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GBI: Suspect led us to Emerson's body in Dawson forest area

Authorities probe Hilton's link to other disappearances

POSTED: January 19, 2008 5:02 a.m.

DAWSONVILLE — The prime suspect in the case of a missing Buford woman led investigators from Dawson County and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to the woman’s remains in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area, south of Dawsonville, Monday night.

John Cagle, special agent in charge of the GBI’s Cleveland office, announced the discovery of Meredith Hope Emerson’s body Monday at a 10 p.m. news conference at a Dawson County middle school.

"The specific information as to location of the body was given to me by Gary Hilton," Cagle said, adding that Hilton came to Dawson County from the Union County Jail and pointed authorities to the site at about 7:30 p.m.

"The body was discovered by GBI agents, DNR rangers and Dawson County deputies," Cagle said. "Citizens had reported seeing Gary Hilton’s van inside the management area."

Hilton, 61, had already been charged with kidnapping in the woman’s disappearance on New Year’s Day from Vogel State Park in Union County.

The Dawson Forest area, where the body was found, was the site of a search on Monday by 50 to 60 law enforcement officers from a number of jurisdictions. The area is a popular recreational area for hikers, hunters and horseback riders.

Cagle declined to identify the site in relationship to the other unsolved murders whose victims were found in or near the Dawson Forest area, specifically the 2004 slaying of Forsyth County hairdresser Patrice Endres and the 1997 slaying of Levi Frady, a Forsyth County Middle School student.

Dawson and Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh, who attended the news conference but did not speak, said later that he was informed of the discovery of Emerson’s body shortly after 7:30 p.m.

He had been briefed by the GBI upon his arrival in Dawsonville.

Neither Cagle, Darragh or Stan Gunter, the district attorney for Union County, would say where the slaying occurred or in which jurisdiction additional charges might be prosecuted.

The 10-minute news conference was short on details, as authorities are being careful not to jeopardize their case.

GBI director Vernon Keenan said the State Crime Lab began analyzing the evidence gathered in Forsyth County on Sunday. Keenan said an autopsy would be conducted this morning at GBI headquarters in Decatur.

Asked about the emotional toll of the case, Keenan said the discovery of the woman’s body gives the family some degree of closure.

Keenan also said GBI agents met with authorities from North Carolina on Monday in Cleveland to go over the findings in the Emerson case and the unsolved murder of a North Carolina couple in the mountains there.

"They can make a determination if there is a linkage between the Meredith Emerson case and the case they are working in North Carolina," Keenan said. "There is no conclusion or linkage at this point."

Keenan said his agency also plans to talk with officials from Florida about a similar case in that state.

John and Irene Bryant, both in their 80s, had gone hiking in the western North Carolina mountains in October.

Irene Bryant’s body was found in November, and authorities say she was killed with a blow to the head. Her husband remains missing but is presumed to have been killed.

Sheriff David Mahoney of North Carolina’s Transylvania County agreed that there are similarities "that we’re certainly wanting to look more closely at — nothing that we can release at this point."

Mahoney did note that authorities in both cases were looking for someone wearing a yellow jacket, and that an ATM transaction was made with the Bryants’ card about 50 miles from the area of the Georgia investigation.

Hilton was returned to Union County, where he is charged with kidnapping with intent of bodily injury. More charges could be added, Gunter said. Gunter said he expects Hilton to be indicted within 90 days.

Hilton did not speak during his first appearance before Union County Magistrate Judge Johnie M. Garmon. Hilton’s attorney, Neil Smith, did not enter a plea on Hilton’s behalf.

Investigators said Hilton, who was detained Friday, was the last person seen with Emerson on the trail. He had tried to use Emerson’s credit card, according to his arrest 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 tried to vacuum and wash portions of his 2001 Chevrolet Astro van, which was found without the rear seat belt, according to the document.

Until Monday afternoon, Hilton was not cooperating with authorities, said Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead.

Gayle Bachelor, an officer at the Union County jail, declined to allow The Associated Press to speak with Hilton by phone.

Hilton was a drifter well known in the area and was often seen with his dog, Dandy, and a police-style baton, Union County Sheriff Scott Stephens said.

Emerson was last seen hiking with her dog in Vogel State Park, about 90 miles north of Atlanta. The dog was found 50 miles away Friday in a grocery store parking lot off Ga. 306 in Forsyth County and was 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 hiking route that stretches from Georgia to Maine.

The Associated Press contributed to this report,



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