Last week, Gary Michael Hilton filed an appeal in Florida to overturn his conviction and death sentence there, for murdering Cheryl Dunlap. He claimed ineffective council from his fragmented defense team. But Dunlap wasn’t his only victim. Hilton was a dangerous backwoods predator.
In North Carolina, he received four life sentences in the 2007 kidnapping and murders of John and Irene Bryant, whom he’d encountered in the Pisgah National Forest. He also has a life sentence in Georgia for the murder of hiker Meredith Emerson. She had a dog, and he’d used his own dog to start a conversation before grabbing her. To avoid the death penalty, he’d led police to her body.
In a bizarre twist, Hilton had helped a friend develop a plot for a movie, Deadly Run, suggesting that he send a serial killer after a beautiful woman out in the woods, holding her captive in a remote cabin.
Hilton’s approach is similar to other predators who exploit arenas of trust, whether a hospital, college town, or hiking trail. The hiking culture, especially on certain rigorous trails, is one of support and camaraderie. Although hikers often want to challenge themselves or commune with nature alone, they’re willing to assist when needed, and some enjoy meeting other hikers along the way. Hilton, an older man, blended in to look for vulnerable people in isolated areas.
His recent request in court inspired me to look for examples of other killers who'd used hiking trails as their hunting ground. In August 1979 outside San Francisco, California, hiker Edda Kane was found in a kneeling position, fatally shot. Six months later, there was another one, stabbed while kneeling. A dead woman turned up in October before four more bodies were found on other trails.
Some people wondered if the infamous Zodiac Killer, never caught, was active again. A pair of bifocals near one crime scene was the only lead. An FBI profiler looked at the data and predicted that the “Trailside Killer” would be white, shy, reclusive, intelligent, and suffering from a speech impediment. He would be familiar with the area, but unsure of himself in social situations. He chose victims of opportunity and had a police record.
Soon, this predator shot a young couple in a park near Santa Cruz, but the male survived to give a description. It did not stop the next murder, but the final victim, Heather Skaggs, had told a friend that she was going to see David Carpenter. Police tracked him down. He drove a red car like the one described by the shooting survivor, had the same optometrist as another victim, and had a record for sex crimes and kidnapping. He also had a severe stutter. Carpenter was arrested, tried, and convicted in several of the murders. In 2009, DNA linked him to the murder of a jogger.
Another serial killer, Israel Keyes, was arrested in 2012 after demanding ransom for a missing barista in Alaska. Once caught, it was clear that he’d killed her, as well as several others. He admitted to eleven. Determined to elude capture, Keyes had traveled to many places, renting cars, using false ID, and robbing banks. He’d prepared killing kits from five-gallon buckets purchased from Home Depot, filling them with items like Drano (for body disposal), small shovels, a silencer, duct tape, a gun scope, a flashlight, ammunition, and bindings.
Keyes had buried these kits in remote areas, intending to let time pass so as not to be traced via store surveillance or witness reports. He admitted that kits had been buried in New York, Vermont, Alaska, and Texas. Keyes told investigators that he’d looked for victims in places like parks, campgrounds, trailheads, cemeteries and boating areas, just waiting for someone to cross his path (although he’d also killed a couple in their home).
In 1981, Randall Lee Smith stalked Robert Mountford and Laura Ramsay on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. He befriended them, walking along with them until they reached a shelter. There, Smith shot one and stabbed the other. In a plea deal, he received a 30-year sentence for second-degree murder. Over vigorous protests, he was released in 1996. Twelve years later, he returned to the Trail and befriended fishermen Scott Johnston and Sean Farmer before shooting them both twice. (They survived.) Smith stole a truck to escape, crashing it. He soon died from his injuries.
In a similar nightmare scenario, Paul David Crews killed two hikers in Pennsylvania in 1991, as they slept in a shelter on the Appalachian Trail. He shot Geoffrey Hood before raping and stabbing Molly LaRue. Others who spotted Crews thought he looked sinister and out of place, so they alerted officials. Park rangers arrested Crews as he walked across a bridge over the Potomac River. In his stolen backpack were a .22-caliber revolver and a knife, both of which had been used in the murders. DNA also figured in to his conviction.
More recently in February 2017, Liberty German, 14, and Abigail Williams, 13, went hiking in a favorite spot in Delphi, Indiana. They disappeared and their bodies were found in a wooded area near an abandoned railroad bridge, where they had taken photos. An image of a man and a male voice were captured on Liberty’s cellphone, but the suspect remains at large.
There’s little that one can do when predators blend in. Like other hunters, they use camouflage to prevent being seen. An awareness that they look for arenas of trust and relaxed attitudes should be a basic hiking precaution.