Drifter pleads guilty to killing elderly N.C. hikers in Carolina forest

Charlotte ObserverMarch 27, 2012 

A 65-year-old drifter already facing the death penalty and a life sentence for murdering women in Florida and Georgia, pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court to charges that he robbed, kidnapped and killed an elderly couple in national forests in western North Carolina.

Gary Michael Hilton’s admission of guilt was part of a plea agreement which saves him from a federal death penalty but insures he will be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Hilton had been charged with the October 2007 slayings of 84-year-old Irene Bryant and her husband, John, 80. Federal prosecutors say Hilton killed John Bryant in the Nantahala National Forest in Macon County, then murdered Irene Bryant in the Pisgah National Forest in Transylvania County. The Bryants, who lived in Hendersonville, had been kidnapped while hiking in the Nantahala forest.

Prosecutors said Hilton camped in the national forest, waiting for victims. Friends of the victims said the Bryants were world travelers and enjoyed hiking in different countries.

The slayings in North Carolina launched what investigators said was a killing spree that lasted into early January 2008.

Hilton was convicted of killing Cheryl Dunlap, a 46-year-old nurse and Sunday School teacher, in a national forest in Florida in December 2007. He received the death penalty in that case. Prosecutors say Hilton then kidnapped 24-year-old hiker Meredith Emerson in a forest in Georgia, held her for three days, and then killed her around New Years Day 2008. Hilton received a life sentence in that case.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said prosecutors have not decided whether Hilton will spend the rest of his life in a federal prison or if he will be returned to death row in Florida.

“Our hearts go out to the Bryant family,” U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said Tuesday. “No action by the criminal justice system can soothe the pain they must live with.

“We trust that the fact that Mr. Hilton will spend the rest of his life in a prison, locked away from all civilized society, will bring some closure -- if not comfort -- to the Bryant family.”

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