Gary Hilton was sentenced to death by the State of Florida for a series of murders. Gary Hilton, who is a serial killer, was convicted of a kidnapping and murder in Florida. Gary Hilton was also convicted of kidnapping and murders in North Carolina and Georgia. Hilton had been convicted of six murders in three States and has been sentenced to death in Florida.
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n February 28, 2008, a Leon County grand jury indicted Gary Michael Hilton for the first-degree murder of Cheryl Dunlap between December 1 and December 15, 2007, kidnapping, grand theft of a motor vehicle, and grand theft of currency. Hilton pleaded not guilty on March 14, 2008. Hilton proceeded to a jury trial commencing on February 2, 2011.
Cheryl Dunlap, 46, was last seen alive on December 1, 2007. That morning, Dunlap called a friend, Kiona Hill, and made arrangements to have dinner with her that evening. That afternoon, Dunlap went to Leon Sinks to read, where she was seen by Michael and Vikki Shirley at approximately 1:30 p.m. The Shirleys described that Dunlap was wearing jeans and a sweater and carrying a hardback book. Dunlap did not arrive for dinner that evening and was missed at church the following morning by Tanya Land. Land went to Dunlap’s residence and found her dog, but noticed that her car was missing so she called the police. Steven Ganey of the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office took the missing person report on December 3, 2007.
Dunlap’s car, a white Toyota Camry, was found on December 3, 2007, on the side of Crawfordville Highway parked near the woods. The car had deliberate tire punctures in the sidewall that was later identified as a bayonet piercing. On December 1, the car had received a disabled vehicle ticket from Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Brian Speigner. Ganey testified that it appeared that someone had driven into the woods with all four tires intact and punctured the tire after the car had been parked. Dunlap’s purse was recovered in her car, but no money was found.
Dunlap’s Ameris Bank account records revealed that Dunlap cashed a check with a drive-through teller at 11:17 a.m. on December 1. The records further revealed that three cash withdrawals were made at the ATM at Hancock Bank on West Tennessee Street on December 2, 3, and 4, 2007, totaling $700. In addition, two attempted withdrawals were declined because they exceeded the daily limit. The video from the security camera at the bank showed that the person making the transactions was wearing a blue and white patterned, long-sleeved shirt, glasses, a hat, and a make-shift mask made from tape.
Dunlap’s body was discovered on December 15 by Ronnie Rentz while he was hunting in the Apalachicola National Forest. Dunlap’s body was near a forest road and had been covered with some brush and limbs. Additionally, her head and hands had been removed. Dunlap’s body was identified using a sample of thigh muscle. Dr. Anthony Clarke, an associate medical examiner, performed the autopsy. Dr. Clarke opined that Dunlap’s head and hands had been removed by an instrument with a sharp blade and that the dismemberment occurred postmortem. The cause of death was not able to be determined, but Dr. Clarke opined that it was likely to have been a violent homicide. Additionally, Dr. Clarke noted that there was a significant pre-mortem bruise located on Dunlap’s middle to lower back and that the bruise was not consistent with a normal fall injury. Dr. Clarke estimated that Dunlap’s body could have been in the woods for seven to fifteen days. Dr. Clarke testified that his best estimate was that Dunlap died between December 5 and December 8, 2007.
On January 9, 2008, investigators found what they believed to be the remains of Dunlap’s head and hands in a fire pit at Joe Thomas campsite-approximately seven miles from where her body had been found. The bone fragments were charred. Because of the burn damage, no DNA was recoverable from the fragments. Dr. Anthony Falsetti, a forensic anthropologist, opined that there were two hands represented, that the bones were from an adult, and that the bones were from a person with small hands.
Several witnesses testified that they saw or encountered Gary Michael Hilton during the time period surrounding Dunlap’s disappearance. In late November 2007, George Ferguson encountered Hilton on LL Wallace Road. Hilton asked Ferguson for a jump start because his van, a white Chevrolet Astro, would not crank. Ferguson testified that it did not appear to him that Hilton actually needed the assistance. Ethan Davis provided similar testimony, that sometime in late November 2007, Hilton stopped him and asked for help starting his vehicle. Davis declined. Shawn Matthews also encountered Hilton in late November near his LL Wallace Road camp. Hilton appeared to be familiar with the area and told Matthews about a nearby sinkhole. On December 1, 2007, Celeste Hutchins saw Hilton on Crawfordville Highway, not far from Leon Sinks. Hutchins testified that Hilton was rummaging through a white Camry on the side of the road. On December 10, 2007, Loretta Mayfield spoke to Hilton at a convenience store on Crawfordville Highway. Mayfield testified that Hilton was wearing a blue and white patterned shirt. Hilton was also wearing something on his left side that looked like a large knife holder. Mayfield testified that the shirt she saw Hilton wearing looked like the one in the ATM security video. On December 11, 2007, Stephen Prosser saw Hilton in the Apalachicola National Forest. On December 12, 2007, Michael Travis saw Hilton in the forest near the Bloxham cutoff and then saw him again on December 14. On December 18, 2007, Teresa Johnson saw Hilton in Bristol, Florida, where Hilton told her that she looked like Dunlap and that it was “too bad” about that girl getting murdered.
Sometime between December 18, 2007, and January 1, 2008, Hilton made his way to Georgia where he kidnapped and murdered Meredith Emerson. Hilton took Emerson from Blood Mountain and held her for four days before murdering her. He cooperated with law enforcement in exchange for a life sentence. Hilton was arrested in Georgia after Stephen Shaw saw Hilton walk to the back of a convenience store in the direction of the store’s dumpsters and called law enforcement. Law enforcement officers recovered items Hilton was seen discarding in a dumpster at the convenience store. From the dumpster, law enforcement recovered a U.S. Forestry citation for unauthorized camping, a knife and sheath, Hi–Tec boots, some chain, a padlock, gloves, a jacket, a folding police baton, and a blue backpack. Hilton gave Georgia officials information on where to find his bayonet on a hiking trail on Blood Mountain in North Georgia. Later, Jeff Foggy, an FDLE tool mark expert, matched the bayonet to the puncture marks in Dunlap’s tire. Georgia law enforcement also gathered items from Hilton’s van. Items recovered from the van included clothing, jackets, gloves, camping equipment, duffel bags, two sleeping bags, Hi–Tec boots, a camera, tobacco rolling papers, Hilton’s Georgia driver’s license, tape, paper towels, maps, two BB pistols, a book purchased at a Tallahassee book store, and dog food.
On February 12, 2008, Sergeant David Graham and Detective Dawn Dennis with the Leon County Sheriff’s Office executed a search warrant on Hilton while he was in custody in Georgia. Hilton’s DNA was collected and the entire execution of the warrant was recorded. Portions of the recording were played for the jury.
On June 6, 2008, Sergeant Graham and two other officers drove Hilton from Georgia to Florida. Although Hilton was not questioned, he spoke for nearly the entire five-hour drive, which was recorded. The State also played portions of this recording at trial. Hilton stated:
I’m not all bad. I mean, you got to understand, I mean, I’m sure you can see. I mean, I’m a [expletive] genius, man. I’m not a—I’m not all bad. I just, you know, lost my mind for a little bit. Lost a grip on myself, man. What can I tell you? FBI and everybody else is trying to scratch their head, hey, guys don’t get started doing my shit at 61 years old. It just don’t happen, you know. Like there’s a retired FBI (indecipherable) named Cliff Van, Clifford Van Zandt, that keeps getting himself in the news, talking about me. And he said, this guy didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, he said. You know, in other words, he’s been doing this. But like I told you before, you know, when I saw you before, I said, remember, I said I’d give you one for free. Nothing before September, okay? I mean, I’m not joking, okay? I just, I got old and sick and couldn’t make a living and just lost, flat lost my [expletive] mind for a while, man. I couldn’t get a grip on it.
Additionally, Hilton made statements to a fellow inmate at the Leon County Jail that were overheard by Correctional Officer Caleb Wynn. Specifically, Hilton told inmate Summers that he could answer all the State Attorney’s questions if he would give him a life sentence, that he would reveal where the head was located, that his bayonet was used on Dunlap’s tire, that he would explain how he “pulled it off” on a busy highway, that he spent a few hours or a few days with Dunlap, and that he felt no regret other than getting caught.
The penalty phase began on February 17, 2011, during which the state called Clay Bridges of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Agent Bridges testified about Hilton’s prior felony conviction-the murder of Emerson in Georgia to which Hilton pleaded guilty. The State played Hilton’s taped conversation with law enforcement where he described kidnapping Emerson, holding her captive, and stripping her body naked to remove DNA and fiber evidence. He also stated that “you either kill them or you get caught.”
Hilton presented four expert witnesses who testified regarding his psychological condition: Dr. Joseph Wu, a psychiatrist and clinical director of the Brain Imaging Center at the University of California, Irvine; Dr. Charles Golden, a clinical neuropsychologist performing neuropsychological testing and examinations; Dr. Abbey Strauss, a psychiatrist with special expertise in psychopharmacology; and Dr. William Morton, a board certified psychiatric pharmacist and professor; and nine lay witnesses. The State then called Dr. Greg Prichard in rebuttal.
On February 21, 2011, the jury recommended unanimously that Gary Hilton be sentenced to death for the murder of Cheryl Dunlap.