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Suspect charged with murder in hiker case

Emerson bludgeoned, decapitated, officials say

POSTED: January 20, 2008 5:04 a.m.

On New Year’s Day, 24-year-old hiker Meredith Emerson disappeared after setting out with her dog for a day of hiking near Union County’s Vogel State Park.

Three days later, a 61-year-old drifter seen talking to Emerson on the trails bludgeoned her to death, then decapitated her in remote woodlands 50 miles away in Dawson County, officials said Tuesday.

What happened in those three days in between has not been disclosed by authorities, but according to their timeline of events, Emerson was not killed until Friday, the same day her dog, and later her accused killer, were located, and two days after an intensive search was launched.

"Our prayers and thoughts go out to Meredith Emerson’s family at this time," Dawson County District Attorney Lee Darragh said during a news conference Tuesday, announcing murder charges against Gary Michael Hilton.

Hilton led authorities to Emerson’s body in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area on Monday night after authorities agreed not to seek the death penalty in exchange, according to one prosecutor connected to the case.

Union County District Attorney Stan Gunter told the Associated Press Tuesday that U.S. Attorney David Nahmias was considering seeking the death penalty in a federal murder prosecution, but agreed to a deal if Hilton led them to Emerson’s body.

"He agreed that finding the body of Ms. Emerson was very important, and he agreed if that was the resolution then it would be a just resolution," Gunter told the AP.

Darragh, who is prosecuting the murder case, did not say Tuesday that any deal had been made with Hilton. Asked during the news conference if he was considering seeking the death penalty against Hilton, Darragh said, "We’re not going to be discussing that issue presently."

Hilton, who was previously in custody in Union County on a kidnapping charge, was led into the Dawson County Law Enforcement Center shortly before 3 p.m. to be booked on the murder charge. He will appear before a Dawson County magistrate judge at 1 p.m. today.

Authorities allege in an arrest warrant that on Friday in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area, Hilton caused Emerson’s death by blunt force trauma to the head.

Georgia Chief Medical Examiner Kris Sperry determined in an autopsy performed Tuesday morning that after Emerson received the lethal injuries, she was decapitated, GBI Special Agent in Charge John Cagle said.

Emerson’s black Labrador was discovered sometime around 2:30 p.m. on the same day, wandering in the parking lot of a Kroger supermarket on Freedom Parkway in Forsyth County, just off Ga. 400 and about 12 miles southeast of the area of Dawson Forest where the murder is believed to have happened.

Across the street from the Kroger, near a QuikTrip convenience store, Forsyth County investigators found three blood-soaked fleece tops and a blood-stained portion of a seat belt in a trash bin.

Five hours after the dog was found, some 30 miles southwest of Cumming in northern DeKalb County, Hilton was spotted by witnesses at a convenience store, trying to vacuum out and wash portions of his 2001 Chevrolet Astro van with a bleach solution, according to arrest warrants.

Authorities are still exploring any possible connections between Hilton and several unsolved murders, including the case of a couple in their 80s who vanished while hiking in the western North Carolina mountains in October. Authorities later found the body of 84-year-old Irene Bryant, but her husband, John Bryant, remains missing.

Someone used the Bryants’ ATM card in the days after their disappearance. Officials say Hilton attempted to use Emerson’s ATM card in at least one instance.

Peggy Bailey, spokeswoman for Emerson family, on Tuesday stepped outside of her Athens home briefly to thank all of those involved in the search and recovery of Emerson’s remains.

Bailey, Emerson’s godmother, read a short statement announcing that a memorial service will be held for Emerson at 2 p.m. Friday at Central Presbyterian Church in Athens. Another service will be held in Longmont, Colo., where Emerson’s family lives, at a later time.

Bailey did not take questions.

Two cases that appear no closer to resolution are the unsolved murders of Patrice Endres and Levi Frady.

Frady, 11, was killed in October 1997. His body was found about a mile from where Emerson’s body was located, Dawson County Sheriff’s Sgt. Tony Wooten said.

Endres, a 39-year-old hairdresser, was abducted from her Forsyth County salon in April 2004. Her skeletal remains were found in 2005 in a wooded area off Kelly Bridge Road, about five miles from the area where Emerson was found.

Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle said Tuesday that investigators have no indications that Hilton is a suspect in either death.

"At this time, there’s nothing we have been able to find to connect those two others," Carlisle said.

The sheriff said that every time another body is found in the area, "it brings those cases back to the forefront."

Late Tuesday afternoon, officials ended their search for evidence in the area where Emerson’s body was located.

Three miles up Dawson Forest Road, the owner of an automotive shop said he saw searchers combing the area as early as Sunday, a full day before Hilton led them to the body.

"Those woods are real thick," said Cody Waters, who went with friends to hunt raccoons on the edge of the 10,000-acre forest when he came across GBI agents and game wardens. "There’s trails everywhere in there — you could get lost so easily."

Waters called the woods "spooky."

"Especially after all that stuff has gone on there," he said.


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