Tragic end for 'unique' couple

Horse Shoe, N.C. --- Irene Bryant loved the outdoors and nature so much she begged a neighbor to call if he ever spotted deer in the area so she could slip outside for a peek.

Her husband John "Jack" Bryant's passion for hiking was so strong that he conquered the entire 2,000-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail, hiking in short stints over a period of years, his dedication never flagging despite pain from an arthritic back.

Even into their 80s, the couple pursued their love of the outdoors, hiking weekly and taking spur-of-the-moment overseas trips to exotic locations. Irene Bryant was 84; her husband would've turned 80 in late October.

But their love of nature ended in tragedy, authorities say, when the Bryants apparently crossed paths with Gary Michael Hilton. Police suspect the 61-year-old drifter encountered them just 20 miles from their home after the Bryants drove out for a hike in Pisgah National Forest at the peak of the fall color season in October.

Irene Bryant's body was found three weeks later, covered with a few twigs and leaves, just 50 paces from where the couple had parked their Ford Escape on Yellow Gap Road. She died of blunt trauma to the head.

Jack Bryant's body has not been found, but a few days after they went missing, someone used their ATM card to withdraw $300 from a bank in Ducktown, Tenn. Video from a security camera shows a shadowy figure wearing a hooded yellow raincoat. A delivery truck driver in Ducktown told the Times-News, a western North Carolina newspaper, that she recalls seeing Hilton in the area at the time.

Transylvania County Sheriff David Mahoney says Hilton is a suspect in Irene Bryant's death and Jack Bryant's disappearance, and has scheduled a 2 p.m. press conference today concerning the case. "I think it will say what everybody's been thinking we're going to say, " Mahoney said. "He is the suspect."

The Atlanta-area suspect, described by many as eccentric and mean-spirited, has been charged with the decapitation killing of 24-year-old Meredith Emerson, who went hiking in the North Georgia mountains on New Year's Day. He also is a suspect in the murder of Cheryl Hodges Dunlap, 46, whose body was found in Florida's Apalachicola National Forest on Dec. 15.

North Carolina officials also are looking at possible links between Hilton and the 2005 disappearance of a Florida woman in Bryson City, N.C., while Florida police are searching for connections with the Nov. 27 decapitation of a man in Ormond Beach.

Law enforcement officials from North Carolina and Georgia met Tuesday with agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to discuss possible links.

A lifelong passion

Married for 58 years, the Bryants shared a lifelong love of the outdoors, a pull so strong it steered many of their life decisions. Both were successful professionals, with Irene Bryant something of a pioneer in veterinary medicine.

Born in the Pacific Northwest, they lived for a time in Montana, then moved to the picturesque Finger Lakes district of upstate New York. For retirement, they chose Horse Shoe, N.C., a small town in the southern Appalachians just 20 miles from Pisgah National Forest, a hiker's dream of steep mountains, lush forests and roaring white-water streams.

Friends and family describe the couple as remarkably generous, adventurous, engaging and unpretentious. Jack Bryant had a moral compass so strong he consistently under-billed his small upstate New York village for his work as town attorney, even after colleagues told him he should raise his rates.

"He said all these other people volunteer as firefighters and in other ways, " said Charlie Major, who served as a local official alongside Bryant for more than two decades. "Jack said, 'This is my donation.' "

"My parents were unique people in that they considered what they wanted out of life and then pursued it, " said their daughter, Holly Bryant, who lives in Florida. "Everyone thinks they do this, but few actually do. Little things that are in reality unimportant tend to get in the way. My parents lived a full life and were a delight to know. They will be missed by so many."

The couple hiked since their youth, and as they prospered became world travelers with a taste for adventure that stunned many of their friends.

Jack Bryant was initially an engineer but later earned a law degree at Cornell, settling into a practice in Syracuse but also serving as town attorney in Skaneateles, a nearby town of 7,500 where the couple lived. He worked summers on the St. Lawrence Seaway while attending law school.

Irene Bryant, the first in her family to attend college, took her doctorate from Washington State College and opened a veterinary practice concentrating on large animals, becoming one of the first women vets in Montana. That's where the couple met and married, often going for hikes on their dates.

Irene had a large-animal practice for a time in New York but gave it up while raising the couple's three boys and one girl. She was driven by an insatiable curiosity and took graduate-level college courses in everything from psychology to forestry and ichthyology (the study of fish).

"She gave up her practice because I think she liked going to school better, " Holly Bryant said. "She was a scientist at heart. She had an extensive insect collection, and she loved gardening. She was a very interesting character. My father said she wasn't cut out of a cookie-cutter. She was unique."

The outdoors and travel were the couple's passion. As their children grew up, they expanded their horizons with trips around the globe. They loved New Zealand and Switzerland but also traveled the United States, particularly the Southwest.

Town workers in Skaneateles delighted each Christmas in receiving cards from the Bryants, which often showed them on some far-away mountaintop but included hand-written personal notes for each recipient.

Each year, Skaneateles officials would attend an annual conference in New York City, and Major was amazed at the unofficial tours that Jack Bryant would lead.

"He knew all these places in the city that tourists never go, and we'd walk everywhere, " he said. "He wasn't afraid of any part of town. He'd sway from left to right as he walked, and he could go forever. He had this back condition, and I think he took up hiking so he wouldn't get worse."

Jack suffered from arthritis of the spine, his daughter said, and doctors at one point advised him to cut back on physical activity, especially hiking. His response was to soldier on.

"He said, 'If I can't hike ... that's what I live for, ' " Holly Bryant recalled. "He was a very strong-willed person. He had some medical problems, but he wouldn't allow it to hold him back. He kept slogging away."

Despite the pain, Jack realized the ultimate dream shared by many hikers, completing the entire Appalachian Trail, starting in Maine and ending up at Springer Mountain in northern Georgia, a trip that took years to complete in successive hikes of a week or more.

When retirement loomed, Jack Bryant characteristically did a methodical study, settling on western North Carolina because of its natural beauty and a wealth of nearby hiking trails, Holly Bryant said. In the early 1990s, they moved to Horse Shoe, just outside Hendersonville, buying a neat one-story brick home on a cul-de-sac in a quiet neighborhood.

"They were the best neighbors you could ever want, " said Matt Matteson, a community college administrator who lives across the street. "They were self-effacing and gracious. They liked the theater and music, and if they had tickets to a show they couldn't attend, they'd call and offer them to us."

The couple hiked almost weekly, typically setting out for day hikes in the gorgeous Pisgah Forest, which is crisscrossed by trails running through deep ravines studded with rhododendron, hemlock and laurel and climbing to the 5,000-foot peaks that dominate the skyline.

"They took trails we'd never do, " neighbor Rolland Walk said.

The couple also traveled overseas frequently. "They kept bags packed with everything they would need, down to their toothbrushes, " Major recalled. "Jack would search the Internet for seats the airlines offer cheap at the last minute. They often just took off at a moment's notice."

At home, Irene Bryant tended her beloved garden --- she particularly loved impatiens --- and also be-came an award-winning quilter.

Jack Bryant volunteered his services to his neighborhood association as legal adviser, helping rewrite the group's covenants, Matteson said.

While many retirees move to a new place and find themselves a bit disappointed, missing their old routines and friends, the Bryants thrived in North Carolina just as they thrived all during their lives, friends said.

"They just loved to be together, " Walk said. "They would wake up with the sun shining and take the opportunity to go hiking. That was fine with them."

THE STORY SO FAR

Gary Michael Hilton, 61, faces a murder charge in Dawson County for allegedly killing 24-year-old Buford hiker Meredith Emerson. A glance at the latest news:

Tuesday's developments

> Investigators and prosecutors from Georgia, North Carolina and Florida met for 1 1/2 hours Tuesday morning in Cleveland, Ga., to discuss possible links between Emerson's accused killer and several cases of other missing or dead hikers. GBI spokesman John Bankhead said authorities shared evidence and theories about their cases and their possible connections to Hilton.

> A spokeswoman with North Carolina's State Bureau of Investigation confirmed agents are "considering the possibility of a connection" between Hilton and a 26-year-old woman who went missing on Dec. 7, 2005. Rossana Miliani, a Florida woman, was last seen that day while hiking in western North Carolina. A store clerk from Bryson City, N.C., recently told a private investigator that Miliani came into her store with a white man in his 60s and appeared nervous when they bought a backpack.

Other cases

> Hilton is considered a "prime suspect" in the disappearance of John and Irene Bryant, an elderly North Carolina couple last seen hiking in the Pisgah National Forest. Irene Bryant's body was found Nov. 9, while her husband remains missing and is presumed dead. A major announcement is expected today.

> Hilton is being called a prime suspect in the murder of Cheryl Dunlap, 46, a Florida nurse and Sunday school teacher who was last seen Dec. 1. Her decapitated body was found Dec. 15. Officials with the Leon County Sheriff's Office confirm Hilton was in the area Dec. 7. They spent Tuesday examining evidence provided by the GBI. State attorney William Meggs said he has enough evidence to charge Hilton with the crime.

> Officials in Ormond Beach, Fla., have sent blood and DNA evidence to the GBI to determine if Hilton may have been involved in the dismemberment of Michael Scot Louis, 27, whose remains were found next to the Tomoka River on Dec. 7. So far no evidence links Hilton and no one has placed him at the scene.

--- Christian Boone

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