0

GBI finds missing hiker's body
Kidnapping suspect tells authorities where to look

DAWSONVILLE - The man charged with kidnapping a Buford hiker, missing since New Year's Day, led investigators to her body Monday.

After 61-year-old Gary Michael Hilton was denied bond by a Union County magistrate judge, he showed investigators where they could find the body of 24-year-old Meredith Emerson.

Members of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Natural Resources and Dawson County deputies discovered her body in the Dawson Forest Management Area around 7:30 p.m., GBI Special Agent John Cagle said.

Cagle said the GBI had received tips from people who had seen Hilton's white van inside the wildlife management area, but that Hilton took investigators to the scene.

"The specific information concerning the location of the body was given to me by Gary Hilton," Cagle said.

Cagle would not describe the area where Emerson's body was found and did not answer questions about the cause of death or the length of time Emerson had been in the wooded area.

Stan Gunter, district attorney for the Enotah Judicial Circuit, would not say what, if any, additional charges Hilton might face in light of the discovery of Emerson's body.

"There's a lot going on in this case," he said. "The investigation's still going on and decisions are still being made."

GBI Director Vernon Keenan said Emerson's body will be brought to the agency's crime lab in DeKalb County. The lab started processing evidence Sunday and the medical examiner for the GBI will perform an autopsy on Emerson's body today.

Authorities will continue to investigate the scene where her body was found.

GBI spokesman John Bankhead said authorities met in Cleveland on Monday to discuss a possible link between Emerson's disappearance and the presumed killing of an elderly couple from North Carolina. John and Irene Bryant, a couple in their 80s, disappeared in October while hiking in the western North Carolina mountains.

"There were certain similarities we thought deserved to be looked at," Bankhead said. He said an investigation into those similarities is under way.

North Carolina authorities will determine if Hilton will be charged in that case. Keenan also said the GBI plans to talk to officials in Florida about unsolved murders there.

According to Hilton's arrest warrant, obtained by the Associated Press, 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. Hilton reportedly tried to vacuum and wash portions of his 2001 Chevrolet Astro van, which was found without the rear seat belt.

Hilton was detained Friday in DeKalb County after he tried to use Emerson's credit card, the warrant said.

"There's a tremendous amount of evidence in this case," Keenan said.

Hilton, the last person seen with Emerson on a trail in Vogel State Park before she disappeared, remains at the Union County jail on charges of kidnapping with bodily injury. He did not speak Monday during his first appearance before Union County Magistrate Judge Johnie M. Garmon. Hilton's attorney, Neil Smith, did not enter a plea on Hilton's behalf.

Hilton, whose hands and feet were shackled, entered the courtroom wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. At the end of the 11-minute hearing, Hilton thanked Smith, a public defender who was assigned to the case early in an attempt to encourage Hilton's cooperation with authorities to find Emerson.

Union County Sheriff Scott Stephens said Hilton was a drifter well-known in the area, and was often seen with his dog, Dandy, and police-style baton. Since he was identified as a person of interest in Emerson's disappearance, Stephens said his office has gotten thousands of calls from people saying they recognized him.

Emerson was found near the area where her 1-year-old black Labrador mix, Ella, was discovered late last week.

Peggy Bailey, a family spokeswoman and Emerson's godmother, could not be reached for comment late Monday. She said Saturday that not knowing what had happened to Emerson was hard for the family.

Earlier Monday, Emerson's father pleaded for information about his daughter's whereabouts at a news conference near the trail where his daughter was last seen alive.

"Please have everyone search their minds to recall any evidence that could help bring our daughter home,' Dave Emerson said.

Keenan, the GBI director, said family members had been informed about Emerson's death.

"It's extremely, extremely difficult for family members not to know what happened to their loved one," he said. "In this case, the family will have closure, the public will have closure, because Meredith Emerson's remains have been recovered."

- Staff Writer Melissa Wilson and the Associated Press contributed to this story

SideBar: At a glance

A look at the events leading up to the discovery of missing hiker Meredith Emerson's body in the woods near Cumming:

· Jan. 1 - Meredith Emerson is last seen hiking at Vogel State Park with her dog.

· Wednesday - Authorities launch search for missing woman.

· Thursday - Authorities announce they are looking for Gary Michael Hilton, a person of interest in the case.

· Friday - DeKalb County police take Hilton into custody after they find him cleaning out his white van at a gas station. Emerson's dog, Ella, is found 50 miles away in a grocery store parking lot near Cumming.

· Monday - Judge denies bond to Hilton. Emerson's body is found later that day after authorities say Hilton led them to her body.