National News

Missing Hiker Case May Be Connected to N.C. Couple's Disappearance

Posted January 7, 2008 7:14 a.m. EST
Updated January 7, 2008 11:09 a.m. EST

— Authorities believe the disappearance of a female hiker may be connected to the presumed killing of an elderly couple from North Carolina last October, a newspaper reported Monday.

Gary Michael Hilton, 61, who investigators said was the last person seen with 24-year-old Meredith Emerson on the trail, was awaiting his first court appearance, scheduled for Monday. He was served Saturday with a warrant charging him with kidnapping with bodily injury.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan said there could be a connection between the Emerson case and the disappearance and presumed killing of an elderly couple from North Carolina - John and Irene Bryant - last October.

Irene Bryant's beaten body was discovered in the Pisgah National Forest. Her 79-year-old husband was never found.

"We are working with the authorities in North Carolina and exchanging information with them," Keenan told reporters Sunday, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "There are some similarities" between the Emerson and Bryant cases, he said.

Emerson is believed to be dead, so authorities have changed the search to a recovery effort, not a rescue mission. The search was to resume Monday, but it was to be scaled back. Only law enforcement and trained searchers, not volunteers, were set to participate, officials said.

A vigil was held for Emerson Sunday in Holly Springs, N.C., where she once lived.

Caroline Beavers, who said Emerson was her best friend growing up, called her an "amazing person, just (a) fun spirit, great family, an all-American girl. She was one of a kind."

“Terrible things happen to great people. She was one of those few bright lights and great girls, and to see someone like that taken so early in her life, it’s really hard,” Beavers said.

Neighbors said Emerson grew up in a tight-knit community and was an important part of the neighborhood. Her family moved early in her high-school years.

"Her middle name was Hope. Meredith's middle name was Hope. Until they find the body, you're always hoping that there will be a miracle," said family friend Maria Cardone.

Hilton was detained Friday. He had tried to use Emerson's credit card, according to the warrant.

Some 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 not cooperating with authorities, bureau spokesman John Bankhead said.

Officer Gayle Bachelor in Union County, where Hilton was being held in the Towns-Union County Jail, declined to allow The Associated Press to speak with Hilton by phone.

Search teams focused again Sunday 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, Bankhead said.

The search had been focused on Vogel State Park, at the base of Blood Mountain, 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.

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

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Associated Press writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.