Killing of a young hiker puts N. Georgia on edge


Published: Monday, January 14, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 14, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

ATLANTA — In the days after a young woman was killed after being abducted on a popular North Georgia hiking trail, instructors offering a crash course in personal safety found classes filling up as fast as they were scheduled, and that they had to turn some women away.

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At a martial-arts center in suburban Smyrna, Ga., Shawn Forristall taught self-defense techniques to a roomful of new students.

Erik S. Lesser for The New York Times

“To be honest with you, I asked my wife and some of my friends to come to the one we held yesterday because I wasn’t sure anyone was going to show up,” Jim Stratton, an instructor at Atlanta Budokan, a martial arts studio in Smyrna, said Saturday as he watched a line of women waiting for the next class snake around the building.

Mr. Stratton need not have worried.

The classes, hastily arranged throughout the region by the studio and the local radio station WWWQ, known as Q100, clearly met a need in a community struggling to come to grips with the apparently random attack on the hiker, Meredith Emerson, 24, of Buford, who disappeared near Blood Mountain on New Year’s Day with her dog, a black Labrador retriever mix named Ella. Her body was found Jan. 7.

“It hit close to home because I’m an avid runner and hiker, and I do those things by myself,” said Amanda Lancaster, 25, of Post Ridge, who estimated that she ventured outdoors alone four or five times a week.

Nearly 300 people, mostly women in their 20s and 30s, showed up Friday to the first personal-safety class offered this month in the Midtown area of Atlanta. An estimated 250 women quickly filled the studio at the Smyrna location on Saturday morning, and another overflow crowd packed an afternoon session the same day.

Jenny Hass, 39, an elementary-school teacher and personal trainer from Kennesaw who attended the morning class on Saturday, said that she used to go on walks with her young son every day, but that after Ms. Emerson’s death, her husband asked her to stop. The couple even discussed buying a gun.

“It’s definitely put a deterrent on my outdoor exercise activity,” Ms. Hass said.

The search for Ms. Emerson and the subsequent discovery of her body riveted North Georgia.

Search-and-rescue crews combing the area where she was last seen, a popular path that leads to the Appalachian Trail, found a water bottle and a dog’s leash. Fellow hikers told the police that she had been talking to an older man in a yellow jacket who was also walking a dog.

Ms. Emerson’s parents flew from Longmont, Colo., to Georgia while they waited for word of their daughter’s whereabouts. They described her as a feisty and gregarious person who knew how to handle herself outdoors and said that if anyone could survive the chilly overnight temperatures, she could.

But hopes dimmed after the police identified the man last seen with her as Gary M. Hilton, 61, a drifter with a criminal history who had intimidated hikers on other local trails.

Mr. Hilton was apprehended in the parking lot of a convenience store near Cumming as he was cleaning out his van. The police recovered three blood-soaked fleece shirts, Ms. Emerson’s wallet and her University of Georgia identification card, and they found a bloody seat belt in a nearby trash bin. Ms. Emerson’s dog was found wandering the parking lot of a grocery store across the street. The police also said that Mr. Hilton had tried to use Ms. Emerson’s A.T.M. card.

After making a deal with prosecutors that spared him the death penalty, Mr. Hilton led investigators to Ms. Emerson’s body on Jan. 7. It was near Dawsonville, and the authorities said her head had been severed. An autopsy revealed that Ms. Emerson was probably killed on Jan. 4, a fact that haunted many of the police officers and volunteers who had been searching tirelessly for her since Jan. 1.

Mr. Hilton was charged with murder. He is being held without bail in the Dawson County Jail.

Since his arrest, the authorities in Leon County, Fla., have named Mr. Hilton a prime suspect in the death of Cheryl H. Dunlap, 46, a Sunday school teacher from Crawfordville, Fla.

Ms. Dunlap was found dead and dismembered on Dec. 15 in the Apalachicola National Forest near Tallahassee. Cameras caught a masked man trying to use her A.T.M. card after her disappearance on Dec. 1, and an agent for the state forestry service encountered Mr. Hilton near where Ms. Dunlap’s body was found. The agent ran a check on Mr. Hilton’s license plate number but did not detain him.

Investigators in North Carolina said Mr. Hilton may also have been involved in the disappearances of an elderly couple, John and Irene Bryant, 79 and 84, who were last seen alive in the Pisgah National Forest on Oct. 20. The body of Mrs. Bryant, which had been beaten, was found three weeks later. Mr. Bryant remains missing and is believed to be dead.

But it is the attack on Ms. Emerson that has continued to rattle North Georgia residents, many of whom endure 90-minute commutes into Atlanta so that they can live near the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachian Trail.

“We’ve had a lot of people yesterday and today call and ask what the law says about taking firearms into national parks,” said Randy Gambrell, assistant manager of Vogel State Park. “It has darkened the mood on the trails, for sure.”

Trail-maintenance volunteers have planned a memorial walk and a smudge ceremony, which is an American Indian cleansing ritual that involves burning sage to rid a place of evil spirits, on Sunday to honor Ms. Emerson and to try to calm their own nerves.

“The lasting effect something like this has on an area is terrible,” said Jennifer R. Morse, a clerk at Mountain Crossings, a backpacking supply store toward the southern end of the Appalachian Trail.

Ms. Morse said she used to relish her ability to hit the trail with nothing more than her dog and a water bottle, but that she had not been hiking by herself since Ms. Emerson’s body was found.

“I think all of us saw ourselves out there,” Ms. Morse said. “It’s hard to say why it was her.”

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