The Sanctuary

In 2015, when a young man shows up dead in a doorway of a historic church in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, rumors about who stabbed him to death run rampant in communities surrounding Cherokee, North Carolina. The identity of the predators who took his life surprise those closest to the victim and people living on the sacred land they considered to be a sanctuary in its own right.

The Episode

Hi park enthusiasts,

I’m your host Delia D’Ambra and the case I’m going to tell you about today takes place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park…a park I’ve mentioned several times throughout the first two seasons of this show.

Last season I told you about the case of missing father, Michael Heron and the mindboggling disappearance of Trenny Lynn Gibson.

There’s no doubt that the Smoky Mountains have a lot of wild stories and secrets. I’m pretty sure the reason I keep coming back to this park for episode material is because it keeps giving it.

Every year millions of people visit or camp in the Smoky Mountains…and it’s just a hot spot for stories that fit the bill for this podcast.

I mean, look, I know crime and murders happen everywhere…but there’s definitely something about the Smokies that just tends to draw a lot of bizarre happenings.

Maybe it’s just inherent to the landscape or the fact that the park borders a couple of states and can be accessed by several major highways.

I’m not sure what exactly it is but the Smokies running streak of murders and missing persons mysteries has stayed strong.

And a crime that happened in March of 2015 is no exception.

This story is probably one of the most violent and strangest crimes I’ve read about.

It took place inside a historic church several miles inside the boundary of the park and left a 25-year-old man dead on the altar and a disturbing trail of clues that led authorities to two men who were in the victim’s inner circle and were people he called friends.

This is Park Predators.

On Sunday March 29th, 2015 at 2:50 in the morning, a 911 dispatcher at an emergency communications center for the Cherokee Indian Police Department received a call from a panicked young man.

The caller’s voice sounded strained and breathless. He told the dispatcher that he was several miles inside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park inside an old historic church…and wanted to report that a man had been stabbed and needed medical attention right away.

The operator had just a few seconds to take down those details and the man’s name before the caller hung up. The guy who’d called said his name was Raven York and the reason authorities needed to hurry was because the man inside the church was bleeding all over the place. He said the name of the building was Smokemont Baptist Church…an old one-story church that was not an actual functioning religious institution, but more of a historic landmark.

Right away the dispatcher sent officers and paramedics from the Cherokee Reservation to the scene. Around the same time, the National Park Service got word of the call and also sent several law enforcement rangers to the church’s location.

The church itself sat roughly three miles North of the town of Cherokee, North Carolina. It’s still around today and sits on a hill that overlooks a popular lodging area known as Smokemont Campground. It isn’t very far from the turn off for highway 441, which is also called Newfound Gap Road.

Investigators with Cherokee Police and the National Park Service got to the scene first and made their way inside the historic building. Everything was eerily quiet and dark.

They only got a few steps inside the sanctuary before they found the body of a young man who looked to be in his mid-twenties lying face up on the floor of a doorway near the base of the bell tower.

The man’s body was surrounded by a large pool of blood. In addition to the widening red stain all over the floor, the man also had blood covering his face, upper torso, arms, and there was a lot of blood soaked into his camouflage pants and jacket. When first responders checked him for a pulse, they didn’t find one and determined he was definitely dead.

Right away, everyone inside the church took a step back and called for special agents from the Charlotte FBI field office about three hours away. According to reporting by the Citizen Times, the crime scene was technically on federal land and overlapped with acreage inside the Cherokee Indian Reservation. So, that automatically made the FBI the lead agency responsible for investigating the case. But until agents arrived from Charlotte, the NPS’s investigative services bureau and other local law enforcement agencies stuck around to assist. One of the first things they did was call in the Swain County medical examiner.

When that guy arrived, he examined the victim’s body more closely and discovered several rips and tears in the man’s pants and jacket that coincided with multiple stab wounds on his chest, neck, hands and wrists.

From the looks of it, the young man had sustained a large number of cuts to the back of his right hand, knuckles and lower forearm. The cuts weren’t between his fingers though OR on the inside of his palm which indicated to the assistant medical examiner that the victim had likely tried to fight off his attacker BUT had never actually grabbed the blade of the sharp weapon that was being wielded at him.

The wounds to his neck and chest were clearly the ones that had killed him…but the assistant M-E couldn’t be sure until a full autopsy was done. Before removing his body, the doctor turned the victim over and noted that even more stab wounds had been inflicted to the back of his neck and one of his shoulder blades.

It was clear…whoever had committed this brutal murder had been in a rage or wanted to make very sure their victim was dead before fleeing the scene.

According to reporting by Greenville News Online, authorities working during those first few hours of the investigation did not find a trail of blood or any kind of sharp object like a knife inside of the church or anywhere around the crime scene. They’d searched several feet into the nearby woods but came up empty-handed.

Investigators surmised that whoever the killer was, they’d likely taken the murder weapon with them. Either that, or they’d tossed it in the woods somewhere between the church and Newfound Gap Road or worst-case scenario it could be ANYWHERE in the vast park.

After a few hours of processing the scene, FBI agents arrived and took over the investigation. The first thing they did was order the victim’s body be sent three and a half hours away to the state medical examiner’s office in Winston Salem, North Carolina for further review and a full autopsy.

A spokesperson for NPS told reporters on March 30th–the next day— that the Smokemont Baptist Church site would reopen to the public and that even though the death of the young man who’d been found inside was being investigated as a homicide, rangers didn’t think anyone else inside of the park or in the immediate area was in danger.

I’m not sure why officials always say this kind statement in the aftermath of a brutal murder…

I mean, let’s be honest, clearly a horrific stabbing inside a national park should concern anyone who’s visiting…but I think they just say this kind of thing because they don’t want people to freak out.

Maybe it helps some people…but I know for me, statements like this kind of cause me more anxiety than relief.

Either way, it didn’t take long before word of the vicious attack spread throughout the Cherokee Indian Reservation community and across small towns in the surrounding non-indigenous populated counties.

No one could wrap their minds around something like this happening. This area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a heavily-traveled part of North Carolina and it wasn’t far from the park’s border with Tennessee.

According to Thomasi McDonald’s reporting for the Raleigh News & Observer, the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina has roughly 8,000 people living in its boundary within the national park. McDonald’s article which was published in 2019 stated that a lot of the hospitalizations and deaths from 2012 to 2018 in the area were overdoses that occurred due to the misuse of opioids.

Unfortunately, like a lot of indigenous communities in the U-S, there isn’t a ton of accurate information on violent crime rates because so many incidents go unreported, but according to the people who specifically lived in this part of Western North Carolina and who talked to news outlets afterwards, they considered their community to be very safe with little crime, especially murder.

Now, for those of you who may be asking…’Wait a minute, I thought the Cherokee Nation is in Oklahoma’…well, you’re right. But just to give you a little background on the native american community’s history in North Carolina, back in the 1830’s when the U.S. government ordered the Cherokee people off of land that was originally theirs in Western North Carolina, thousands of families ended up traveling the Trail of Tears and settling in Oklahoma…but several hundred stayed behind on 56,000 acres in North Carolina. That group grew to 16,000 residents and according to several historical sources became the largest federally recognized tribe east of the Mississippi River.

Today, a lot of families who identify as members of the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina live outside of the official reservation land and reside in Swain or Jackson Counties.

In late March 2015, when the Smokemont church murder occurred, a lot of the businesses that employed locals were just starting to open back up to visitors after a harsh winter. Spring time was THE time for hikers, campers and people from all over the world to start flooding the park’s gates to hit up historic sites just like Smokemont Baptist Church.

The US department of the Interior lists Smokemont Baptist Church on the national register of historic places by that name but it is also called Oconaluftee Baptist Church.

According to the sign that’s mounted in front of it, it sometimes even goes by the shortened name “Lufty Baptist Church.”

Apparently in the early 1900’s when logging pioneers settled in the area, one big lumber company made a semi-permanent campsite near the church’s foundation site and after that people started calling the lodging area downhill from it ‘Smokemont.’ Eventually everyone also started calling the church itself ‘Smokemont Baptist’…and I guess the name stuck.

According to historic documents published by the National Park Service, the church was established without an actual building in 1836 and had a whopping grand total of 21 founding members. In 1912 construction crews built the actual one-story structure and got it to the state it currently sits in.

Picture a classic white church with a sanctuary that has wood floors…rows of handmade wooden pews, big wooden beams overhead and a single aisle that leads to an altar and pulpit. It also has a small attic and bell tower in the steeple. Very simple and charming.

An interesting tid bit of info I found while researching the building’s history is that until the church officially closed in 1935, the records showed that on a regular basis members would be brought forward by other members and charged with offenses like swearing, lying and slander…never anything as bad a murder.

During those proceedings the church congregation would hold like a little trial for each case and if the person accused was found guilty, they’d be excluded from membership forever. Which I guess to some deeply religious folks who’d grown up their entire lives in that area and considered church as big a part of their life as say family relationships…a verdict like that would be devastating.

In modern times though for the most part the church has gone unused. There has been the occasional wedding event or homecoming gathering for descendants of the Ocanaluftee, but other than that… It’s just sat there as a pretty building to look at.

According to all of the research material for this case, no major news regarding the unidentified young man’s murder broke in the days immediately following the crime.

Authorities stayed very tight-lipped about what was going on with the investigation. Agents did not release the victim’s cause of death, his name or any information about how he’d gotten out to the old church or if he’d been spotted with anyone while there.

Then on April 9th, the feds finally announced the identity of the dead man as 25-year-old Tyler Britton Gaddis who was from a town about 10 minutes Southwest of Cherokee called Whittier.

It’s not super clear from the research material that’s out there exactly how the state medical examiner and FBI confirmed Tyler’s official ID but I have to think they used dental records or DNA or something to make that determination, otherwise they wouldn’t have put his name out there.

Tyler’s estimated time of death was determined to be 3:16am on March 29th…  just minutes after the 911 reporting his injuries had come into authorities. His official cause of death was multiple stabs wounds which caused him to bleed to death.

After his official autopsy was completed, Tyler’s parents Dewey and Ellen Watts Gaddis who lived in Whittier with his young daughter, Courtney, three brothers Shawn, Derrick and Nathan and his sister Brandy held a funeral for him.

The information in his obituary is brief, but based on what I could gather from multiple news stories on the case, Tyler’s family shared that he loved the outdoors and always enjoyed being in the woods hunting or camping. He was not an extremely social person, but the small group of friends he did hang out with from time to time shared the same interests as he did.

The family told WLOS News that Tyler loved going to Smoky Mountains National Park on a regular basis.

They said in the weeks leading up to his death he’d been battling depression and had become friends with a new group of people that they felt were not good folks to be hanging around with. After he turned 25, Tyler reportedly became somewhat estranged from his family and even went in and out of homelessness.

His brother Derrick told WLOS that several social media posts Tyler had made right before his murder suggested he was struggling with problems in his relationships and was living on and off with friends in run down hotel rooms on the Cherokee Reservation.

Derrick told the news station quote– “He was a good kid and everything… he just went down the wrong path and everybody tried to get him on the right path and then he was working on that. He’d just gotten depressed towards the end.” –end quote.

Despite his known struggled with depression…nobody involved in the investigation felt Tyler contributed to his death in any way. What had happened to him was definitely a murder…but when the FBI learned that he’d recently surrounded himself with a rough community of people, that helped them understand who might have come into his life that was capable of such a horrific crime.

A few weeks after Tyler’s funeral and the FBI’s announcement confirming his ID, the Swain County medical examiner’s office released its findings from the preliminary exam it had done on Tyler’s body while it had still been inside the church.

Excerpts of that full report were published by Greenville News Online and they clarified that Tyler had been stabbed roughly 17 to 19 times. Four times for sure in his chest, once in his left side, once in his neck and twice in his back. There were also 10 deep cuts on his right hand and forearm as well as one cut on his left hand.

Those injuries all but confirmed the theory that investigators had assumed from the start which was that Tyler had tried to ward off his killer by raising his right hand and arm to defend himself. That’s why his right arm was so much more torn up than the rest of his body.

Unfortunately, his efforts had not been enough and whoever stabbed him landed too many blows to the main areas of his body like his chest and neck which were what contributed the most to him bleeding out.

The Citizen Times reported the state medical examiner’s office had determined by that point that the blade of the knife used to kill Tyler had actually broken off and stayed inside his body after the attack. That was a detail no one at the initial crime scene assessment could have known just from looking at him.

The weapon investigators said had been used was the size of a small flashlight and had a feature where you could attach and detach the blade, which is probably why it broke off so easily.

Agents also revealed that searchers had found the hilt of the knife they believed the blade belonged to. The black mount had been tossed into the woods along the rural road leading from the historic church back down to Newfound Gap Road.

At some point after the crime, they’d also recovered Tyler’s broken cell phone discarded in the brush along the same route searchers found the knife hilt.

What authorities didn’t tell the public during the summer of 2015 was that during their months of silence immediately following the crime…they’d been building a case against two prime suspects they’d learned about on March 30ththe day after Tyler was killed.

One of whom had come forward and made a full confession.

According to court records I downloaded from a federal public records database known as PACER, FBI agents knew from the jump WHO was behind Tyler Gaddis’s murder.

They just needed from April to August of 2015 to build a rock-solid case of evidence and testimonies in order to assemble a grand jury and file formal charges.

The guys who authorities believed had committed the murder were 25-year-old Johnathan Hill and 22-year-old Forrest Dakota Hill. Local men who lived out of hotels on the Cherokee Reservation.

And just for clarification here, Jonathan and Forrest are not related despite their last names both being Hill.

According to federal court filings, back on March 30th, 2015—24 hours after the stabbing—Johnathan had walked into the Cherokee Indian Police Department and requested to speak to an officer. He told them he had information related to the death of an acquaintance of his named Tyler Gaddis.

Over the next few hours, he told FBI agents a wild and violent story about how the murder had gone down.

He started by saying he’d been the 911 caller who’d reported the crime during the early morning hours of March 29th. He said he’d made the call using Tyler’s cellphone and had given the 911 dispatcher the fake name, Raven York to mask his true identity.

He denied being directly involved in stabbing Tyler and instead pointed the finger at his friend named Forrest, who was also friends with Tyler.

According to Johnathan’s statements to the FBI, Forrest had gotten upset with Tyler after learning that Tyler had allegedly been speaking badly about him around people living on the Cherokee Reservation. Forrest’s growing resentment of Tyler hit a fever pitch on the afternoon of March 28th, when Forrest learned Tyler had told a girl Forrest was talking to online that he’d lied about who he was.

Records show that two weeks before Tyler’s murder, Forrest had met a girl named Nina on a dating website and told her his name was Andrew. When Nina did some digging on Forrest, she’d found pictures of him with another girl named Tabatha posted all over social media. When she confronted him about the other woman, Forrest—posing as Andrew—told Nina that Tabatha was his sister.

In reality, Tabatha was actually Forrest’s real girlfriend-slash-domestic partner and was carrying their unborn child.

About a week before the murder, Forrest had told Johnathan and Tyler that the only reason he’d initiated a romantic relationship with Nina was because he’d recently learned she’d been paid a large sum of money. Johnathan told detectives that Forrest expressed several times that he planned to rob Nina.

Tyler did not support that plan at all though and took it upon himself a few days before his death to warn Nina that Forrest’s intentions with her were not romantic and she should be careful how much information she shared with him. According to court documents filed in the case, Tyler messaged Nina and told her about all of Forrest’s lies and about his plans to rob her.

On the afternoon of March 28th, Forrest discovered Tyler had ratted him out to Nina and the entire day Johnathan said Forrest was fuming with anger. Johnathan told authorities that during his conversations with Forrest that day, Forrest had said threatening things about Tyler like quote– “He is going to get his…and I’m really heated about this”—end quote.

The FBI’s summary of facts states that the whole murder plot got underway late in the evening on March 28th. Johnathan told investigators that between 9 o’clock and 2 a-m he and Forrest were hanging out with Tyler and driving around the reservation. Earlier around 7 o’clock the group had dropped Forrest’s girlfriend, Tabatha off at a casino and driven her Ford Focus to pick up Tyler.

At some point late in the night, Forrest told Johnathan and Tyler that he wanted to go on an adventure together, so the boys drove to the woods near Smokemont Baptist Church.

Johnathan told detectives that the entire time they were driving, he knew that Forrest had planned to assault Tyler inside the church and the ruse of going on an adventure together was just Forrest’s way of luring Tyler.

Johnathan said once the trio got inside the church, Forrest confronted Tyler and almost immediately started stabbing him. Johnathan explained that Tyler did not go down without a fight and as Forrest slashed at him with the knife, Tyler had yelled out for Johnathan to help him…but Johnathan said he froze, started crying and didn’t do anything to stop Forrest.

For several minutes Johnathan said he watched as Forrest repeatedly stabbed Tyler all over his body to the point where the blade of the knife broke off. When he finally stopped, Forrest picked Tyler up off the floor and slammed him down just to make sure he was dead.

That movement caused Tyler’s body to splash in a large pool of blood and the weight of him landing had sprayed blood all over Forrest and Johnathan’s clothes and shoes.

Once Johnathan and Forrest knew Tyler was dead, Johnathan said the two of them got back into their car and drove off. On their way out of the park Johnathan said he saw Forrest toss the hilt of the knife out of the car’s window.

Around that same time is when Johnathan said he’d used Tyler’s phone to call 911. After placing the call, he said Forrest took the phone from him, cracked it in half and threw it out of the vehicle.

The pair immediately drove to a car wash on the Cherokee Reservation and cleaned off their shoes and Johnathan said Forrest threw away some bloody paper bags.

45 minutes later—around four o’clock in the morning, Johnathan said he and Forrest went back to the casino to pick up Forrest’s girlfriend Tabtha and they all three returned to the motel they were living out of.

A few hours later, Johnathan said he and Forrest went to a remote area on the reservation known as Big Cove, which wasn’t very far from where Johnathan’s relatives lived, and burned the clothing and shoes they’d been wearing during the murder.

Immediately following his confession, Johnathan took FBI agents to the general areas where he’d said he and Forrest had disposed of the knife hilt and Tyler’s broken cell phone. Then Johnathan led investigators to the burn pit in Big Cove where authorities collected several bags of charred pieces of clothing and shoes.

After that, it was a matter hours before authorities brought Forrest Hill and his girlfriend Tabatha in for questioning.

According to transcripts of her interview, Tabatha told agents she knew Tyler by the nickname ‘Tater’…and knew he’d been out with Forrest and Johnathan most of the evening on March 28th. She also confirmed some of the same stuff Johnathan had said about how Forrest’s frustration with Tyler had been building leading up to the end of March.

She told authorities that right before being dropped off at the casino around 7pm, she’d noticed Forrest was upset and when she’d asked him what he was going to do he told her he was going to assault Tyler when he got the chance. She said she also knew Forrest had been lying to Nina, but she hadn’t gotten mad at Forrest for that.

When FBI agents interrogated Forrest, at first, he denied even knowing Tyler. But as soon as investigators confronted him with all the information they’d learned from Johnathan and revealed that Johnathan had essentially sold him out…Forrest changed his tune.

He said, actually, he did know Tyler…. and he eventually admitted to being upset with him…but he said he’d just had plans to assault Tyler the night of the murder, not kill him.

To bolster their case, investigators seized Tabatha’s Ford Focus and processed it for evidence. Inside they found traces of blood which came back as belonging to Tyler.

Building the case and getting all their ducks in a row took the FBI several months though.

Court records show that agents didn’t file a formal criminal complaint in the case or request a grand jury indictment for first degree murder charges against Forrest until June of 2015—two months after the crime.

During that time, another witness who was friends with Forrest, Johnathan and Tabatha had come forward. This person is unnamed in the court filings but they told investigators they’d had several conversations in April and May of 2015 with Johnathan and Tabatha that corroborated details of the crime and clean up.

This witness said they felt Johnathan was actually way more involved in the murder than he’d initially led authorities to believe. The witness also said Tabatha had confessed to them that she’d played a bigger role in the cleanup. The witness said Tabatha claimed to have helped Forrest and Johnathan wash the inside of her car in an attempt to remove blood stains. This testimony proved to be valuable in getting an indictment because authorities now had a person who was able corroborate details of the crime, no one else knew and attributed learning those details from the prime suspects.

According to Leah Buletti’s reporting for The Citizen Times, a federal grand jury formally indicted Forrest Hill for first degree murder in early October of 2015 and set his trail for February of 2016.

Johnathan’s case was severed from Forrest’s, meaning they would not face a jury together a co-defendants. Instead of first-degree murder…prosecutors decided to charge Johnathan with the lesser charge of accessory to murder after the fact.

He was scheduled to testify for the government at Forrest’s trial… but Forrest’s case would never end up going before a jury…

On April 15th, 2016 Forrest took a plea deal for second-degree murder—a lesser charge than what he was facing.

IF he’d gone forward with a trial and been convicted, he could have received the maximum sentence and spent the rest of his life behind bars. By taking the plea deal, Forrest would face the possibilly of only receiving 10 to 15 years.

On August 31st, 2016 a judge sentenced him to just shy of 17 years in federal prison for his role in the crime.  Currently, he remains incarcerated at Coleman Federal Penitentiary in Florida and won’t be eligible for release until the year 2030.

Johnathan’s journey through the criminal justice system looked a lot different that Forrest’s though…

According to court filings, he was formally indicted for accessory to murder in early November 2017…a month later on December 1st, he pled guilty and was release on $25,000 bond while he waited to be sentenced.

BUT-–seven days after being let out on bail…he assaulted a police officer and was found to be in possession of drug paraphernalia. As soon as the court found out about that incident, a judge revoked his pre-trial release and issued a warrant for his arrest.

Unfortunately, by that time though–authorities weren’t ablet to find Johnathan. He was gone in the wind. Eventually the FBI tracked him down and in early April of 2018–five months after his initial pre-trial release—authorities arrested him.

For all his bad behavior…Johnathan ended up being sentenced to four years in federal prison for his role in Tyler’s murder and violating his pre-trial release conditions. A kind of light sentence if you ask me…but I think because he came forward right away and was such a useful source of information for investigators early on, the FBI and federal prosecutors had no choice but to work with him.

U-S bureau of prisons records for Johnathan show that he was released from prison in July 2021 and is currently on supervised probation. He’s 28-years-old and will forever remain a convicted felon.

The federal judge who handed down both men’s punishments stated quote– “It takes a depraved person to kill another human being, but an evil one to carry out the murder inside a religious institution founded upon the belief in the sanctity of human life. While we can never replace their loved one, we hope that Hill’s lengthy prison term will bring closure to the victim’s family and friends.”–end quote.

The ‘Hill’ I assume the judge was referring to was Forrest. Since he got the most prison time.

Despite having knowledge of the crime and even admitting to a third-party witness that she helped clean up blood…Tabatha, Forrest’s former girlfriend did not face any charges related to Tyler’s murder.

Something that this story really reminded me of while I was researching and writing is was just how cruel people can be toward one another.

I’m also struck with the same sentiment the judge in this case express…which is this idea that it takes a truly evil person to commit such a heinous murder inside a church, which is the very place most people have some kind of reverence for.

A question that I didn’t see answered anywhere in the news coverage of this case or in the court paperwork was WHY…Forrest and Johnathan took Tyler to the Smokemont Baptist Church that fateful night in March of 2015.

Of all the places they knew about on or off the Cherokee Reservation…why there? I’m not sure anyone except Forrest Hill and Johnathan Hill will ever be able to answer that question.

What I do know is that Tyler Gaddis did nothing to deserve the horrible fate he met. He was a young man who had his whole life ahead of him…a father of a young daughter from a previous relationship who he never got to see grow up.

A young man with a family who desperately wanted to see him receive the help he needed to get back on his feet.

Forrest Hill was super young too, just 21 years old, when he decided to do this horrific act. His life is forever changed because he let anger and frustration spiral out of control.

This crime, though covered to a degree by Western North Carolina news publications, did not receive national attention. After initial reports aired in March 2015, the story didn’t stay in the media for long. It resurfaced when the FBI formally indicted Forrest and Johnathan months later.

It’s one of those cases that just happened in the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park that nobody outside of the area really talked about.

Visitors to the park came and went day in and day out and the Cherokee community moved on.

But I think it’s a story that embodies all too well the cautionary warning we should all think about when it comes to the people we call our friends.

The people who we venture into the woods with, who will to do us harm… and we might not even know it.

Park Predators is an audiochuck original show.

So, what do you think Chuck, do you approve? *howl*