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After hiker's death, residents say they are shocked, more cautious
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A dark and heavy cloud hung over the city of Buford Tuesday as grim details kept emerging about the discovery of Meredith Hope Emerson’s remains.

Residents of the Atlanta suburb went about business as usual, but some of them said they will never look at their town the same after hearing of the 24-year-old hiker’s death.

Murders and kidnappings fill the pages of newspapers daily, but this one is unique to the people of Buford, because Emerson, who disappeared on New Year’s Day, could have been their neighbor.

"It’s so close to home," said Stephanie Cavin, a 32-year-old manager of Kathy Adams salon in the Mall of Georgia.

"You think you can get comfortable where you live," Cavin said. "Now I’m double-thinking who I make eye contact with and who I talk to."

Cavin works in the Mall of Georgia almost directly across the street from the apartment that Emerson never returned to after what should have been a day trip to the North Georgia mountains.

Authorities searched for Emerson for nearly a week before Gary Michael Hilton, who has been charged in Emerson’s murder, led them to her decapitated body in Dawson Forest.

Cavin said she and everybody she knew had been following the case since Emerson was first reported missing.

"We’ve all just been stunned," Cavin said. "We’re all really friendly here."

When she first heard the news of the missing hiker, Cavin admits she did not expect a happy ending. Her lack of optimism comes from watching similar scenarios play out on cable news shows. She knows that many a murder charge begins with a missing person’s report.

"You go missing for so many hours, unfortunately these days, that means you’re probably dead," Cavin said.

But the difference between watching it on national TV and the local news station is the connection that Cavin and other Buford residents feel to this particular situation.

"It’s sickening that somebody that demented was among us," Cavin said.

Cavin, who describes herself as a friendly person who talks to just about anybody, is now forced to analyze her actions and those around her.

Prior to Emerson’s disappearance, Cavin said she would have thought nothing of talking to an older man on a forest trail.

"If a man came up to me on a mountain with his dog and seemed particularly nice, I probably would have spoken to him as well," she said.

Yet, despite the dreary news that came across all local news media outlets Monday and Tuesday, the world kept turning, and some were oblivious to the disappearance and murder of their fellow Buford resident.

"This is the first I’ve heard of it," said a woman who worked at the Regis styling salon in the same mall as Cavin. "Honestly, if it’s not in OK! Magazine, I probably haven’t heard about it."

But others, who have checked the news every few hours for updates on Emerson and Hilton, are forever changed. And a good many of them are angry.

Before the announcement that authorities would not seek the death penalty against Hilton if he led them to Emerson’s body, Cavin said there was only one way for justice to be done.

"I hope he fries," Cavin said. "I hope he burns in hell. I really do."