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Suspected serial killer stands trial in Florida

Local investigator to be in courtroom

POSTED: February 9, 2011 4:00 a.m.

The murder trial of suspected serial killer Gary Michael Hilton continues this week in northern Florida.


Hilton, who is serving a life sentence for the January 2008 slaying of Meredith Hope Emerson in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area, is facing the death penalty in Florida.


He is charged with killing Cheryl Dunlap inside the Apalachicola National Forest.


Hilton escaped the death penalty in Georgia by agreeing to lead investigators to Emerson’s body in Dawson County.


When Emerson was killed three years ago, Dawson County Sheriff’s Maj. John Cagle was nearing his retirement as a special agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.


Cagle is not scheduled to testify in the Florida case, but plans to be in the courtroom as early as Monday.


As the lead GBI investigator in the local case, he developed a close connection with Emerson’s family.


“We’ve stayed in touch, and I’ve kept them up to speed on the progress of this trial,” Cagle said.


“Once I told them I was going to go down for the penalty phase, they asked if I’d deliver a personal message to the Dunlap family.”


Cagle has been following the case through a live Internet feed from the Leon County courtroom, where Hilton is dressed in a suit and tie.


Cagle said Hilton, who wore an orange inmate jumpsuit when pleading guilty to Emerson’s slaying on Jan. 31, 2008, isn’t fooling anyone with the “get-up.”


“They may have dressed him up a little bit, but you really can’t take away the sociopath in somebody by putting a coat and tie on him,” he said. “He is absolutely the same person that was here.


“You can look at him and see the same person we saw the night we arrested him — just a coward sitting there.”


Cagle said he’s looking forward to Hilton’s conviction in Florida, “so North Carolina authorities can proceed with the case they have against him.” 


Hilton is also suspected in the 2007 double slayings of John and Irene Bryant in Pisgah National Forest, though he has not been charged in that case.


“Once this one is done in Florida, hopefully I’ll get to go to North Carolina,” Cagle said. “I think once this case is concluded, North Carolina will step in, indict him and move forward with their case.”


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