Man accused of kidnapping hiker denied bond

Published: Monday, January 7, 2008 at 1:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 7, 2008 at 1:36 p.m.

BLAIRSVILLE, Ga. - A judge denied bond Monday for a 61-year-old man accused of kidnapping missing hiker Meredith Hope Emerson, as authorities continued to search for her in the north Georgia mountains.

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In this May 2007 photo released by Pat B. Mitchell via The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Jan. 3, 2008, 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

Gary Michael Hilton did not speak 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 and 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. Authorities have said they believe she is dead.

"He's gotten counsel at a time when he normally would not have," said Enotah Judicial District Attorney Stan Gunter.

Hilton is currently charged with kidnapping with intent of bodily injury but Gunter said Monday it is likely that he could face additional charges in the 24-year-old Emerson's disappearance as the case develops.

Gunter said he is confident in the case against Hilton, but said his office is not ready to present the case to the Union County grand jury, which reconvenes Tuesday. investigators said Hilton was the last person seen with Emerson on the trail.

Gunter said that even if Emerson's body is not found, the case can still go ahead.

"It's been done before," Gunter said. "It the blood evidence is matched to DNA, essentially, we do have a body."

Gunter said he expects Hilton will be indicted with 90 days.

Meanwhile, authorities said they are exploring a possible link between the disappearance of Emerson and the presumed killing of a couple from North Carolina in October.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan said there could be a connection between the Emerson case and the disappearance and presumed killing of John and Irene Bryant, a couple in their 80s who disappeared in October while hiking in the western North Carolina mountains.

GBI spokesman John Bankhead said officials planned to meet with North Carolina authorities Monday in Cleveland, Ga., to discuss the case.

Asked whether authorities believe the two cases are related, Bankhead said, "We don't know. But there are similarities where we feel it necessary to meet with North Carolina and others involved in the investigation."

Transylvania County, N.C., Sheriff David Mahoney said Monday that his office is meeting with Georgia authorities to compare case files and look for possible links.

"There are some similarities that we're certainly wanting to look more closely at nothing that we can release at this point," he said.

He did note that Georgia authorities have reported that their suspect was wearing a yellow jacket. Someone who used the Bryants' ATM card in the days following their disappearance was wearing a yellow jacket.

He also pointed out that the ATM transaction took place in the Tennessee border town of Ducktown, about 50 miles from the area of the Georgia investigation.

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

Emerson is believed to be dead, so authorities have changed the search to a recovery effort, not a rescue mission. The search was to resume Monday, but it was to be scaled back. Only law enforcement and trained searchers, not volunteers, were set to participate, officials said.

Emerson's father pleaded for information Monday.

"Please have everyone search their minds to recall any evidence that could help bring our daughter home," said Dave Emerson during a news conference near the trail where Meredith was last seen alive.

Hilton was detained Friday. He had tried to use Emerson's credit card, according to the warrant.

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, the 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.

Hilton was not cooperating with authorities, Bankhead said.

Union County Officer Gayle Bachelor declined to allow The Associated Press to speak with Hilton by phone.

On Sunday, searchers focused again 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, sheriff's investigator Kimberly Verdone said.

The search had been focused on Vogel State Park, at the base of Blood Mountain, 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.

Vogel is one of Georgia's oldest and most popular state parks. The area includes a segment of the Appalachian Trail, the hiking route that stretches from Georgia to Maine.

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