Suspected killer had local run-in


Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

The drifter accused of killing a female hiker in north Georgia and suspected in five other deaths had been in a remote area of Columbia County in late December, days before the slain woman disappeared.

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Hilton

An officer discovered Gary Michael Hilton camping in a section of the Osceola National Forest off Gum Swamp Road on Dec. 28, the Columbia County Sheriff's Office reported.

U.S. Forest Law Enforcement Officer Jim Ellis found Hilton in an unauthorized area of the forest and issued him a warning citation for driving on a closed road and camping in the area, according to the Sheriff's Office. That citation was discovered in Hilton's van after he was arrested in Georgia.

"I think Officer Ellis, doing his job, may have prevented an abduction in Columbia County," said Columbia County Sheriff Bill Gootee.

Hilton, 61, is accused of killing 24-year-old Meredith Hope Emerson of Buford, Ga. The woman vanished New Year's Day near Blood Mountain in Union County, Ga., according to the Associated Press. She had been beaten to death and then decapitated three days after her disappearance, an autopsy report stated.

Hilton also is considered a prime suspect in the death of Cheryl Hodges Dunlap, 46, of Crawfordville, who was found dead Dec. 15 in the Apalachicola National Forest, southwest of Tallahassee in Leon County.

Although Hilton has not been linked to any cases in this area, Gootee said evidence from the Columbia County site may be connected to the Leon County slaying.

Ellis and Columbia County officers returned to the location on Jan. 6, after Hilton had been named a suspect in the Georgia case, and collected items.

Gootee said the location is about a half mile into the woods, near a forest road.

Gootee did not elaborate on what was located at the site but said it was taken to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab in Tallahassee.

FDLE was back in the Columbia County area on Jan. 9, Gootee said. Investigators again checked the area using a helicopter and infrared equipment on Jan. 10, but Gootee said nothing was discovered.

Before Ellis released Hilton, he checked to make sure he had no outstanding warrants, Gootee said. Finding none, he issued the citation and told Hilton to leave. Hilton told Ellis he had only camped overnight.

"Basically, in talking with Officer Ellis, Hilton was calm. He was polite, sorry that he was in a place that he shouldn't have been," Gootee said. "He was apologetic. He was cooperative."

Since Hilton's arrest, investigators have said he may be connected to three other cases:

Florida resident Rossana Miliani, 26, was last seen in Bryson City, N.C., on Dec. 7, 2005, the same day she called her father from a motel in the area.

The body of North Carolina resident Irene Bryant, 84, was found near a hiking trail in western North Carolina in November. Her husband, John Bryant, 80, still is missing.

The death of Michael S. Louis, 27, whose body was found in Tomoka State Park near Ormond Beach on Dec. 6.

Hilton has not been connected to the death of Lake City resident Wayne Anthony Byrd, 28, who was found Dec. 29 in the forest near the Baker County line.

Investigators believe Byrd was struck by a train and the fact that Hilton had recently been in the area was a coincidence, according to the Sheriff's Office.

Gootee said investigators are asking anyone who may have seen Hilton in the Columbia County area to contact authorities.

Lise Fisher can be reached at 352-374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.

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