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GBI: Hilton's abandoned van might contain evidence in killings

N.C. sheriff says he has 'positive link' to suspect in murder

POSTED: January 27, 2008 5:05 a.m.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is looking for Gary Hilton’s old van, which was broken down and abandoned on National Forest land in White County for two years but may contain evidence in the suspected serial killer’s case.

GBI spokesman John Bankhead said the van, a white 1996 Chevy Astro bearing Georgia tag 766 XPZ, was abandoned in the Tray Mountain area of White County at the end of Forest Service Road 690, also known as Hickory Nut Ridge Road, up until sometime in mid-December.

A citation for leaving the abandoned vehicle in U.S. Forestry Service land was written by the U.S. Forest Service in 2005, Bankhead said. It had not been moved since the citation was written until about a month ago when a hunter noticed it was gone, Bankhead said.

The van was not drivable. Authorities believe someone, probably not Hilton, had the van towed and may have salvaged it for scrap. What evidence it might contain, if any, remains unknown.

Investigators were uncertain whether Hilton went to the abandoned van much in the two years since it was left in the heavily wooded area.

Hilton, 61, is charged with murder in the bludgeoning death of 24-year-old hiker Meredith Emerson, who authorities say was abducted from the Byron Reece Memorial Trailhead in Union County on New Year’s Day and killed in Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area three days later.

Hilton led authorities to Emerson’s decapitated body after prosecutors with Union County and the U.S. Attorney’s office said they would not seek the death penalty against him in exchange. Dawson County District Attorney Lee Darragh said he was not involved in those negotiations and has not said whether he will pursue the death penalty against Hilton.

DeKalb County authorities located Hilton on the night of Jan. 4 after tipsters told them he was cleaning his white 2001 Chevy Astro van outside a convenience store. That van had a license plate that was stolen from a car abandoned in Transylvania County, N.C., where Hilton is described as a strong suspect in a murder case there.

Hilton is being investigated in the murder of 84-year-old Irene Bryant and the disappearance of her 80-year-old husband, Jack, in the woods of Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina. Transylvania County Sheriff David Mahoney said during a Wednesday news conference that his investigators had established "a positive link" between Hilton and the Bryants.

Irene Bryant’s body was found Nov. 9. Her husband has not been located.

Florida officials also say they have enough evidence to charge Hilton in the murder and decapitation of a Florida woman in woods near Tallahassee. Cheryl Dunlap’s headless body was found by hunters on Dec. 15 in the Apalachicola National Forest.

The GBI met with North Carolina and Florida authorities at its Cleveland office on Tuesday to discuss the Hilton case, Bankhead confirmed. Hilton so far has only been charged with Emerson’s murder. He remains in the Dawson County jail without bond.

The GBI asks anyone with information about the whereabouts of Hilton’s old van to call 888-233-5680.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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