Too Close To Home: Gary Hilton – Pisgah National Forest



Clockwise from top left: Irene and John Bryant, Hilton’s infamous mask captured on an ATM camera, Meredith Emerson, and Hilton being “perp-walked” by the police.

Ella-Brooke Morgan, Co-Editor-In-Chief

(West Forsyth High School to Pisgah National Forest – 2 hours and 30 minutes)

Profiling the most twisted criminal cases in North Carolina.

Trigger warning: Discussion of severe mental illness, sexual assault, violence and murder

Gary Michael Hilton, unlike the stereotypical serial killer, wasn’t calculated. He didn’t have a “master plan.” With no connections, Hilton was a nobody, free to lurk in the shadows of society.

He was an unassuming man with a no-frills lifestyle; he looked as if he could be anyone’s neighbor. He was a drifter. He didn’t have the charm of Ted Bundy or the intelligence of Ed Kemper.

What he did have was a warped Michael Myers mask and an unquenchable bloodlust.

In later years he would become known as “The National Forest Serial Killer” and would eventually refer to himself as “God.” Hilton had a fairly nondescript childhood until age 13, when he shot and wounded his stepfather, Nilo DeBag, because Hilton felt he had “taken his mother away from him.” After a brief stint in a mental hospital, Hilton enlisted in the armed forces. His responsibility was deploying “Davy Crockett missiles,” fairly small explosives launched from a telescope-like stand. All was well until 21-year-old Hilton relapsed, suffering a complete schizophrenic breakdown, which led to him being honorably discharged from the Army.

After his release, Hilton’s downward descent began. For decades between his discharge (1967) and his first murder (2007), he had no lasting attachments, moving throughout the southern part of the United States during the ’70s and ’80s.

In 2005, after having settled in Atlanta, Hilton was prescribed Ritalin, a common medication for those with Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD). Hilton, however, was not noted to have the condition. The drug’s effect was noticeable because of his extreme irritability and anger outbursts, according to Hilton’s boss at the time.

Hilton had nothing; he lost his job and house. He and his only companion, a copper-colored retriever by the name of “Dandy,” set out for the wilderness–a passion he had always held and that had never faded. In a boxy Dodge Astro van, Hilton landed in Asheville, making a pilgrimage to Pisgah National Forest. Hilton was a survivalist–he was skilled and knew how to scrape by in nature, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t act as a leech.

Irene and John Bryant were an elderly couple from western North Carolina who together played a significant role within their small province, as John was the town’s attorney. On Oct. 20, 2007, while taking a hike, they seemingly disappeared into thin air.
That might’ve been easier to accept, as the truth was so much grimmer. The Bryants encountered Hilton and Dandy on their walk, where Hilton sprung upon them. He forcefully beat Irene until she died, taking John hostage as he drove around to various ATMs around the mountain. He would proceed to shoot John point-blank in the head. After death, their bodies were separated, and both were brutally decapitated.
Hilton ran to Georgia, where he would meet Meredith Emerson on Blood Mountain; her rape and grisly murder at his hands led to his capture. Hilton was clever but lacked the necessary calculation needed to escape suspicion. Ultimately, his lack of finesse would result in his apprehension as he was “cleaning up his van,” which held key evidence to his crimes.

The trial would present the full picture of his sins: four known victims, possibly more, all meeting eerily similar tragic ends: hunted like prey, slaughtered and used. Hilton’s bizarre methodology was exposed when an ATM photo was revealed following the death of Carolyn Dunlap. It depicted Hilton standing in front of the machine using Dunlap’s credit card, wearing the warped Michael Myers mask that would soon become associated with him.

Hilton would be sentenced to life in prison in early 2008, with additional terms tacked on for each of his confirmed killings. His life was only spared from execution because he revealed the location of Emerson’s body, stating, “the head will be missing.”