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On the trail of a killer

Murder suspect traveled in at least 6 counties in the days after he abducted hiker, police say

POSTED: March 9, 2008 5:02 a.m.
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This map shows the movements of Gary Michael Hilton between the kidnapping of Meredith Emerson and Hilton's arrest, according to authorities.

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Gary Michael Hilton put a lot of miles on his Chevrolet Astro van in the days following Meredith Emerson's New Years Day disappearance, authorities believe.

Between the afternoon of Jan. 1 and the evening of Jan. 4, Hilton, who authorities charged with abducting and killing Emerson, was placed in at least six counties and seen by or talked to numerous people. During much of that time, Emerson remained alive, according to officials.

From Union County, the site of her abduction, Hilton drove to Gainesville, stopping at an ATM on E.E. Butler Parkway at about 9:30 p.m. to try to use one of the 24-year-old hiker's bank cards, investigators believe. The following day, Jan. 2, she was reported missing by a roommate. That night, about 8:30 p.m., Hilton was seen on surveillance video trying to use one of Emerson's credit cards at a Regions Bank ATM in Canton, authorities have said.

The next day, Jan. 3, he showed up in his van at a Waffle House in Pickens County, asking to use the phone to call an old boss. By then, authorities had issued a lookout for Hilton.

Authorities believe sometime on the next day, Hilton drove to the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management area near Dawsonville, where he allegedly killed Emerson with a blow to the head, then decapitated her.

Then he was back on the road, first stopping to call an old girlfriend from a pay phone outside a QuikTrip store in Forsyth County, then later a convenience store in north DeKalb County, where he was finally stopped.

"Obviously, if you look at all those places on a map, at least going on those points, he was moving all around," said Forsyth County Sheriff Ted Paxton, whose investigators found evidence at the QuikTrip that has proven critical in the case.

Among the items they recovered were fleece shirts discarded in a Dumpster, with fresh blood that had not had time to dry. That, along with Hilton's movements on the day he was arrested, indicated that Emerson had not been dead long, Paxton said.

"All of a sudden you've got a flurry of activity, of him getting rid of everything, that would indicate that something had occurred," Paxton said. "The logic would be that something just happened to her."

Now, as Hilton sits in jail, with the possibility of being charged with an additional slaying in Florida, questions remain as to what happened to Emerson while she remained alive in those three days, and if anything more could have been done to prevent her murder.

As friends and family of Emerson have gathered to mourn and reminisce on a life full of light cut short, a darker picture has emerged of her accused killer.

Hilton was known to spend extended time in the woods, backpacking in national forests in Florida and Georgia, and squatting at a hunting preserve in Cherokee County.

A videotaped encounter with a sheriff's deputy there shows an animated, talkative man, who assures the deputy in a loud voice that he will leave, after claiming he is an ex-paratrooper "on perpetual field maneuvers."

In dealings with deputies and lawyers, he has also appeared talkative.

"He looks like quite an eccentric person," Paxton said.

Amanda Peacock, the Huddle House waitress who saw Hilton about 4:30 p.m. Jan. 3, said a "fidgety" Hilton parked his van on the far side of the parking lot, out of view of the restaurant workers and patrons, walked in and asked where he could use a pay phone.

Dressed in a black jacket, a wool-lined hunter's cap and blue jeans, Hilton wore glasses and a white goatee when Peacock saw him.

"His teeth were messed up and he stunk really bad," Peacock said. "He didn't look nice - he looked kind of grungy."
Employees let Hilton use the business phone, and he spent some 20 minutes talking loudly with a former boss, John Tabor, owner of Insulated Wall Systems, a Chamblee siding business.

Tabor had earlier tipped off the GBI that the description given out for a "person of interest" in the case sounded like Hilton, whom he knew to frequent the woods in Union County.

By the afternoon of Jan. 3, the GBI had released a name, photo and vehicle description for Hilton. But when he stopped by the Huddle House, either the lookout had not yet been broadcast by television stations or Peacock and her co-workers had yet to learn about it.

"I wish he would have been on the news," Peacock said this week. "If he had, she would have still been alive. We would not have let him walk out that door."

Three GBI agents came into the Huddle House about five hours after Hilton left and showed Peacock a picture of Hilton, she said. She confirmed he had been there.

When she asked what they wanted with him, they replied, "Oh, we just need to talk to him," Peacock recalled.

Tabor alerted the GBI to the call Hilton made from the restaurant. The amount of time that passed before agents arrived at the Huddle House has not been explained, though Paxton has said that attempts to trace a later phone call from Hilton "took some time." The GBI is no longer taking questions about the case.

After the Huddle House visit, Hilton was not heard from again until he showed up at a QuikTrip on Freedom Parkway in Forsyth County, using a pay phone to call an old girlfriend and ask for money.

"She told him ‘no,' and ‘what are you calling me for, every law enforcement officer in the state is looking for you,'" Paxton said.

Authorities believe Hilton may not have known until then that he was a wanted man. At that point, he cut out a blood-stained portion of a rear seat belt, threw out the blood-soaked fleeces and Emerson's wallet, authorities said.

When DeKalb police caught up to Hilton on Ashford-Dunwoody Road, he was vacuuming the van and trying to wash portions of it with a bleach and water solution, according to arrest warrants.

It wasn't until three days later, and the offer of a deal to avoid the death penalty, that Hilton led investigators to Emerson's body.

Both Hilton's former boss and the restaurant workers wish there was more they could have done to help authorities stop Hilton before he killed.

"I wish I could have helped her," Peacock said. "If I had known, Meredith would still be alive."

The Associated Press and Times regional reporters Julie Arrington and Ben Holcombe contributed to this report.




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