Within two weeks of that traffic stop in the Apalachicola National Forest, a woman Hilton is suspected of killing vanished, later turning up decapitated.
Hilton was stopped at least twice by authorities last year, but never arrested, because the warrant U.S. Magistrate Susan Cole signed was considered so minor it was never entered into a national database.
Now Hilton, 61, is charged in the abduction and murder of 24-year-old Meredith Emerson and a suspect in similar cases in Leon County, Fla., and Transylvania County, N.C.
The only outstanding warrant Hilton had prior to his arrest this month stemmed from his failure to move an abandoned Chevy Astro van that was parked at the end of a wilderness road at the base of Tray Mountain in White County.
White County Sheriff's Sgt. Phil Dalenberg said his office got complaints in December 2005 about the broken-down van. After running the tag on the van, Dalenberg tracked down Hilton through his employer at a Chamblee siding business, who gave the deputy Hilton's cell phone number.
Dalenberg said Hilton was told to move the van or an arrest warrant would be issued for abandoned personal property.
"He said he was going to make an agreement with a towing company, and was going to give them the title," Dalenberg said. "It just never happened."
On Nov. 13, 2006, U.S. Forest Service Ranger Jimmy Allen wrote the ticket for abandoned property, which was mailed to the only address authorities had on record, Hilton's work place.
When Hilton, who authorities say lived mostly out of his cars, did not answer the citation, Cole signed a bench warrant for failure to appear in court on Feb. 8, 2007.
The standard language of the form reads, "to any United States Marshal or other authorized officers: you are hereby commanded to arrest and bring the above named defendant forthwith before the nearest available United States Magistrate Judge to answer to the above stated charge."
Yet, because the underlying offense was a federal misdemeanor, the warrant was not entered into the National Crime Information Center, a law enforcement database that tracks outstanding state and federal arrest warrants. Law officers routinely run a person's information through NCIC in any traffic stop. Georgia officers also run the information through the state database, GCIC.
Hilton had two encounters late last year with law enforcement: the first in Cherokee County in October, when a deputy responded to a complaint of Hilton squatting in a private hunting preserve; the second on Nov. 17, when U.S. Forest officials stopped his van in the Apalachicola National Forest.
Hilton's name was cleared through the databases each time.
Someone wearing a mask used the ATM card of 46-year-old Cheryl Dunlap three times between Dec. 1 and Dec. 4, Leon County, Fla., sheriff's officials said. They consider Hilton the prime suspect in Dunlap's abduction and murder Her body was discovered in the Apalachicola National Forest on Dec. 15.
Richard Mecum, the U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Georgia, said the warrant signed by Cole was not entered into NCIC because it was too minor. The offense would have to be something that would make the government willing to extradite a defendant if he were stopped in another state, Mecum said.
"I don't know that the federal government would extradite on a misdemeanor," Mecum said. "In NCIC, you're looking primarily at felonies, or cases in which sheriffs are willing to extradite."
The federal warrant system stands in contrast to the state system. Anyone who has an outstanding bench warrant in Georgia, regardless of the underlying offense, would be in the GCIC system, said Hall County Sheriff's Maj. Jeff Strickland. If the warrant showed up during a traffic stop, they would be arrested, he said.
But Strickland noted that in some minor offenses, defendants can post a nominal bond amount and be out of jail within a day.
Mecum said he has no problem with the way NCIC excludes some federal offenses.
"You can burden the system with all kinds of warrants," Mecum said, adding, "you could have 20-20 hindsight."
When Hilton was the subject of an intense manhunt earlier this month in Emerson's disappearance, it was the federal warrant that Cole signed in February that authorities used to hold him until more serious charges could be brought. The warrant may never be disposed of now.
"I think there's some things with a lot more priority ahead of it," Mecum said.