'Person of interest' questioned in missing hiker case

BUFORD - Police were questioning the mysterious "person of interest" in the case of a missing Buford hiker after he was apprehended at a DeKalb County gas station Friday night.

Police announced they had found DeKalb resident Gary Michael Hilton, 61, cleaning out his white van at a gas station on Ashford-Dunwoody Road. He was apprehended about 8 p.m. by DeKalb police, said Union County Sheriff's Department investigator Kimberly Verdone.

Witnesses said Hilton was last seen talking with Meredith Emerson the day she disappeared on Blood Mountain in north Georgia.

The 24-year-old sales manager, a Colorado native and UGA grad, has been missing since New Year's Day.

Police told local television stations no charges had been filed against Hilton late Friday.

In another strange twist, the dog Emerson was hiking with - a black Labrador mix called Ella - turned up at a gas station near Cumming. Police were able to identify the dog via an implanted microchip.

John Bankhead, Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman, debunked a rumor earlier Friday that state officials are trying to link Hilton to the disappearance of two hikers in North Carolina.

"That's not us," said Bankhead. "I don't know where that came from."

Online searches of police and court records in DeKalb and Gwinnett counties showed Hilton has no criminal history in either county.

Witnesses last saw Emerson talking with the elderly man Tuesday about 4 p.m. on a walking path called Freeman Trail.

Emerson's Chevy Cavalier was found abandoned Wednesday near the trail. Investigators recovered a leash and sunglasses near Emerson's car.

Emerson's roommate, Julia Karrenbauer, said the family plans to resume the search near Vogel State Park today. The search was expanded to cover a 400-square mile area, which was being purveyed by at least four helicopter units Friday, she said.

Friends have established a Web site - www.helpfindmeredith.com - where details are posted alongside search updates.

Karrenbauer said the missing woman's parents, Dave and Susan, spent their second full day scouring the landscape.

"Of course they're scared," said Karrenbauer, "but they're hopeful."