Emerson was an active 24 year old University of Georgia
student who was last seen hiking with her
black Labrador retriever, Ella,
on New Year’s Day 2008. Emerson was a
blue belt in martial arts and
experienced hiker who
had jogged the
near where her car was found
in Vogel State Park several times with a partner.
Located about 90 miles north of Atlanta, Vogel State Park lies
within Chattahoochee National Forest in
Union County, Georgia. One of Georgia's oldest and most popular state
parks Vogel is at the base of Blood Mountain and boasts over 120 campsites, 35
cabins, picnic shelters, and hiking including a section of the Appalachian
Meredith was last seen alive on the
talking to an older man. Authorities soon developed
Gary Michael Hilton, 61, as a suspect. Hilton was a drifter known to hike
in the area with his dog and was known to carry a police-style baton.
Ella was found the following Friday, 50 miles away in a grocery store
parking lot in Cumming, Georgia. Bloody clothes, wallet and other items
belonging to Emerson as well as bloody seatbelt were found in a nearby
garbage can. Ella was identified using an implanted microchip.
Hilton was caught while cleaning out van with a bleach and water
Hilton only agreed to cooperate
after prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty against him in the
case. He was charged with murder after he led investigators to Emerson's
body in Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area, southwest of Dawsonville.
Residents had reported seeing Hilton's white Astro van in the Dawson
Forest Wildlife Management Area and the wooded area where the body was
later found had previously been searched. According to Dr. Kris Sperry,
Georgia's chief medical examiner, Emerson was alive for three days after
she went missing, then she was struck on the head and killed, before she
Gary Michael Hilton was sentenced to life in prison.
Authorities are exploring whether Hilton could be connected to the
disappearance of North Carolina a couple, John and Irene Bryant. Both in
their 80s, The Bryant's had gone hiking in the Nantahala National Forest
in the mountains western North Carolina in October 2007. Irene Bryant's body was found in November
9, 2007 near the Pink Beds Picnic Area in Pisgah National Forest, killed
by a blow to the head. John Bryant remains weren't discovered until
February 2008 when a hunter spotted his remains in an area known for
illegal dumping. Mr. Bryant had been shot in the head.
Hilton is also considered a suspect in the case of Cheryl Hodges
Dunlap. Dunlap's body was found Dec. 19 in the Apalachicola National
Forest, southwest of Tallahassee. Authorities say a masked person
suspected in Dunlap's death used her ATM card three times after her
disappearance December 1.