October Spooky Series: National Forest Serial Killer

Man-eating animals aren’t the only monsters possibly lurking in the woods.

by posted on October 29, 2021
Lake Trahlyta Vogel State Park Oct 2016
Vogel State Park located at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest.
Public Domain photo by Thomson200.

This tragic story is an eerie reminder to always carry concealed when recreating outdoors. The National Forest serial killer, now serving time on Death Row, was finally found after he abducted a 24-year-old University of Georgia graduate while she was out hiking with her dog in the Chattahoochee National Forest.

In 2008, Meredith Emerson and her dog, Ella, were climbing Blood Mountain on New Year’s Day. She was an experienced hiker and familiar with the area. She was also a blue belt in Aikido, a form of martial arts. The National Forest killer later claimed that Emerson almost overpowered him when he first attacked her. She was only 5’ 4” and 120 lbs., but her martial arts training and will to live allowed her to disarm her attacker of a police baton and knife. She screamed the entire time, but no one heard or helped her.

After several hours passed and there was still no sign of Emerson, her friends started to worry. They called police who initially labeled the case as an “overdue hiker,” but soon suspected foul play. A hiking group stumbled upon the police baton, several water bottles, a dog leash and dog treats all resting in a disturbed patch of ground. Luckily, one of the hikers who found this unfortunate scene was former law enforcement. He told police that he had seen an older man and a younger woman walking towards the parking lot together.

The killer was able to subdue Emerson after their physical struggle by telling her that all he wanted was her debit card and PIN number. He forced her at knife point back to his van. Emerson and her dog were held captive for four days. He kept her constantly tied up, so she couldn’t escape. The same day as her abduction, the killer drove Emerson to bank after bank trying to steal her money, but she bought herself time by giving him fake PIN numbers every time. Bank staff didn’t realize the anomaly until three days later.

Over a dozen agencies came together in a large-scale search for Emerson. Her case was all over the media and a tip-line was set up. The National Forest killer’s description was a white man in his 60s driving a white minivan observed hiking in the woods with his golden retriever. This description struck a chord with the killer’s former employer. The Atlanta business owner told police he knew that Gary Hilton was the killer. Apparently, the tipper fired Hilton after a few years, because he began acting delusional and threatening. Hilton harassed his ex-boss and his family for money to such an extent they almost pressed charges.

Police finally had a photo and identification of who they were looking for, and received a few more tips. However, the last tip from a man at a gas station sealed the killer’s fate. Police were finally able to catch Hilton … as he was disposing of evidence. It was too late.

Hilton claimed that he told Emerson he would let her go every day, but he never had any intention of fulfilling his promise. He did let Ella, her dog, go. Someone reported her wandering around a Kroger parking lot the day before the arrest. Hilton said that he couldn’t bring himself to kill the dog … holding no such sentiments Meredith Emerson.

Authorities later linked Hilton to three other murders: John and Irene Bryant and Cheryl Dunlap. Hilton overpowered the Bryants, a married couple, in Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. He abducted Dunlap, a mother out on her daily walk, in Apalachicola National Forest in Florida. The National Forest serial killer is suspected of other murders, though he was only officially charged with four. He evaded the death penalty through plea deals in Georgia and North Carolina. However, he was finally put on Death Row in Florida. This monster was able to overpower at least two strong, smart women as well as two people at once. Personal safety risks never take an off-day, so neither should your concealed carry setup. Stay safe out there #NRAWomen.

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