered. John's cause of death was a gunshot wound to the back of the head because John's remains had been found in such short succession. After Gary's arrest, and with Irene's cause of death being so similar to Meredith's, it didn't take long for the North Carolina authorities to link up with the GBI, who found all the additional evidence in Gary's van.

[00:24:35.07]
Authorities started working together and they developed a theory that on October 21st, 2007, the Bryants came face to face with Gary Hilton while they were hiking. And he intended to rob them. Investigators believe that at the time, Gary was unsure if he controlled two hostages. So he killed Irene first to focus his attention on John. Prosecutors who'd consulted with detectives in the Meredith Emerson case said that Gary was seen, photographed and even confronted by other people in the Pisco National Forest.

[00:25:08.04]
In the days prior to October 21st. So that's essentially putting Gary in the same place that John and Irene would have been. According to a brief from the U.S. attorney's office, Gary knowingly and intentionally took John Bryant's A.T.M. card and coerced him into providing his PIN number. He used force and violence and intimidation to get money from him. And after getting what he wanted. Gary put John into his white van and drove him to the Nantahala National Forest. That's where he shot him in the head with a 22 caliber handgun.

[00:25:40.08]
Authorities in both states tested and compared the blood found in Gary's van to John Bryant's DNA and their fears were confirmed. The blood was a match for John. And now authorities were sure they had a serial killer on their hands. Law enforcement had Gary dead to rights for this crime. But there was a disturbing thought percolating in the back of everyone's minds at the time of the Bryant's murder. They knew Gary was living off of the grid in his white van and he was completely off of the radar from the time he ran into the Bryants in late 2007, through the first week of January 2008, when he was arrested for Meredith's murder, which means four months after the Bryants disappeared.

[00:26:21.08]
Gary could have been anywhere and hurting a. People, it's at this point that police start to backtrack Gary's movements to see if anyone in law enforcement had run into him, even for a minor offense. And there was one. Gary had come across authorities between both the Bryants and Meredith's murders, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. Gary was stopped on October 26, 2007. He was trespassing on private hunting land just north of Atlanta. He told that deputy who stopped him that he was a former paratrooper who was on, quote, perpetual field maneuvers.

[00:26:58.09]
The deputy doesn't really get what that means and ask Gary if he has any weapons. Gary replied that he did. And he showed that deputy in expandable police baton that he carried with him. This deputy decides to just let Gary go. He checks to see if there's any open warrants and doesn't see any. However, court documents show that at that very time, Gary did have an open warrant out on him for a 1972 minor offense in Miami. Right.

[00:27:26.01]
As this deputy is about to leave and just let Gary go. He said that Gary told him that he loved him. The deputy replied, quote, Mr. Hilton, you have a good day. Clearly, this deputy just wanted nothing to do with Gary. So based on the timing of this interaction, is this deputy had detained Gary or realized there was actually an open warrant out on him nabbing Gary then maybe could have prevented Meredith's murder. The last piece of the puzzle that investigators really needed to close the case against Gary for John and Irene's death was identifying him as the suspect from the a.T.M surveillance video.

[00:28:03.07]
Detectives reviewed it again and looked a lot closer and they determined that the figure in that raincoat was Gary. That person had the same physical characteristics as Gary, like his height, his weight and his general stature. In March 2012, Gary pled guilty to kidnapping, robbing and murdering the Bryants. In April 2013. A judge sentenced him to life in prison for their deaths, just like in Meredith Emerson's case. Gary took a plea deal to avoid getting the death penalty in North Carolina.

[00:28:35.08]
Despite this victory for law enforcement, there was still one other lingering question. Where had Gary been? Between the time he murdered the Bryants and the time he killed Meredith, they found the answer to that all the way down in Florida, in the Apalachicola National Forest. We all want gorgeous looking and feeling hair without the salon price. Well, thanks to Madison Reid, you can take coloring your hair at home to the next level. The best part?

[00:29:09.00]
The unique crafted coloring kits and products for Madison Reed are delivered right to your front door, starting at just 22 dollars.

[00:29:17.00]
Many Madison Reed clients, including my own family members, comment on how their new hair color has improved their lives. They get the gorgeous, shiny, multidimensional results they want all from the comfort of home. But they look like they just came from the salon. What makes Madison Reid colour unique is it's crafted by master colorists who blend nuances of light, dark, cool and warm tones to create over 55 gorgeous shades. So what are you waiting for? Find your perfect shade at Madison.

[00:29:48.02]
Dasch read dot com park predators. Listeners get 10 percent off plus free shipping on their first color kit with Code Park Predators. That's promo code park predators for 10 percent off, plus free shipping on your first color kit.

[00:30:04.05]
Apalachicola National Forest is located in Florida's panhandle. It's just outside of Tallahassee, the state's capital. Millions of people go to this forest every year to hike and mountain bike, go horseback riding or go off roading. You're actually allowed to camp inside this forest. And unlike many other parks in the U.S. for a few months out of the year, hunting is actually allowed. In fact, it's the dominant activity in the winter months of December and January. But because it's Florida and everything is still hot and dry, even in the winter, a lot of people go to Apalachicola to just relax and get regular exercise.

[00:30:40.09]
And that's what 46 year old Cheryl Dunlap was doing on December 1st, 2007, when she disappeared while out on a hike alone. At the time, Cheryl was working as a nurse and Sunday school teacher in Leon County. She had two adult sons, Michael and Jake, and she was an active member of River of Life Church, where she lived in Tallahassee. Cheryl loved being outside and being the mom of two boys. She was used to and fond of being in the outdoors.

[00:31:07.05]
So when she set out for her walk around 9:00 in the morning on December 1st, there was no reason for her to believe this hike would be any different from the hundreds she'd made before. It wasn't until the next day when Cheryl missed a Sunday school class that she was supposed to teach, that her friends realized something was very wrong. This was so out of the norm for her and they got a sinking feeling. So they called the police to report her missing, if anything.

[00:31:34.00]
Best case scenario, they thought maybe she'd just gotten injured inside the park and needed help. Their hopes for good news were shattered when three days after she left to go hiking, her Toyota Camry was found with a flat tire on the shoulder of Highway 319 and nowhere around it was any sign of Cheryl. On December 8th, one hundred and eighty law enforcement officers and volunteers began a grid search for Cheryl in the woods near where the car was abandoned. As they search and are going through brush, authorities work behind the scenes to track any digital footprints.

[00:32:08.03]
Cheryl may have left behind and they uncovered bank footage from someone wearing a disguise trying to withdraw money from Cheryl's accounts. On December 2nd, 3rd and 4th, according to the Tallahassee Democrat, early on, investigators revealed that they were looking for a unique looking green truck. They said that they'd obtained surveillance images of that truck, but wouldn't say where the images came from or when they were taken. All investigators in Leon County would say is that they wanted to talk to the driver in relation to Cheryl's case.

[00:32:40.05]
They also asked the public to be on the lookout for a black Dodge Ram pickup truck that had been spotted near her abandoned car on the highway. Fourteen days went by looking for this missing mother. And the search ended in the worst possible way. Hunters in the woods found Cheryl's decapitated body on December 15th. Now, at first, police couldn't even identify the remains as Cheryl because her head was missing. But after taking DNA samples, they confirmed a positive I.D..

[00:33:10.03]
On December 19th that day, a hundred came forward and told police that on December 7th, he'd seen a homeless looking, disheveled man with a white van and knife inside of Apalachicola National Forest. At the time that Hunter warned the disheveled man that the forest was a really bad place to be during hunting season. This witness felt that the interaction with that man in the forest could be related to Cheryl's murder. For about a month, the case went cold after this.

[00:33:38.07]
No new tips, no new leads. And authorities were stumped about who would want to kill this woman and why. So authorities look back at other cases. And after Gary Hilton was connected to not one but two other similar park murders by February 2008, the. Authorities in Florida realized that Gary was a serial killer who could be responsible for Cheryl's murder, too. The M.O. in all of the cases so far seemed to be the same. So police needed to find a way to prove that Gary had been in Apalachicola the same time as Cheryl.

[00:34:14.01]
They circle back to the hunter who said that he saw that disheveled homeless man inside the park. They showed him a picture of Gary and that Hunter positively IDed him as the man that he'd seen. In addition to this testimony from the hunter, Leon County authorities knew for certain that Gary was in the area. At the same time, Cheryl disappeared because he'd run into a forestry agent on November 17th, 2007. And that agent questioned him after that interaction.

[00:34:42.00]
The forestry agent wrote down the vehicle's tag number on Gary's van and ran it through the police database to make sure it wasn't stolen or anything like that. On December twenty eighth, another U.S. forestry agent ran into Gary in Florida. This time he was inland in the state away from Tallahassee and Osceola National Forest. And that's about a hundred and fifty nine miles from where Cheryl disappeared. This forestry agent, like the others before him, let Gary go after speaking with him.

[00:35:11.04]
Still, this documented sighting showed police investigating Cheryl's murder that Gary had been in certain areas where their victim was. And he traveled out of the area not long after she was killed with three other murder charges pending in two other states. It wasn't hard for a Florida grand jury to indict Gary for Cheryl's murder. Prosecutors believe that after killing John and Irene Bryant, Gary wanted to distance himself from North Carolina. So he traveled in his van to the Florida Panhandle.

[00:35:41.04]
They argued that sometime on December 1st, Gary kidnaps Cheryl at the Leon Sync's geological area inside the park. Cheryl had told her friends that she wanted to go to that area to quietly read a book. It's believed that after gaining control of Cheryl. Gary kept her alive for a few days, attempting to get money from her A.T.M. card. After only getting a few hundred dollars, he spent two days with her and held her as his hostage and then eventually killed her.

[00:36:09.01]
Detectives had evidence that Gary had cut off Cheryl's head and hands and burned them in his camp fire inside the park. He then tried to dispose of her car on the highway and they learned that that flat tire on her car was no accident because detectives were able to match the instrument that had caused the cut in the tire to the police baton. Gary was known to carry the one weak point in the case. Again, scary for Cheryl's death was that no one had actually witnessed him abducting her.

[00:36:38.07]
And the prosecution's evidence was circumstantial at best. No fingerprint evidence connected him to the crime, but it was Gary's own words that would get the best of him. Investigators were able to extract videos from his personal cameras that he kept in his van. They'd found that he tried to delete all of the clips. But forensic techs were able to retrieve them. These tapes were played at his trial. And in them, you can hear him talking about getting good sex someday.

[00:37:07.05]
He uses crude language and vulgar terms for women and references, killing women and hiding stuff. He also admitted on the tapes to being a sociopath and a mental loner who had savage military training and that he could disassociate from the act of killing people when his case went to the jury in Florida. They didn't give him any opportunity for more deals. Gary was convicted and sentenced to death in April 2011 in Leon County, Florida, for the murder and decapitation of Cheryl, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.

[00:37:42.01]
State agencies, as well as the FBI investigated these three cases that left four victims dead across the three states. In a statement to the press, the Leon County Sheriff's Office said that more than five hundred pieces of evidence involving Gary were compared and shared between these agencies. These items ranged from photographic evidence to microscopic samples. Now, in addition to these four murders in 2007, in 2008, Gary has also been considered a suspect in the disappearance of her son, Emiliano.

[00:38:16.01]
In 2005, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation says that their agents strongly consider a big connection between Gary and Rosanna, where Santa was from Florida. But she was last seen hiking in western North Carolina on December 7th, 2005. At the time, a store clerk from Bryson City reported that a woman matching Rosanna's appearance came into her store and she was accompanied by a white man in his 60s. This clerk noticed that the young woman appeared to be really nervous when she and the man with her bought a backpack at the time of the disappearance.

[00:38:51.00]
This clerk didn't report this sighting to authorities. They only came forward with the information of. Two years after Rossano had been missing, according to the Charlie Project, Rosada had talked with her family about wanting to hike the Appalachian Trail. She traveled from where she lived in Miami to vacation in North Carolina on the day she was last heard from. She called her father from a Ramada Inn hotel to tell him that she was going hiking. So she wasn't completely off the grid.

[00:39:17.03]
She was in contact with her family. Rossano had a large light beige piece of luggage with a broken handle, a matching carry on bag, a laptop computer, a sleeping bag, a camera, a cell phone and a bunch of other personal items. No one has ever found those items, and she hasn't withdrawn any money from her bank account since she disappeared. But strangely, some funds were deposited there on December thirty first 2005. This would have been a few weeks after she disappeared that that money showed up.

[00:39:49.01]
Rosanna's family says to this day, no other activity has shown up on her bank account and police have never released where that deposit of money came from. In June 2009, a private investigator working on Rosanna's case issued a sketch of a man who was last seen with her. That store clerk in Bryson City read about her son's disappearance in the newspaper on the two year anniversary. And that's when they came forward to say that they remembered selling a backpack to Rosanna and this unidentified old man who had gray hair at his temples.

[00:40:22.04]
This clerk said that the man may have been wearing a hairpiece because it just didn't sit right on his head. The clerk said that the guy mentioned he was a traveling preacher. If you look at this sketch, Gary Hilton does really resemble the sketch of the man with Rhasaan on the last day she was seen. But it's never been proven that he was involved in her disappearance. And if that story wasn't enough, Gary is also considered a suspect in the murder and decapitation of a man named Michael Scott Lewis.

[00:40:52.01]
Michael was killed in Ormond Beach, Florida, just days before Cheryl Dunlap. He disappeared on November 22nd, 2007, and was later found murdered. Parts of his body were found in the Tomoka River near Daytona on December six. A fisherman on the river into Mokas State Park discovered the remains floating in plastic bags down the river. Michael's feet and legs were in one bag and his torso and arms were in another bag. His head has never been found.

[00:41:22.00]
Michael stepfather told reporters with the Daytona Beach News-Journal that after he was discovered murdered, Michael's Firebird sedan was found in the parking lot of his apartment complex in south Daytona. The keys were still in the ignition, but the car was a considerable distance from his apartment. His stepfather said that Michael loved that car and there was no way he would have left it that far from his apartment because the distance where the car was found was like the length of a football field.

[00:41:51.01]
Inside of the car was Michael's unwashed laundry and two guitars. The items inside are now with his family, but the car remains in police custody. In 2009, investigators with Ormond Beach police sent DNA evidence to a lab in California to see if they could possibly link Gary to Michael's death. But so far, police have not released what those findings are. Gary has never been charged with Michael's death, but authorities strongly believe he could have been in the area where Michael died shortly after murdering Cheryl.

[00:42:24.09]
If you look more into Michael's case, there's one thing I have to mention that you'll see if you Google it. And that is his murder was also recently linked to a former girlfriend of his. In 2018, the Daytona News Journal reported that a woman named NLC Tetley was arrested for murdering and dismembering her boyfriend's body earlier in 2017. Police found 55 year old Jeffrey Albats men in his home in Daytona Beach. He'd been shot in the chest and dismembered.

[00:42:53.04]
His torso was found in the house, but his arms and legs were dumped in a remote area 20 miles away. NLC is currently facing charges for Jaffrey's murder, but as time has gone on. Authorities in Ormond Beach uncovered that she may have once dated Michael when they asked her about him. She allegedly didn't remember dating Michael. That investigation is still ongoing. Everywhere Gary Hilton went, he left a body count that never should have been. He eluded law enforcement for years, drifting to and from national and state park lands seemingly undetected.

[00:43:31.07]
Every time he would get stopped by police or ranger, he just rubbed them the wrong way. But they couldn't arrest him for just being creepy and living out of a van in a park. Gary's four and a half hour long confession with investigators after Meredith's murder is on YouTube. It's chilling, to say the least. There are parts of it where Gary says outright that where ever he went, he knew that if he was low on money or food, quote, someone was going to get killed.

[00:43:59.09]
If you watch it, you'll see the same things prosecutors and detectives noticed about Gary, which is he's very cavalier about his crimes and shows no remorse.

[00:44:10.05]
There are even points in his confession where he last reluctantly about what he did. Gary's own defense attorney, a guy named Rob McNeil, said after his conviction that, quote, Hilton would have kept killing had he not been caught. McNeill described the Atlanta Journal Constitution that Hilton was a, quote, sociopath and held nothing back. This attorney went on to tell the paper that he had clinical depression for two years after spending hours with Gary as his public defender and being forced to listen to Gary talk about his crimes.

[00:44:43.08]
Gary Hilton is the kind of predator we all have to be on the lookout for someone who strikes victims of opportunity and leaves so many people without loved ones for no reason at all, except in his own words, for money and sex.

[00:45:17.04]
Park Predators is an audio chuck original podcast.

[00:45:20.08]
This series was executive produced by Ashley Flowers, research and writing by Delia Ambre with writing assistance by Ashley Flowers, Sound Design by David Flowers with production assistance from Melissa Castella.

[00:45:33.05]
You can find all of our source material for this episode on our Web site, Paak Predators Dot Com. So what do you think, Chuck? Do you approve?