Recently released documents show the earnest but futile efforts of law-enforcement officers who investigated Cheryl Dunlap's disappearance and brutal slaying.
Tips investigators received were all over the place. A heated conversation Dunlap had on the cell phone at work had new significance. Her relationship with her ex-husband — and a new romantic interest — were prodded. A boss acting strangely was reason enough to call the police.
A girlfriend was suspicious of her boyfriend's facial creme, which resembled the mask of the unknown man who used Dunlap's ATM card. A Florida State student came under suspicion for having a mask from the movie "Halloween."
With no solid leads to follow, officers were led every which way.
The 380-page stack of heavily redacted documents was released Thursday, and more is expected to be released later. The Tallahassee Democrat and WCTV filed motions to open the records to the public in July. But prosecutors and defense attorneys urged Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis to keep them sealed, fearing their release would make it hard to pick an unbiased jury in Leon County. Lewis took a middle road, closing the evidence temporarily.
The documents hint at Dunlap's whereabouts the day she disappeared. She did make it to a library to use the Internet, records show. She talked about getting together with a friend that Saturday night, but when she didn't call later, the friend was unconcerned, thinking something must've come up. Friends were worried the next day — Dec. 2, 2007 — when Dunlap didn't show up to teach her Sunday school class at the River of Life church.
She'd call, friends said, if she were going to be a minute late.
A friend reported her missing when she didn't report to work Dec. 3, 2007, at Florida State University's Thagard Student Health Center.
Deputies soon found her 2006 white Toyota abandoned with a flat tire on U.S. Highway 319 just inside the Leon County line. They discovered a puncture in a rear tire, but it's not clear whether that was an accident or an act of vandalism. No prints were lifted from the car, which was covered with rain.
Motorists reported seeing a woman resembling Dunlap and one or two other people near her car and a black Dodge Ram pickup, but the sightings are not consistent. One friend said Dunlap would have tried to change the tire herself or call friends for help. She'd never get in a car with a stranger.
Deputies went to her Crawfordville home and forced their way in to see if she was inside. Instead, they found her small chihuahua alone. Those who knew her said she would never go anywhere for an extended period without the dog.
Deputies were given one of their strongest leads Dec. 4, 2007: Dunlap's debit card had been used about 7 a.m. at the Hancock Bank ATM on West Tennessee Street and the previous two days by a man wearing a mask, according to a bank surveillance tape. Investigators spent hours that evening staked out in the parking lot and questioned a couple in a tow truck. But there was no sign of the man.
State wildlife officers flew a helicopter over Leon Sinks that day.
Investigators talked to friends and fielded reports from the public for days. Someone reported seeing her Saturday morning at the Wal-Mart in Crawfordville. Another tipster said she was at the Target store on Apalachee Parkway. Law enforcement reviewed surveillance videos but were unable to confirm the tips.
By the ninth day of searching, investigators were following up on leads. One officer received information that Dunlap had been seen at Leon Sinks reading a book by V.C. Andrews. A detective checked bookstores in Tallahassee, including the Borders on Apalachee Parkway, to see whether she had purchased books there.
As leads dwindled, investigators put the call out for the public's help identifying the man in the bank-surveillance tape and the owner of the black truck. Later, they asked citizens to help find a camouflage-wrapped truck also seen in the video. Deputies received a barrage of tips, but the reports indicate neither truck was found.
A glimmer of hope emerged when a Greyhound bus station employee reported he spoke with a woman Dec. 12, 2007, who he thought resembled Dunlap. The woman had bought a round-trip ticket to Gainesville.
On Dec. 15, 2007, hunters in the Apalachicola National Forest found Dunlap's body partially covered with palmetto leaves and branches. They had noticed buzzards after turning onto Forest Service Road 381-E.
A report from a U.S. Forest Service employee indicates buzzards were seen flying low over the forest as early as Dec. 7, 2007.
It wasn't until another woman went missing in the Georgia woods on New Year's Day that investigators fingered Gary Michael Hilton as Dunlap's killer. Communicating with Georgia investigators about Jan. 7, 2008, local law enforcement noticed similarities between Dunlap's case and that of 24-year-old hiker Meredith Emerson, according to reports. Hilton was indicted by a Leon County grand jury in February on a charge of first-degree murder, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
After the connection to Emerson was made, new leads rolled in about sightings of a tall, thin man who lived out of a white Chevrolet Astro van and had a reddish-colored dog.
A Leon sheriff's deputy had followed up on a tip Dec. 26, 2007, that a man matching Hilton's description had been seen in the forest, but after more than an hour searching, the deputy found nothing. Two days later, Hilton was some 150 miles away in the Osceola National Forest, where he received a ticket from a ranger for having an expired license plate.
Reports show law enforcement thinks Hilton had been living in the Leon County area for sometime. Federal officers reported seeing Hilton in the Apalachicola National Forest before Dunlap went missing.
On Nov. 16, 2007, a man now thought to be Hilton was seen with a dog walking west on a forest road, hiking in a two-piece jogging suit and a tan hat with a large bill and flaps on the sides and back. Two officers spoke with him about safety and camping regulations.
The next day, a federal officer discovered Hilton west of a forest road. Hilton said he liked to go long-distance hiking and that "if you come to a (Wildlife Management Area) that you would get patted down." The officer ran Hilton's driver's license and then let him go on a warning about driving on closed roads and camping in an unauthorized place.
Investigators learned Hilton was seen Dec. 10, 2007, using a pay phone at Glenda's Country Store, 525 Crawfordville Highway.
A woman reported seeing someone who resembled Hilton at the store. She said they talked about the organized search for Dunlap around Leon Sinks. She told investigators she didn't think anything of it — she assumed the man was assisting in the search. She later saw him as she and her aunt were searching for Dunlap a quarter-mile east of Forest Service Road 381 E. They thought he was hunting.
(Source : Tallahassee.com)