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Missing Georgia Hiker Beaten to Death, Decapitated

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.

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Friends Remember Their Holly Springs Friend
BLAIRSVILLE, GA. — 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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