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Police believe missing hiker is dead; suspect arrested

DeKalb man faces court hearing Monday on kidnapping charges

POSTED: January 16, 2008 5:04 a.m.

The suspect in the disappearance of missing hiker Meredith Emerson has been charged with kidnapping her, and authorities say they have reason to believe she is dead.

Gary Michael Hilton, 61, was charged with kidnapping with bodily injury on warrants signed by Union County Superior Court Judge David Barrett about 5 p.m. Saturday, Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said.

Bankhead said based on unspecified evidence gathered in various locations in the investigation, authorities have reason to believe Emerson, 24, is dead and they are now focused on finding her body. "The effort has been changed from a rescue effort to a recovery," Bankhead said.

Searchers continued to comb the area around Vogel State Park near Blood Mountain for Emerson, of Buford, who went hiking there New Year's Day and was last spotted by witnesses talking to Hilton.

Bankhead would not disclose what evidence investigators have gathered, but Forsyth County Sheriff Ted Paxton said his detectives found items linking Hilton and Emerson discarded in a trash bin at the QuikTrip convenience store on Freedom Parkway off Ga. 400 in Cumming.

Without elaborating, Paxton said of the kidnapping charge, "there's plenty of evidence to support that charge."

The convenience store is across the street from a Kroger shopping center where Emerson's black Labrador, Ella, was found by a passerby Friday afternoon. The dog was identified because of a microchip that had been implanted, Paxton said.

Paxton said that surveillance camera video obtained from area stores proved fruitless, but that items of clothing and personal effects from Emerson's purse provided the link to Hilton that authorities were looking for.

"We did find at that QuikTrip personal effects of both his and hers," Paxton said. The sheriff said clothing that authorities think belong to Hilton was found alongside Emerson's belongings.

Media outlets reported that the arrest warrant detailed the evidence against Hilton including: bloody clothing believed to be Emerson's, a portion of a seat belt with blood on it, and Emerson's wallet containing her driver's license and University of Georgia student identification card.

Also, according to the warrant, the rear seat belt in Hilton's van had been cut out and, when he was taken into custody, he was attempting to clean the interior of his van with a bleach and water solution.

Hilton, whose last known address was in Decatur, was taken into custody Friday after tipsters spotted him at a DeKalb County convenience store. He was being transported back from metro Atlanta early Saturday evening to be booked into the Union County jail, Bankhead said. Hilton was already in federal custody near Atlanta, held on a warrant for failure to appear in federal court for a charge of abandoning property in a national park.

Hilton faces a court hearing on Monday. The Associated Press reports that he has requested a court-appointed attorney.

Among the more than 100 people searching for Emerson was a contingent from Hall County. Five Hall County Fire Services employees are working in shifts, Hall County Fire Capt. Scott Cagle said. Multiple agencies from around the region have been assisting in the search effort, Cagle said.

"The main role we're playing right now is in the command center," Cagle said. "As long as they need us, we'll continue to assist them."

Bankhead said efforts "have been expanded a few miles" from the original search area surrounding the parkland.

"We don't know where she is," Bankhead said. "But based on the information we have now, that's what we're going with."

Paxton said he had no indication that the focus of the search had narrowed as the result of any new information. He said Hilton wasn't talking to investigators. "We were told he was not cooperating as of the present time," Paxton said.

Emerson, formerly of Longmont, Colo., recently moved to Buford.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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