National News

Missing Georgia Hiker Beaten to Death, Decapitated

Posted January 8, 2008

— A 24-year-old hiker who grew up in Wake County was beaten to death and then decapitated in the mountains of north Georgia, authorities said Tuesday.

A drifter charged with kidnapping Meredith Emerson led authorities to her body Monday, investigators said, hours after a judge denied him bond in her New Year's Day disappearance.

Authorities were also examining whether the death and the disappearance of two elderly hikers in October in North Carolina were related to the Georgia case.

Emerson, who grew up in Holly Springs before her family moved, died from blunt force trauma to the head, according to Dr. Kris Sperry, Georgia's chief medical examiner. She was then decapitated, Sperry said.

"We are deeply saddened to hear the unfortunate news of Meredith's death. She was a wonderful and loving person who did not deserve what happened to her," friend Caroline Beavers said in a statement. "We will continue to pray for Dave, Susan, Mark and the rest of Meredith's family and friends and hope they know that they will always have a family in Holly Springs. We have faith that the person responsible for Meredith's untimely death is brought to justice."

Gary Michael Hilton, 61, showed investigators the spot where Emerson's body lay, said John Cagle, an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Field Division.

Residents reported seeing Hilton's van in the Dawson Forest Management Area, where the body was found, miles from where Emerson was last seen on New Year's Day, Cagle said. A search had been planned there before Hilton told authorities where to look, he said.

The wiry, grizzled Hilton was well known in the area, often seen with his dog, Dandy, and police-style baton, Union County Sheriff Scott Stephens said. Hilton was the last person seen on the trail with Emerson, and investigators had gotten countless calls since identifying him as a person of interest in her disappearance, Stephens said.

Hilton is charged with kidnapping with intent of bodily injury, and more charges could be added, Enotah Judicial District Attorney Stan Gunter said.

Hilton's attorney, Neil Smith, did not enter a plea on Hilton's behalf during the 11-minute appearance before Union County Magistrate Judge Johnie M. Garmon.

Shackled at the hands and feet, Hilton thanked Smith, a public defender who was assigned to the case early in an attempt to encourage Hilton's cooperation in the search for Emerson.

Investigators said Hilton, who was detained Friday, had tried to use Emerson's credit card, according to his arrest warrant.

Three bloody fleece tops 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 tried to vacuum and wash portions of his 2001 Chevrolet Astro van, which was found without the rear seat belt, according to the document.

Authorities said they are exploring whether the disappearance of a couple in North Carolina is related to that of Emerson. John and Irene Bryant, both in their 80s, had gone hiking in the western North Carolina mountains in October.

Irene Bryant's body was found in November; authorities say she was killed with a blow to the head. Her husband remains missing but is presumed to have been killed.

Sheriff David Mahoney of North Carolina's Transylvania County agreed that there are similarities "that we're certainly wanting to look more closely at - nothing that we can release at this point."

Mahoney did note that authorities in both cases were looking for someone wearing a yellow jacket, and that an ATM transaction was made with the Bryants' card about 50 miles from the area of the Georgia investigation.

Emerson was last seen hiking with her dog in Vogel State Park, about 90 miles north of Atlanta. 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.

Vogel is one of Georgia's oldest and most popular state parks. The area includes a segment of the Appalachian Trail, the hiking route that stretches from Georgia to Maine.


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  • doubletrouble Jan 9, 2008

    He only lead LE to the scene, once he got a plea deal for them NOT to seek the DP...that is wrong, via our system. LE had tips that his van was spotted in a certain area(where she was found)..why wait to search that area?-follow that TIP! I can understand not wanting the general public maybe messing up a crime scene-but a few officers working that tip probably would have saved any plea deal with this vermin. I feel so sorry for the family, knowing the system let them down, their daughter gone via such a excuse of a human being--and he'll probably get life instead of what he truly deserves.

  • doubletrouble Jan 9, 2008

    I scoff at the people who "state" that it takes more money to execute a murderer, especially this type-vs-housing him for the rest of his life. Apparently these same type of folks have their hand in the cookie jar, to keep such types alive-aka, gives them a paycheck some type of way, to have that type of mentality. First of all...7-10yrs on Death Row is totally unacceptable. I think Kermit Smith, a white gent from my area who killed a young black/female college student from Rocky Mount, was there 10+ years before they finally pulled his plug. Unacceptable..and we housed him for 10+ years with free food, clothes and medical/dental + appeals(the evidence was overwhelming he did it, BUT= cash in defense lawyers pocket, services who provide prisons with goods(sheets, beding, food, med services, contractors to build more prisons-U get the idea) Enough current would be less than most of our light bills, a .45 slug is 25 cents, a rope..check prices at Ace Hardware(cheap)

  • G-Dawg Jan 9, 2008

    At least there is no doubt who did it, so there's no wondering.

  • Lissa13082 Jan 9, 2008

    nowon_yuno - I agree with the death penalty, but I do not agree with the present death penalty. Why have a doctor present to make sure this idiot doesn't suffer? Was someone around when Meredith died to make sure she didn't suffer? I think she deserves to die worse than she did! If the death penalty was altered, I would be for it, but not as it stands currently.

  • nowon_yuno Jan 9, 2008

    Can any of you death penalty opponents please explain to me why this guy should be granted a privilege he couldn't even extend to his victim?

  • pwilliamson53 Jan 9, 2008

    Prayers are with the family. This man is guilty, why does he deserve a trial? He showed them where the body was, what more proof of guilt do they need? Bring back an eye for an eye. If you kill, you die. Just that simple. No jail time, no tax $$$supporting these crazy people. Simply kill them and rid the world of this once and for all. If a person knows he will die no question about it, they will think before doing it. Our justice system is letting these people sit behind bars for years and years, living a life of air condition, tv, 3 meals a day and recreation. We are paying for it. We have everyday people struggling just to make ends meet and can't get a dime of help from our systems. But if you're in jail, you've got it made. I say kill these killers rid our society of the expense.

  • army retiree Jan 9, 2008

    Why is he still alive?

  • Builder03 Jan 8, 2008

    Let's waterboard him for the rest of the truth. Let's do it every day for the rest of the miserable SOB's life till it kills him. I'm pro death penalty.

  • wildmandave Jan 8, 2008

    As long as you're sure you have the right person, the death penalty is entirely appropriate, and be quick about it. So what if it's painful, the more painful the better.

  • twc Jan 8, 2008

    Within a year or two he will have adjusted to his new way of life. When will we ever get it through our heads that some people are not worth keeping alive?!?!?!? Life is not so precious that we should have to keep killers like this alive. We put animals to sleep when they attack like this! He is nothing more than that! God don't like him; I don't like him; you don't like him! Kill him!!!