Feb. 5, 2008— -- North Carolina authorities tell ABC News they have evidence linking a man who pleaded guilty last week in the murder and decapitation of a Georgia hiker to the deaths of two other hikers in the North Carolina mountains last fall.
The body of John Bryant, 80, was found this weekend in the North Carolina woods. His wife Irene's body was found in November some 100 miles away three weeks after the couple went missing while on a hike in October.
Gary Michael Hilton, 61, a drifter, pleaded guilty in the murder of 24-year-old Meredith Emerson last week after leading Georgia authorities to her decapitated body. Like the Bryants, Emerson was reported missing after going for a hike in the woods with her dog on New Year's Day.
Now investigators in Florida are interested in tying Hilton to another decapitation death, this one in Florida's Apalachicola National Forest.
In North Carolina, Transylvania County Sheriff David Mahoney told ABC News that his department was almost certain that Hilton was responsible for both Bryant deaths. "We've uncovered evidence," Mahoney said when asked about Hilton's possible involvement. "We haven't spoken to any specific details, but at this point in the investigation, I am completely comfortable and confident that he is the suspect."
Brad Morris, the public defender who represented Hilton in Georgia, called the plea deal in the Emerson case "the best for all parties." He said he would not represent Hilton if charges were brought in either the North Carolina or the Florida cases.
Investigators in the Bryant case interviewed Hilton the day he pleaded guilty to murdering Emerson. The suspect was not cooperative during the meeting, Mahoney said.
The state medical examiner's office told ABC News Monday that skeletal remains found Saturday by a hunter in the Nantahala National Forest in Macon County, N.C., belonged to Bryant. The elderly man's cause of death has not been released.
The body of Bryant's 84-year-old wife, Irene, was found last November. She died from blunt force trauma to her head.
Under the terms of the deal Hilton cut with Georgia prosecutors last week, Hilton, who wore a bulletproof vest to his hearing, was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 30 years.
Mahoney said Hilton's incarceration will provide time to build the best possible case against the suspect before charges are filed in the Bryant investigation. Those charges, he added, could come from state or federal prosecutors because the bodies of John and Irene Bryant were recovered in national parks.
"We have the luxury of time being on our side in this case because Gary Hilton is not going anywhere," Mahoney said. "There's not someone at large in the community who's preying on a community and forcing us to get him off the street."
Mahoney would provide few details about what he believes Hilton's motive may have been in attacking the elderly hikers, but witnesses previously reported seeing Hilton in the same area where someone had tried to use the Bryants' ATM card after they vanished.
Hilton is also the "prime suspect" in the death of Cheryl Dunlap, according to Leon County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Rob Reisinger. Dunlap's decapitated body was found on Dec. 19 in Apalachicola National Forest, southwest of Tallahassee, Fla. Dunlap had been last seen on Dec. 1 and was reported missing after she failed to show up at a Sunday school class she taught. In that case, someone wearing a disguise tried to withdraw money from an ATM with her bank card shortly after she vanished.
Like Mahoney in North Carolina, Reisinger said authorities in Florida are satisfied to have Hilton locked up in Georgia while they work toward bringing charges in Dunlap's murder.
Prosecutors in Emerson's case say that Hilton originally intended to abduct the young woman and withdraw money from her bank account but later decided to kill her. An autopsy found that the Colorado native died by blunt trauma to the head and was decapitated three days after her disappearance. Hilton told authorities he used a tire jack to kill her.
Georgia, Florida and North Carolina authorities investigating the three cases met late last month to share over "500 pieces of evidence" involving Hilton, according to the Leon County Sheriff's Office. "These items ranged from photographic evidence to microscopic samples," a statement reads.
After Hilton was arrested in Emerson's murder, a videotape from October 2006 emerged that was filmed by a Georgia deputy's dashboard camera. The deputy was responding to a trespassing call at a private hunting reserve when he found Hilton in the wilderness.
Hilton told the deputy he was lost during a bizarre 20-minute exchange in which the drifter also revealed a collapsible baton that may have been used in one or more of the deaths.