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Search for missing hiker to be scaled back today
Emerson feared dead; suspect scheduled for court today
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The Associated Press

The search for a 24-year-old hiker who has been missing for six days will be scaled back today, the same day her accused abductor is scheduled to appear before a judge to face kidnapping charges in her disappearance.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said on Sunday that the search for Meredith Emerson will not stop, but that only trained search and rescue individuals and law enforcement will be involved. The search shifted late Saturday from a rescue mission to a recovery mission, and authorities fear that Emerson is no longer alive.

"We’re not going to be using volunteers starting tomorrow," Bankhead said. "Given the scenario and the fact that it’s a recovery effort, the mission has changed."

Authorities served a warrant Saturday evening charging Gary Michael Hilton, 61, with kidnapping with bodily injury, Bankhead said. Hilton, who investigators have said was the last person seen with Emerson on the trail, was detained Friday after trying to use Emerson’s credit card, according to the warrant.

Three bloody fleece tops believed to be Emerson’s and a bloodstained piece of a car’s seat belt were found in a trash bin beside a convenience store where Hilton had used a pay phone, the warrant stated. Hilton had attempted to vacuum and wash portions of his 2001 Chevrolet Astro van, which was found without the rear seat belt, according to the document.

Hilton was already in federal custody near Atlanta, held on a warrant for failure to appear in court on a charge of abandoning property in a national park.

He has requested a court-appointed attorney for his first appearance before a magistrate judge, which is set for today, Union County Officer Gayle Bachelor said Sunday. Bankhead added that Hilton was "not being cooperative" with authorities.

More than 150 people fanned out in the northern Georgia woods Sunday looking for Emerson. Search teams focused again on a 5-square-mile area of mountainous terrain about 90 miles north of Atlanta in the Chattahoochee National Forest, near where Emerson’s car was discovered Wednesday, Union County sheriff’s investigator Kimberly Verdone said. She said the search had not yielded any results by Sunday afternoon.

The search had been focused on Vogel State Park, at the base of Blood Mountain in the national forest, where Emerson was last seen on New Year’s Day hiking with her black Labrador retriever, Ella.

The dog was found 50 miles away Friday in a grocery store parking lot in Cumming, a suburb north of Atlanta, and identified using an implanted microchip, Verdone said. The same day, police found Hilton at a convenience store near Atlanta.

Going forward, search efforts will focus on investigative leads, with authorities concentrating on areas Hilton is known to frequent, where he was spotted by the public and based on other evidence gathered by investigators, Bankhead said.

Friends described Emerson, who moved from Longmont, Colo. to attend the University of Georgia, as an experienced hiker who has a blue belt in martial arts.