Man accused of killing hiker also suspect in Fla. murder

Published: Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 12:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 12:40 p.m.

DAWSONVILLE, Ga. - A drifter accused of kidnapping and decapitating a 24-year-old hiker in Georgia is now a suspect in the slaying of a Florida woman whose body was found last month in a national forest, authorities said Wednesday.

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Gary Michael Hilton, left, talks to to his public defender Neil Smith, right, following a first appearance in Union County Magistrate Court in Blairsville, Ga. on Monday, Jan. 7, 2008. Hilton is charged in the disappearance of disappearance of a female hiker, Meredith Emerson.

Ben Gray/The Associated Press

Gary Hilton, 61, made his first court appearance after being charged Tuesday with murder in the Georgia case. He was ordered held without bail.

Meredith Emerson died of a blow to the head three days after she disappeared during a New Year's Day hike, authorities said. An autopsy report said she was decapitated after her death, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which said it was not releasing the report because it is part of an ongoing investigation.

Hilton led investigators to Emerson's body Monday evening after Georgia prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty against him, officials said. He had already been charged Saturday with kidnapping with intent of bodily injury.

During Wednesday's hearing, Hilton spoke only to his attorney, telling him he had finished two years of college.

The attorney, Neil A. Smith, declined to comment, other than to say the case involved "significant mental health issues."

Dawson County District Attorney Lee Darragh declined to say whether he would seek the death penalty for Hilton.

Hilton was the last person seen with Emerson on a hiking trail in the north Georgia mountains and had tried to use her credit card, according to an arrest 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 said. Hilton had tried to vacuum and wash portions of his van, which was found without the rear seat belt, according to the document.

Authorities still did not release information on how Emerson met Hilton and what happened between her disappearance and her death. Those details will come out in court proceedings, authorities said.

In Florida, the Leon County Sheriff's Office said Wednesday that Hilton was a prime suspect in the death of Cheryl Hodges Dunlap, whose 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 Dec. 1.

Sheriff's Maj. Mike Wood said Wednesday authorities had confirmed that Hilton was in the area at the time of Dunlap's disappearance.

Based on similarities between the Georgia and Florida cases and Hilton's presence in the area when Dunlap disappeared, Wood said Hilton was the focus of the Florida investigation.

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