0201HILTONaud1Listen to Dawson County Superior Court Judge Bonnie Chessher Oliver sentence Gary Michael Hilton.
DAWSONVILLE — Gary Michael Hilton avoided the possibility of execution with a guilty plea Thursday, but the parents of the young woman he abducted and killed are satisfied that he will "slowly rot" in prison.
Hilton, 61, pleaded guilty in Dawson County Superior Court to one count of murder in the Jan. 4 bludgeoning death of Meredith Hope Emerson, a 24-year-old hiker who he abducted on Jan. 1 from the Byron Herbert Reece Memorial Trailhead in Union County. He was sentenced by Judge Bonnie Chessher Oliver to the mandatory term of life imprisonment, with parole eligibility in 30 years.
The extraordinarily quick resolution to the case — Hilton was charged with murder just 24 days prior to his guilty plea — stemmed from a deal brokered by prosecutors while Emerson was still missing and Hilton in custody as a prime suspect.
Hilton, through his attorney, made a deal with Union County District Attorney Stan Gunter that he would not only lead authorities to Emerson’s body, but also plead guilty to one count of murder, if prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty, Gunter confirmed outside court Thursday.
That deal tied Dawson County District Attorney Lee Darragh’s hands when he became the lead prosecutor, after Emerson’s decapitated body was found in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area. Darragh had no involvement in the initial negotiations with Hilton.
"Anyone’s emotional reaction, including mine, would appropriately be that this defendant deserved the penalty of death," Darragh told reporters after Thursday’s plea hearing. The prosecutor said, however, that he "had to take into account all that occurred prior to my involvement."
Darragh noted that the Emerson family approved of the negotiated plea.
Oliver, in accepting the plea, had even stronger words for Hilton.
"I realize that this community, and I would venture to say, the state, views that justice in your case, Mr. Hilton, would be immediate execution," Oliver said.
The judge said she would accept the negotiated plea and recommended sentence partly because of "difficulties the state would face in a trial based upon the agreement made with you in exchange for your cooperation."
Oliver noted that Hilton, at 61, would be unlikely to live long enough to be executed, considering the lengthy death penalty process. Darragh told the judge that recent death penalty cases have taken three years or more to get to trial, and that the average condemned prisoner spends 12 years on death row, though several Georgians have waited 20 years or more before being executed.
"Let there be no mistake, the court is not intending mercy on you due to your age," Oliver told Hilton. "But rather recognizes in the natural course of things, you likely will die of natural causes before any sentence of death the state might obtain could be carried out."
Hilton, wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, handcuffs and a bullet-proof vest, spoke in a clear, firm and respectful voice as he answered the judge’s standard questions about his rights and the plea, ending each response with "your honor."
Asked if he had anything to say before he was sentenced, Hilton replied, "no, your honor."
Darragh told the court in a brief outline of the case that Emerson was abducted by Hilton on Jan. 1 after a violent struggle on the edge of the Appalachian Trail and carried down to a parking lot, where she was placed in his van. Hilton took a purse containing bank and credit cards from Emerson’s car before leaving, Darragh said.
"Throughout the next couple of days, Mr. Hilton basically drove Miss Emerson around to various locations throughout North Georgia, seeking to get money from ATMs," Darragh said. Emerson provided Hilton with incorrect PIN numbers, which officials believe was an effort to get Hilton caught.
Hilton told authorities in a statement that he abducted Emerson "because she was a female and alone," and that "it was for the sole purpose of acquiring her cards and her PIN number," Darragh said.
"He indicated at one point during the interview that he knew he would eventually end her life," Darragh said.
On Jan. 4, Hilton told Emerson that he would let her go, Darragh said. He "secured" her at a location in Dawson Forest, then retrieved a jack handle from his van, Darragh said. Hilton struck her repeatedly in the head with the jack handle until she was dead, Darragh said.
Hilton then decapitated Emerson after her death for what he called "forensic purposes" — to adversely affect any evidence, Darragh said.
Meredith Emerson’s parents addressed the court after the sentence was pronounced.
"I am not sorry that the death penalty was taken off the table," Emerson’s mother, Susan Emerson, told the judge. "That would have been an easy out for this menace. Let him stay alive and slowly rot."
"God may choose to forgive him; however, he is not worth the time and energy it would take me to do so," Susan Emerson said. "My focus will remain on all the good Meredith stood for and still does."
David Emerson told the judge that his daughter "was a shining light in our lives, and now we are left with a hole in our hearts that will not heal."
"I feel no punishment is too severe for Mr. Hilton," David Emerson said. "I only pray that he suffers immensely for his heinous acts and that his fellow inmates recognize his evil and malevolence for mankind and treat him with appropriate measures."
Hilton may yet face the death penalty. He remains a suspect in slayings in Florida and North Carolina.
Willie Meggs, the chief prosecutor for Leon County, Fla., said Thursday that the death of 42-year-old Cheryl Dunlap, whose decapitated body was found in the Apalachicola National Forest on Dec. 15, remains under investigation. Hilton’s van was pulled over by authorities in the area about three weeks before her body was found, and Meggs has previously identified him as the prime suspect in Dunlap’s death.
"Investigators are still working practically around the clock" on the case, Meggs said.
David Mahoney, the sheriff of Transylvania County, N.C., did not return a phone message seeking comment Thursday. Mahoney has earlier said his office had drawn a "positive link" between Hilton and the death of 84-year-old Irene Bryant and the disappearance of her husband, 80-year-old Jack Bryant, last seen hiking in the woods of western North Carolina in October. Hilton’s van had a license tag stolen from Transylvania County when he was arrested this month.
John Cagle, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent who interrogated Hilton, echoed David Emerson’s sentiments about Hilton’s future in the state prison system.
"I hope that it weighs on him at night when he goes to sleep and in the morning when he wakes up that he is going to be with people who have the propensity to be just as violent and evil as he is," Cagle told reporters after Thursday’s hearing. "We’ll see how he likes that."