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Drifter pleads guilty to killing NC hikers in 2007

In this April 3, 2008 file photo, Gary Michael Hilton appears at the Lamar County Superior Courthouse in Barnesville, Ga.

In this April 3, 2008 file photo, Gary Michael Hilton appears at the Lamar County Superior Courthouse in Barnesville, Ga.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — A man convicted of murders in Florida and Georgia pleaded guilty Tuesday to ambushing and killing an elderly North Carolina couple hiking in a national forest.

Gary Michael Hilton, 65, accepted a plea deal and will be sentenced to life in prison for the murders of John and Irene Bryant in 2007, U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said. Hilton camped out for victims before he encountered the Hendersonville couple, who were both in their 80s, as they hiked in the Pisgah National Forest in Transylvania County, prosecutors said.

Hilton was already on Florida's death row for killing 46-year-old Cheryl Dunlap, who was found dead in north Florida's Apalachicola National Forest where Hilton had camped. He also was sentenced to life in prison for murdering 24-year-old hiker Meredith Emerson, from Buford, in northern Georgia in 2008. Both of those victims were beheaded.

"This is a just outcome, reached after consideration of all the facts and circumstances of this case," Tompkins said in a statement. "We trust that the fact that Mr. Hilton will spend the rest of his life in a prison, locked away from all civilized society, will bring some closure, if not comfort, to the Bryant family."

The bodies of the four victims were found over a span of several months starting in late 2007.

Hilton also pleaded guilty to robbery, kidnapping and firearms charges related to the killings of the Bryants in October 2007. The murder case was in federal court because the Bryants were killed in a national forest. Hilton remains in federal custody in North Carolina.

Family and friends said the Bryants were avid hikers who walked the 2,1818-mile Appalachian Trail as well as trails in Europe and New Zealand. They were killed not far from their home.