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Drifter reached deal with prosecutors before leading way to Ga. hiker's body

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

(Photo)
Gary Michael Hilton, left, glanced up while talking to to his public defender, Neil Smith, right, following a first appearance in Union County Magistrate Court in Blairsville, Ga., on Monday.
(BEN GRAY ~ Associated Press)
DAWSONVILLE, Ga. -- A drifter agreed to lead investigators to a hiker's decapitated body in the woods of northern Georgia only after prosecutors pledged not to seek the death penalty against him, authorities said Tuesday.

Gary Michael Hilton, 61, was charged with murder after Meredith Emerson's body was found Monday night. The 24-year-old died of a blow to the head three days after she disappeared during a New Year's Day hike, said Dawson County District Attorney Lee Darragh.

Hilton had already been charged Saturday with kidnapping with intent of bodily injury. He is being held in the Dawson County jail.

The finding that Emerson died before being decapitated was made by Kris Sperry, the state's chief medical examiner, said Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead.

Hilton appeared Monday before a judge who denied his request for bail. Hours later, he took investigators to Emerson's body, said John Cagle, an agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Emerson had gone hiking with her dog. Hilton was the last person seen with her on a hiking trail and had tried to use her credit card, according to his arrest warrant. Authorities are not releasing information on how Emerson met Hilton and what happened between the time she disappeared and when she was killed, Bankhead said.

Hilton's attorney, Neil A. Smith, declined to comment Tuesday.

At a news conference Tuesday in Athens, Ga., Emerson's godmother, Peggy Bailey, thanked law enforcement agencies and the news media.

"We would also like to thank the untold number of friends, volunteers and family who helped search and support all of us at this tragic and troubling time," she said. Bailey declined to answer questions.

Asked whether the family was told of the arrangement with Hilton before it was made, Bailey said, "We're just not discussing anything about that at all."

Authorities have said they are exploring a possible link between the disappearance of Emerson and the presumed killing of a couple from North Carolina in October, as well as the December death of a woman in Florida.

The agreement with Hilton that led authorities to Emerson's body covers only the prosecution in that case, and other jurisdictions could seek the death penalty for killings there if they find connections, Union County District Attorney Stan Gunter said.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation director Vernon Keenan said there could be a connection to the case of John and Irene Bryant, a couple in their 80s who disappeared in October while hiking in North Carolina.

Georgia officials met with North Carolina authorities Monday to discuss the case, Bankhead said.

The body of Irene Bryant, 84, was found covered with leaves in November. John Bryant, 80, is still missing, and authorities said he may have been kidnapped so he would provide the couple's bank account security number.

Someone used the Bryants' ATM card in the days after their disappearance, investigators said. The ATM transaction took place in Ducktown, Tenn., about 50 miles from the area of the Georgia investigation.

Georgia officials also plan to meet with Florida investigators about the death of a woman there, Bankhead said Tuesday.

The body of Cheryl Hodges Dunlap 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 Dec. 1.

Sgt. Rob Reisinger, spokesman for Leon County, Fla., Sheriff's Office, said that his agency has requested information about the Georgia case but that it is too early to determine a connection.

Residents had reported seeing Hilton's van in the Dawson Forest Management Area, where Emerson's body was found. A search of the area had been planned, miles from where the woman was last seen, before Hilton told authorities where to look, Cagle said.

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, his arrest 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.


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