Hiker presumed dead, search continues

In this May 2007 photo released by Pat B. Mitchell, Meredith Emerson is seen with her dog Ella, in Flowery Branch, Ga. The 24-year-old hiker has been missing since Tuesday.

Courtesy of Pat B. Mitchell/The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 3:57 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 3:57 p.m.

ATLANTA - More than 150 people fanned out in the northern Georgia woods Sunday looking for the body of a 24-year-old hiker believed to have been killed, a day after authorities charged a man with kidnapping her.

Investigators had recovered three bloody fleece tops like the kind Meredith Emerson wore and said they held out little hope of finding her alive.

"It's gone from a search and rescue to a search and recovery," Union County sheriff's investigator Kimberly Verdone said.

Authorities served a warrant Saturday evening charging Gary Michael Hilton, 61, with kidnapping with bodily injury, Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said. Hilton, who investigators have said was the last person seen with Emerson on the trail, was detained Friday after trying to use Emerson's credit card, according to the warrant.

Three bloody fleece tops believed to be Emerson's 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 attempted to vacuum and wash portions of his 2001 Chevrolet Astro van, which was found without the rear seat belt, according to the document.

Hilton was already in federal custody near Atlanta, held on a warrant for failure to appear in court on a charge of abandoning property in a national park.

He has requested a court-appointed attorney for his first court appearance, which is set for Monday, Union County Officer Gayle Bachelor said Sunday. Bankhead added that Hilton was "not being cooperative" with authorities.

Search teams focused again Sunday on a 5-square-mile area of mountainous terrain about 90 miles north of Atlanta in the Chattahoochee National Forest, near where Emerson's car was discovered Wednesday, Verdone said. She said the search had not yielded any results by Sunday afternoon.

The search had been focused on Vogel State Park, at the base of Blood Mountain in the national forest, where Emerson was last seen on New Year's Day hiking with her black Labrador retriever, Ella.

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, Verdone said. The same day, police found Hilton at a convenience store near Atlanta.

Friends described Emerson, who moved from Longmont, Colo. to attend the University of Georgia, as an experienced hiker who has a blue belt in martial arts.

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