Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Drifter suspected in murders of veterinarian and her husband

A man who pleaded guilty to the murder and decapitation of a hiker is also a suspect in the deaths of Dr. Irene W. Bryant and her husband, John. They were slain late last year while hiking in North Carolina's Pisgah National Forest.

Gary M. Hilton, a drifter, confessed to murdering and decapitating Meredith Emerson in Georgia while she was hiking. Then on Feb. 28, Hilton was indicted for the murder of Cheryl Dunlap. Her headless body was found in December in Florida's Apalachicola National Forest, according to published reports.

Hilton, 61, admitted to killing Emerson when he encountered her hiking in the north Georgia mountains with her dog on New Year's Day 2008. Under a plea agreement with Georgia prosecutors, he was sentenced to life in prison for Emerson's death and will be eligible for parole in 30 years.

Florida prosecutors say they will seek the death penalty against Hilton for Dunlap's murder.

At press time in mid-March, North Carolina investigators continued to build their case against Hilton, who could also face federal charges, since the bodies of the Bryants and Dunlap were recovered in national parks.

The Bryants, who lived in Hendersonville, N.C., went missing during a hike in October 2007. Dr. Byant's bludgeoned body was found Nov. 9 in Pisgah forest. Her husband's body was discovered about 100 miles away in early February in North Carolina's Nantahala National Forest.

Dr. Bryant, 84, was a retired large animal veterinarian who, for a time, owned a practice in Skaneateles, N.Y., before she and John retired to North Carolina. Born in Oregon, Dr. Bryant earned a DVM degree from Washington State College in 1947 and had been one of the few women practicing veterinary medicine in Montana, according to her family.

In addition to her love of travel and the outdoors, Dr. Bryant was an avid gardener; she taught classes in gardening and flower arranging, and was a flower show judge and garden club president. She also studied judo and karate. See page 990 for Dr. Bryant's obituary.

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