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Fundraiser honors life of slain hiker Meredith Emerson

POSTED: June 24, 2008 5:00 a.m.

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Meredith Emerson would have turned 25 this Friday. But instead of celebrating, her family and friends can only reflect on her absence from their lives.

Emerson, a Buford resident and University of Georgia graduate, disappeared on New Year’s Day while hiking near Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. It soon became clear that Emerson, a Colorado native and experienced hiker, had not gotten lost; she was the victim of a heinous crime.

A week later, Gary Michael Hilton, 61, was charged with Emerson’s kidnapping and murder. At the end of January, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Hilton was transferred last week to Florida, where he faces charges of murdering Cheryl Dunlap, 46, in the Apalachicola National Forest in December.

Hilton is also a suspect in the murders of an elderly man and woman who disappeared while hiking in western North Carolina in October.

Emerson’s friends agree that Hilton’s arrest was the one good thing to come out of her ordeal.

"I think Meredith would be proud of the fact that she stopped a serial killer," said Chris Hendley, director of arena booking at the Gwinnett Center, where Emerson once worked.

Hendley is also president of Right to Hike Inc., a nonprofit organization formed in honor of Emerson’s memory. The group is holding its first fundraiser June 25.

"We wanted to do something around Meredith’s birthday, which is June 20," said Julia Karrenbauer, vice president of Right to Hike.

The June 25 fundraiser will link up with Applebee’s restaurants’ Dining to Donate program. On that day, all 40 Applebee’s locations in metro Atlanta, including the one in Gainesville, will allow diners to give 15 percent of their bill to Right to Hike.

To participate, go to www.righttohikeinc.com and print out an invitation, which you’ll give to your server at Applebee’s when you order your meal.

"Dining to Donate is one of our major community projects," said Angela D’Amario, spokeswoman for Applebee’s in metro Atlanta. "It’s open to any nonprofit."

The project is very personal to Karrenbauer, who is Emerson’s former roommate. They met at UGA four years ago and were sharing a townhouse in Buford on the day that Emerson disappeared.

"I never spent another night there. I stayed with friends for a while until I found another place," said Karrenbauer, who now lives in Lilburn.

She said the group has a founding membership of about 20 people.

"Some were friends of Meredith. Others never met her," she said.

They decided to call it "Right to Hike" because after Emerson’s death, many people wondered whether it was safe for a young woman to be hiking alone.

"Meredith had a right to be there, whether she was by herself or not," said Karrenbauer. "Our mission is to prevent people from being afraid."

Hendley said the inspiration for the group came from a memorial service that was held in Blairsville shortly after Emerson’s death.

"We learned that there is pure evil in this world, but there’s also some really good people in this world," he said.

When friends decided to form a nonprofit to contribute to some of Emerson’s interests, it was difficult to narrow down all the possibilities.

"Meredith was so multifaceted, so smart, so passionate about the things she cared about," said Hendley. "She didn’t do anything halfway."

They finally decided to focus on three initiatives: buying GPS units that could be used to locate hikers; offering microchip identification for dogs; and donating to the Meredith Hope Emerson Memorial Award for Study Abroad at UGA.

Hendley said he hopes GPS units could be made available for hikers to rent at places such as ranger stations. If the hiker is in trouble, the unit could transmit a distress signal and pinpoint their exact location. This is important, he said, because cellphone reception is almost nonexistent in wilderness areas.

The inspiration for microchipping came from Emerson’s Labrador mix, Ella, who provided a key piece of evidence in the criminal investigation.

On Jan. 4, Ella was found wandering in a Kroger parking lot in Cumming, not far from a trash bin where Hilton had tried to dispose of some blood-stained items from his van. Investigators took Ella to a veterinarian, who scanned the dog for a microchip and confirmed that she belonged to Emerson.

It turned out that Hilton had killed Emerson that same day in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area after driving her around in his van for three days.

"(Microchipping) helped catch Meredith’s murderer," said Hendley.

As for the UGA fund, it will award a stipend to a student each year to study in a French-speaking country. Emerson, who graduated with honors in 2005, majored in French and spent time studying in France.

Karrenbauer said Right to Hike is contemplating additional fundraisers later this year. They’d like to put on a concert, if the logistics work out. And they’d like to organize a 5K race called "Ella’s Run."

Hendley said he hopes people will use next week’s event as a time to think about how Emerson lived, not how she died.

"We want to celebrate her life. She had so much energy," he said. "Her smile would light up a room."



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