Gary Michael Hilton and Jason Knapp
The arrest of Gary Michael Hilton for the alleged murder of Georgia hiker Meredith Emerson should not have brought back any memories for me. However, now that investigators are connecting Hilton to the murder of North Carolina hiker Irene Bryant and the disappearance of her husband John, people are starting to use words “serial killer.” The talk only gets more pointed when investigators continue to list Hilton as the primary suspect in the death of Cheryl Dunlap in Florida.
If you draw a line from northeast Georgia where Emerson died to Transylvania County, NC where the Irene Bryant died, you are going to cross a place called Table Rock in Pickens County, South Carolina. Though it’s not yet being reported in the national press, investigators in Pickens County are doing preliminary work to see if Hilton might have had any role in the disappearance of Jason Knapp in 1998.
Knapp, at the time a student at Clemson University, was a model student and member of the Air Force ROTC. He disappeared in April 1998. Investigators found Knapp’s car, a Chevy Beretta, at Table Rock State Park. Table Rock is a popular hiking and outdoor area in Upstate South Carolina. It has a number of interconnected trails, a couple of which reach to the top of Table Rock.
Despite massive search parties and an exhaustive investigation, no one ever found Knapp or his remains. Everyone has been left to assume he either fell off one of a bluff or, worse, ran into a drifter the likes of Gary Hilton. It’s impossible to say. From the perspective of a clumsy writer who has hiked the Table Rock summit, it would be very easy to fall. If one were alone, there would be no calling for help, especially in 1998 when cell phones were a little less common.
Still, because of Knapp’s disappearance and several unsolved murders and disappearances around the same time, investigators in Pickens and Oconee Counties (the two counties on either side of Clemson University) have never let go of the idea that Knapp might have been the victim of a killer. To wit:
Add to that Knapp’s disappearance in April 1998 and you have…what? Well, you have a bunch of cases in a two-county area that remain cold 10-15 years later. Because each of the cases is so dissimilar, investigators long ago gave up on the idea they are connected by anything other that geographic area. These same stories and memories pop up every time there is a high-profile case in the area, like when Tiffany Souers was murdered in her Clemson-area apartment in the summer of 2006.
This year will be the ten-year anniversary of Jason Knapp’s disappearance and presumed death. I know this because I spent many a year thinking about the case and dealing with its primary investigators. What’s more, I spent more than a little time with Knapp’s mother, Deborah Boogher.
Deborah was a mother in much the same way I suspect mine would be if I fell off the face of the planet. Though she lived hundreds of miles away, Knapp’s mother made regular trips to South Carolina to check in on the investigation and conduct a few of her own. One cold March morning, I joined her and a psychic on a trip to Table Rock State Park. My late partner and friend Chris, a photographer, and I spent the better part of a day on the trails around Table Rock. Never much of a supernatural guy myself, I had a hard time getting into the spirit of things. Still, I couldn’t help but be touched by how desperate Deborah had become. She was willing to try anything if it meant finding her son.
At the time, I wrote:
Boogher stood in the middle of the parking lot waiting for the psychic to begin. “I know people think it is crazy but I’ve been to other psychics over the years,” she explained, “They’ve all basically told me that Jason has died, but they’ve also told me they can’t find him because they are not what they call an investigative psychic.”
Cheri Mancuso, a short woman with a shock of dyed-red hair, bills herself as an investigative psychic. “We don’t know what to call me. There aren’t too many people that really do what I do,” Mancuso said.
The psychic stood quietly for a moment, her eyes closed, hands wrapped around a picture of Jason Knapp. She explained that if she started to move, the group should follow. Mancuso explained that she had a vision about Knapp a full year before she met Boogher. She said she saw the letters J and A and prophesied that she would soon learn of a missing college student. She later interpreted the J and A to be the first two letters of Jason’s name. Mancuso said she had more visions later. She said she saw Jason’s car parked next to an old, red pickup truck. She said she saw two girls driving a convertible around in the Table Rock parking lot.
She said she believed someone was hunting Knapp and that Knapp was scared. “I saw him huffing and puffing and he was out of breath,” she told the group. “I felt him just running and running and running and finally I just felt him collapse. Somewhere, Jason lies on a trail.”
It was a desperate day that ended and resulted with no resolution. The Gary Hilton case will likely result in the same, because, if everyone is being honest with himself, the connection is tenuous at best. There exists an almost ten-year span between the recent deaths and Knapp’s disappearance. All of Hilton’s alleged victims or suspected victims have either been women or, in the case of John Bryant, in the company of a woman. Furthermore, the trails at Table Rock are rather self contained and not a vital part of a larger trail system.
Still, when hope and time are all investigators and a mother have, Hilton is the closest thing anyone has had to a suspect in years.
And it never hurts to look.
*Hilton photo courtesy CNN