Nancy Linkesh will never know how close she came to being Gary Hilton's victim.
The 36-year-old Gainesville sales representative crossed paths with the suspected serial killer on the Byron Herbert Reece trail in Union County one day before he abducted Meredith Emerson there. The story of her encounter has made its rounds through cyberspace by way of a cautionary e-mail she wrote to a group of old friends.
Hilton, 61, was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to Emerson's murder and remains a key suspect in the deaths of three others in North Carolina and Florida.
Linkesh said she never wanted or sought publicity for her encounter with Hilton, which was briefly mentioned by District Attorney Lee Darragh when Hilton pleaded guilty to Emerson's murder on Jan. 31.
Darragh did not mention Linkesh by name, but spoke of Hilton, on the day before Emerson's kidnapping, "having approached another hiker ... she was with other people, however."
Linkesh and a group of four others embarked on a two-mile hike up the trail on Monday, Dec. 31, stopping near the top to have a midday lunch before heading back down. By the time they started the hike down, it was 3:30 p.m. and the temperature was dropping. Linkesh had not dressed warmly, so she took the hike down at a quicker pace, getting a few hundred yards ahead of her friends.
It was there she saw the dog with the shiny red coat, and its balding, white-haired owner, wearing blue nylon pants with a sheath around one leg and a half-full hiking backpack.
"That's a beautiful dog, what's her name?" Linkesh said, starting a conversation with Hilton, whose back remained turned to her as he walked down the trail. He told her the dog's name was Dandy, like a fancy dresser, and that it was a "red Retriever."
The two then engaged in brief small talk about the dog, never pausing from their brisk walk down the mountain.
Then Hilton, she said, became suddenly agitated. "He said he gets so angry with people who come up on the mountain who are not prepared," she recalled. "He said he's surprised more people don't die."
"He turned around and pointed where I was stepping, and said, ‘Right there, you could step there wrong and break your leg and lay there. In an hour you'd be hypothermic.'"
That was the only time she got a clear look at Hilton's face. "The brief time I saw him was kind of creepy," she said.
Hilton, she said, used disparaging terms to describe local rescue workers, and said it would take five hours, "best-case scenario" for anyone to get to her if she was stranded and hurt. "At that point he asked me if I was alone," Linkesh said. "I said no."
Hilton seemed to let out a frustrated grunt, "huh," she said. Then he asked if she had a cell phone, commenting, "most days people carry a cell phone with them." Linkesh, whose hiking companions had cell phones, said "well, no."
Linkesh said she kept looking back to make sure her friends were in sight. At one point, she was too far ahead to see them. "He made me feel uneasy, but not uneasy enough not to talk to him," she said.
As the trail branched off, Hilton kept walking straight, while she and her friends went to the left. The entire encounter lasted about 10 minutes.
"I said, ‘It was nice talking to you,'" she said. "He was far enough away that I couldn't understand him. He threw up his right hand and barked something."
As the group got to the bottom of the trail, one of her companions looked up to see that Hilton was behind them again, having apparently doubled back.
Linkesh thought no more about the strange man with the dog until her husband called a few days later to tell her that he was the person of interest in Emerson's disappearance, which occurred at the same location the day after her hike.
Interviews with law enforcement officials followed, but it took several days for Linkesh to grasp the full impact of the encounter.
"I just was thinking it was a weird coincidence." she said. "I don't think I could really get my head around it."
Eventually, after talking with a family member, Linkesh came to the conclusion that Hilton had been "shopping her" as a potential victim.
"As time went on it dawned on me that it was a really close call," she said.
She sent out the e-mail to a small group of old friends as a cautionary story, telling them "to keep in mind that the world is full of bad people and they are very good at manipulating situations to get you involved with them ... ‘Stranger Danger' applies to grown-ups, too."
The e-mail was forwarded and forwarded again, and took on a life of its own on the Internet, drawing more attention to Linkesh then she ever wanted. She received hundreds of e-mails and was hounded with requests for national television interviews.
"I didn't want to be seen as a publicity-hound," she said. "I'm just not interested in that. I'm a very private person."
Linkesh hopes she can use her experience to teach others about how close they can come to real danger.
The lessons learned, she said, are "never let your guard down, always be vigilant. It's sad to say, but you can't strike up a conversation with a stranger any more. It's not worth the risk."