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Authorities probe possible connection in hiking case, N.C. presumed killing

POSTED: January 18, 2008 5:04 a.m.

ATLANTA — Authorities are exploring a possible link between the disappearance of a female hiker and the presumed killing of an elderly couple from North Carolina last October.

Gary Michael Hilton, 61, who investigators said was the last person seen with 24-year-old Meredith Emerson on the trail, was awaiting his first court appearance, scheduled for Monday in Blairsville. He was served Saturday with a warrant charging him with kidnapping with bodily injury.

Georgia authorities said there could be a connection between the Emerson case and the disappearance and presumed killing of an elderly couple from North Carolina — John and Irene Bryant, an elderly couple who went missing in October while hiking in the western North Carolina mountains.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said officials plan to meet with North Carolina authorities Monday in Cleveland, Ga., to discuss the case involving the couple.

Asked whether authorities believe the two cases are related, Bankhead said, "We don't know. But there are similarities where we feel it necessary to meet with North Carolina and others involved in the investigation."

Emerson is believed to be dead, so authorities have changed the search to a recovery effort, not a rescue mission. The search was to resume today, but it was to be scaled back. Only law enforcement and trained searchers, not volunteers, were set to participate, officials said.

Hilton was detained Friday. He had tried to use Emerson's credit card, according to the warrant.

Three bloody fleece tops and a bloodstained piece of a car's seat belt were found in a trash bin beside a convenience store where Hilton had used a pay phone, the warrant stated. Hilton had attempted to vacuum and wash portions of his 2001 Chevrolet Astro van, which was found without the rear seat belt, according to the document.

Hilton was not cooperating with authorities, Bankhead said.

Union County Officer Gayle Bachelor declined to allow The Associated Press to speak with Hilton by phone.

Search teams focused again Sunday on a 5-square-mile area of mountainous terrain about 90 miles north of Atlanta in the Chattahoochee National Forest, near where Emerson's car was discovered Wednesday, Bankhead said.

The search had been focused on Vogel State Park, at the base of Blood Mountain, where Emerson was last seen on New Year's Day hiking with her black Labrador retriever, Ella.

The dog was found 50 miles away Friday in a grocery store parking lot in Cumming, a suburb north of Atlanta, and identified using an implanted microchip.

Vogel is one of Georgia's oldest and most popular state parks. The area includes a segment of the Appalachian Trail, the famous hiking route that stretches from Georgia to Maine.

Transylvania County, N.C., Sheriff David Mahoney, whose office is investigating the Bryant case, did not immediately return a telephone message Monday morning.

Irene Bryant's body was found covered with leaves in November. John Bryant is still missing, and authorities said he may have been kidnapped to provide the couple's bank account security number.

Someone withdrew $300 from the account in Tennessee one day after the couple tried to dial 911, according to cell phone records. The call never went through.

The person who withdrew the money from an ATM was caught on a security camera, but the hood of jacket obscures the person's face.



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