Category Archives: Crime

The Trial of Gary Michael Hilton…and His Dog

Hilton is now on trial in Tallahassee for the murder of Cheryl Dunlap, a 46 year-old nurse and Sunday School teacher who was reported missing when she didn’t show up to teach her Sunday School class on Sunday, December 2, 2007.  The day before, she went hiking alone in the Apalachicola National Forest.  In broad daylight. 

At that time, Hilton was 60 years old, gray-haired, and deceptively harmless looking.  Plus–he had a dog.  Among the many chilling pieces of evidence presented is a video of Hilton squatting down beside his dog, petting her and saying, “That’s my baby”.  In another, which is mostly audio, because it’s unclear whether he knew the camera was stiil recording, he says “I killed those bitches.  Now we will go to the park, but first I have to get rid of some stuff”.  Good job.  Make sure you feed your dog and take her to the park after the hard work of killing and dismembering  innocent people. 

I don’t know where he was at that time, but he was either driving north from Tallahassee to Georgia, or back.  From Tallahassee, he drove to another forest in north Georgia, where another woman was hiking alone (in broad daylight) with her dog Ella.  This was Meredith Emerson, who was 24 years old.  Age and sex don’t seem to matter to this guy.  It isn’t like a TV show, where serial killers have a “type”.  This guy was looking for someone to kill, and an opportunity to do it in a remote setting where he thought his chances of getting caught were nil.  And we know he killed Meredith Emerson, because he admitted it, in exchange for not getting the death penalty in Georgia. 

If you watch enough Law And Order, you know that a confession is not really enough.   In this case, he took them to the location of Meredith’s body.  No one but the killer could have known where that was.  They had been searching for weeks. 

He killed Meredith Emerson and beheaded her, whatever good he thought that would do him, but he couldn’t bring himself to kill her dog Ella.  So he let Ella go, and she eventually turned up at a convenience store in the area.  That “weakness” on his part was part of his undoing. 

Which brings me back to the dogs.  When I watched the video of him with his dog, I felt that he came across as an extreme example of the kind of person who says “I like dogs better than I like people”.  Well, me too, quite often, but I don’t want to kill anybody.  And in reality, his dog was just a lure.  A tool. 

One of the people I work with is very unglued by the trial, because he hunts in the same general area where Cheryl Dunlap’s body was discovered.  Her body was in fact discovered by hunters, even though again, the authorities had been searching for some time.  (I thought that’s what Bloodhounds were for.)  It could have been him who discovered her body, or, he might have encountered Hilton himself.  It seems very personal to him.  My response: you’re hunting.  At least you have a gun. 

Thinking that through, I think Hilton would have been less likely to try to approach someone with a gun.  But as the hunter with a gun, you aren’t there to shoot people.  Could you do it?  Would you even be able to think fast enough to switch gears and say” I need to do it”?

There are barely words for the cynicism, or sociopathy, or pathology it takes to use a dog in the fashion GMH did.  As my coworker pointed out, it would be so natural to encounter a stranger with dog and engage in conversation and get close. (Close enough to get dragged into a van.)  What a pretty dog.  What’s her name?  Can I pet her?  How old is she?  What kind of dog is she?  Sure you can walk this trail with me! 

I wonder what has happened to Hilton’s dog.  I don’t like to think about what she may have witnessed…or participated in.

Reading With Fakename: A Twisted Faith

Before writing this, I did something I’ve never done before previous book reviews:  I looked online for other reviews of the same book.  That’s because I was hoping to find more synonyms for the word “vile”.  It isn’t the book that’s vile, it’s the main character.  “Character” isn’t exactly the word; this is non-fiction. 

The setting:  Kitsap County in Washington State, which includes the city of Bremerton, and an island in Puget Sound between Bremerton and Seattle called Bainbridge Island.  On Bainbridge Island, there was a little church called Christ Community Church, which started out as an affiliate of the Assemblies of God.   Now we must pause for a moment to discuss Fakename’s religious beliefs.

Okay, I’m glad we got that out of the way.  So I may not be the best person to judge how seriously awry things can go when religion is involved, but I will say that I believe not all religions are created equally.  For instance there is the guy who rides a peacock.  (I heard of him from the other book I read this week, House Rules, by Jody Picoult–an excellent book.)

In any case, the out-there religions always seem to have a serious sexual sublimation thing going on.  That whole thing of being possessed by the Holy Spirit.  Riding peacocks. 

(Look out for that cobra.)

So to make a long story short, our anti-hero is a guy named Nick  Hacheney, who is the youth pastor for the church.  Then he either volunteers or is assigned to do couples counseling, which is the ultimate fox/henhouse scenario.  Discord and chaos follow wherever he goes.  Then tragedy strikes…his own young wife dies in a house fire on the morning after Christmas Day in 1997, while he is away duck-hunting with the senior pastor and the senior pastor’s youngest daughter. 

Nick then proceeds to fuck his way through the female population of the church, beginning only days after his wife’s death.  Please pardon the language, but no other word seems to quite do the trick.  Being that he’s fat and ugly, it’s amazing that he gets away with it.

Five years after his wife’s death (talk about condensing a book–I ought to be hired by Reader’s Digest), he’s convicted of murder and arson.  The arson conviction is eventually overturned, which means he is eligible for parole in 2025. 

So, how did he get away with blazing his path of destruction through the women of the church?  Here is Fakename’s theory of the crime (and we are skipping their vulnerability and his sociopathy):  he needed a hook.  With one exception–he was already having an affair before the death of his wife–he needed a way into the hearts (and pants) of the women he knew.  Had he tried it while his wife was alive, he would have been just your average run-of-the-mill sleazebag and adulterer.  But afterwards, he was Mr. Sad Eyes.  He was suffering so terribly.  He needed emotional and physical comfort.  He claimed to be as mystified as the women were by his need.  He could only conclude that God wanted him to do it.  Of course, God wanted them to do it too.  Talk about a pick-up line. 

One of the women was his mother-in-law.  How repulsive is that?  Last week, I mentioned that reading The Politician, about John Edwards, made me want to keep washing my hands.  Reading this one made me want to find a decontamination chamber. 

Twisted was a good choice of words.

Tallahassee News…Part 2

Before I get into this, let me state for the record…I like it here.  It’s my adopted hometown.  What is it about us Americans?  A huge percentage of us can’t wait to get out of wherever we grew up.  And I’m no different.  Hell would be being forced to live in the small town where I mostly grew up. 

But I’ve been fortunate since that time to have lived in six different cities, some way larger and more legendary than this one.  In each one, I met loads of people who couldn’t wait to leave, though most of them never did.  They just stayed in place and whined.  From them, I learned the art of appreciating where you are at the moment.  I always saw “their” cities through new eyes.

When I moved here from West Palm Beach, a friend told me I was going to hate it. He said, it’s so…provincial.  You will not fit in.  When I returned to West Palm after my first visit, I told him…You forgot to mention that it’s beautiful there.  Well, he said, there is that. 

When I define Tallahassee, it breaks down to:  it’s the State Capital, it has two major universities, and it has a lot of trees.  I think it’s pretty cool that in the course of my everyday life, I can drive by Andrew’s Capital Grill and see the governor having lunch on the patio.  Politics, thought and enthusiasm generated by the university atmosphere, and lots of live oaks.  What’s not to like?

According to the 2000 Census, the Tallahassee MSA has a population of 284,000-plus, and 150,000-plus within the city limits.  But its size does not begin to define it.  So now we move on to yesterday’s news. 

One of the universities here is Florida State, and one of the top ongoing stories is that they are being sanctioned by the NCAA for a cheating scandal.  To condense, some 60 or so student athletes cheated on an online music appreciation course (oh, stop me from picturing Bubba trying to understand Bach), aided by 3 staff members.  So the NCAA, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to vacate any victories by FSU in games  those students played in.  The big deal about that is that if that holds, Bobby Bowden will fall way behind Joe Paterno in the quest to be the winningest coach ever.  Okay, fine.  Yawn.  But that isn’t the story.  The story is that when the NCAA issued its decision in reply to FSU’s appeal, they said FSU couldn’t tell anybody what it said.  They sent a read-only file to FSU’s lawyers.  The local newspaper sued.  Finally the State Attorney General sent them a letter saying they were in violation of Florida’s open records law.  Then and only then, the NCAA said FSU could release the records, but they themselves wouldn’t, and didn’t feel bound by that silly Florida law.  So that is the story.  I always thought that the NCAA were the good guys.  Who knew they were fascists?

The other important story in the news yesterday concerned Gary Michael Hilton, who is awaiting trial here for the murder of  a nurse a couple of years ago.  She was found decapitated in the Appalachicola National Forest.  The story was that the Ormond Beach authorities are looking at him for the murder of a decapitated man found in a state park near there.  In that case, his head has never been found.  Gary Michael Hilton confessed to the murder (and decapitation) of a young woman in Georgia, and was sentenced to life in prison for it.  Only because he confessed.  So he will go back to Georgia to spend his life in prison, unless Florida kills him first. 

I went through a tough moment when I was called for jury duty some months ago.  I was afraid that I might be called upon to be in a death penalty case, such as Gary Michael Hilton.  I think Hilton is a monster and a serial killer.  If a jury convicted him and sentenced him to death, I would be okay with that.  It’s just that I couldn’t do it myself.  It’s a contradiction, I know, and trying to reconcile it in my mind gives me a headache. 

So Tallahassee is not that provincial, as provincial goes.  We’ve got high school teachers having sex with students, the NCAA acting like the Gestapo, and serial killers in jail in our midst.  This is, after all, the place where Ted Bundy got caught.

The Persistence of Memory…Or Not

Sunday on 60 Minutes there was an episode about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony.  A white woman who was raped identified a black man named Ronald Cotton as her attacker.  During the attack, she spent her time memorizing every feature she could about her rapist.  Eventually, she identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker in both a photo lineup and a physical lineup.  He was convicted.  She says outright that she hoped he would be raped in prison, and then killed.  Mr. Cotton said he was innocent. 

Then, while in prison, Mr. Cotton learned there was a person who had just been admitted, who had confessed to raping the victim in his case.  There was a new trial.  The victim, sitting in the courtroom, faced with both Mr. Cotton and the new suspect (who did look a lot like him, as Cotton admits), a guy named Poole, resolutely identified Mr. Cotton as her rapist.  He was convicted again, this time if I’m not mistaken, sentenced to two life terms. She was totally sure it was him. 

The only thing was, it wasn’t him.  It was Poole.  The whole thing happened prior to DNA testing, but once it was done, it was proved that Poole was the guy, and Cotton was released.  By this time, he had spent 11 years in prison for something he didn’t do.  The victim was in shock.  She asked to meet him.  She said, If I asked you every day for the rest of my life to forgive me, I will never be able to repay you.  And he said, “I forgive you right now.” 

Now the victim and Cotton are touring the country together, talking to law enforcement about the danger of relying too much on eyewitness testimony.  They have written a book together, entitled Picking Cotton.  An unfortunate title if you ask me, but perhaps they chose it precisely for its shock value.    Stress interferes with memory, and that’s been known for a long time.  No matter how hard she tried, the victim wasn’t really able to “remember” accurately. 

Before you start to think this is a case of white women thinking all black men look alike, consider that much of the program then showed research on the issue, which had men and women trying to identify the faces of mostly white men which had been slightly altered.  The face may have looked the same, but the eyes were slanted upwards instead of down, or some other subtle alteration of that nature.  The reporter, Leslie Stahl, failed the test. 

Back in the ’70’s, my friend and great love Art, who was a psychology professor, did a class which almost got him fired.  He arranged for an acting student to “shoot” him and his co-professor during class.  My roommate and I were in on the deal.  I got to help, the week before, selecting the fake blood they would use, which would be kept in a packet in their shirt pockets that they could smack and burst open when they were “shot”.  Ketchup did not work.  In the end we concluded that the chicken blood they got from a butcher was the most realistic. 

This actually was a re-creation of an experiment that had already been performed at another school.  While my job was to help select the “blood”, my roommate’s job was to start screaming after the “shooting” and create hysteria.  The “shooter” was a black actor (the students were mostly white, so that by itself should have made him stand out) who was outrageously dressed—you know, plaid pants, striped shirt, funny hat, outrageous colors.  The plan after the “shooting” was to have the students describe him. 

As you might guess, this went horribly wrong.  My part in it shames me to this day.  Seemed like harmless fun at the time.  Once my roommate screamed, it was absolute pandemonium.  There was a stampede.  The event took place in an auditorium that sat perhaps 300 students, and it was  jam-packed.  Art was a very popular teacher.  The “shooter” ran out the door at the bottom of the auditorium, then, as instructed, he ran up the stairs to come in the back door of the auditorium, where he met possibly the only person who remembered what he looked like, and she literally almost died of fright.  She dropped out.  Her parents sued the school. 

Some students were rounded up (there were teaching assistants outside the doors to head off mass panic, saying go back in, it isn’t real, they’re not really dead).   The remaining students were asked to describe the “shooter”, and no one could.  I’m talking no one.  He was black, he was white.  He was wearing a hat, he wasn’t wearing a hat.  He had a beard, he was clean-shaven.  His shirt was blue, it was white. 

So I’m talking 30 years ago.  Why are the courts still using eyewitness testimony from people who’ve been traumatized?  That was addressed too.  Eyewitness testimony remains very important, but it’s value seems to be greater and more reliable if you were not the victim but were a witness to the crime.  I can personally testify to the truth of that.  I was once robbed at gunpoint.  That sort of thing focuses the mind.  I thought I woud never forget the guy, but later all I could remember was his teeth and his gun.  In court, I would not say that it was the guy they arrested.  The prosecutor was very mad at me.  But a guy who worked for me, who was never threatened, said, it’s him.  And he was convicted. 

This story was like many stories in one.  On one hand it was about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, but it was also about the power of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is really hard, and there are always those who will say that Ronald Cotton is being a sap.  But forgiveness has to start somewhere, and only the wronged can give it.  There is power in that.