Image: Meredith Emerson
Pat B. Mitchell via AP
Meredith Emerson is seen with her dog Ella, in Flowery Branch, Ga. The 24-year-old hiker was found dead.
By Clint Van Zandt
msnbc.com
updated 1/11/2008 4:01:40 PM ET 2008-01-11T21:01:40
COMMENTARY

It was a bright, snowy New Year's Day in northern Georgia, a perfect day for a hike for 24-year-old former Colorado resident and local packaging company sales manager Meredith Emerson.  She was an experienced outdoorswoman with a blue belt in martial arts, an outgoing and whitty young woman taking in the fresh air the wonderful park about 100 miles north of Atlanta had to offer.

Emerson never returned home from the hike she went on with her dog. The black lab, Ella, was found three days later, some 50 miles south of Blood Mountain, where Emerson hiked, a name that would later eerily resonate with officials on the crisp and clear January day that marked the start of 2008.

Emerson's body was found on Monday evening, nearly a week after she disappeared. An autopsy revealed she died of a blow to the head, and was later decapitated, according to the medical examiner.

Now that the mystery of Emerson's disappearance has come to a tragic ending, an even greater mystery looms: did the same person responsible for killing Emerson take the lives of other victims, too?

Gary Hilton has been detained in this case. Authorities will take a close look at Hilton not just in Emerson's slaying, but also in the 2004 presumed kidnap and murder of Georgia hairdresser Patrice Endres, a murder of an elderly North Carolina couple who was hiking, and the murder of 46-year-old nurse and Sunday school teacher Cheryl Dunlap, first reported missing on Dec. 1 and found dead on Dec. 19 in Florida’s Apalachicola National Park.  In the cases of Dunlap, the elderly hikers, and Emerson, an unidentified man was photographed in attempting to use the victims ATM cards after their disappearances.

Witnesses along the hiking trail apparently saw Emerson a number of times the day she went missing as she and Ella made their way across the snow.  These same witnesses had also described someone who was seen walking along with Emerson.

That man was confirmed to be 61-year-old Gary Michael Hilton, a.k.a. "Mack," an unemployed man who was living with his dog in his Chevy Astro van. The weathered-looking white male with missing teeth had a red dog with him that he called “Dandy.” Dandy was seen romping with Ella along the scenic route in the Chattahoochee National Forest that eventually led to the Appalachian Trail, a path that runs over 2,000 miles between Georgia and Maine.  Hilton’s criminal record reflects arrests for possession and distribution of pot, theft by taking, and other named misdemeanors and felonies.  Friends of Hilton describe him as an avid hiker who knew the local area well, perhaps too well.

Details about the suspect
“Mack” Hilton told his friends stories of the people he had met along similar hiking trails, stories of the conversations he had with them.  He also told at least one friend that he had MS, having just six years to live. He also told this alleged friend that he was going to live his last years out in the woods.

Some witnesses remember him because of the yellow jacket he was wearing, the sheath he had strapped to his leg, or because of the collapsible police-type baton that hung clipped from his belt, something, according to friends, that he always carried with him, thereby representing two weapons that authorities must now consider that could have been used to assault his new “friend.”

Although friends, family members and search teams originally thought they were looking for a lost or injured 5-foot-four, 120-lb. woman, they were soon to come face-to-face with the likelihood that her disappearance was no accident.  It was more likely murder.

Emerson’s water bottle, mittens, sunglasses and her dog’s leash were found near the hiking trail.  Also found nearby was a collapsible police-type baton like the one carried by Hilton. The probability that someone had taken both Emerson and her dog from the area appeared now all but confirmed. Hilton was also identified in surveillance photographs as the man who attempted to use Emerson’s credit or ATM card in an attempt to obtain cash from the machine. 

With the evidence currently in their possession, authorities were able to obtain an arrest warrant for Hilton charging him with kidnapping and bodily injury.  Authorities cut a deal with Hilton and he led them to Meredith Emerson’s body in exchange for a promise not to seek the death penalty against him for her murder.

Hilton led investigators to the grisly sight in Dawson Forest, north of Atlanta.  The investigators, as would be expected, were slow in removing the victim’s body from the disposal site, having learned from similar investigations across the country of the forensic value in conducting a slow and methodical extrication of someone for whom life has already left. Witnesses have placed Hilton’s van near the body recovery site and even though Emerson has been found and her friends and family have begun the grieving process, there are still questions to be answered.

If Hilton murdered her, did he do it along the trail and transport her body to this disposal site, or, as evidence may suggest, did he kidnap her, take her to yet another unknown location where he might have further assaulted her, force her to give up her ATM PIN, and then kill her and hide her body?  Investigators are now confronted with multiple crime scenes and a large amount of potentially linking physical evidence. Although Emerson’s believed killer has silenced her forever, the evidence of her kidnapping and death will hopefully be used to seal her suspected barbaric killer’s fate.  Now the real CSI types need to put a solid case together, knowing they must gather the evidence that will shout the name of Meredith’s killer to a jury, a body of men and women who will take much more time to consider his fate than he apparently took in Meredith Emerson’s case.

Similarities to North Carolina case
This investigation is, however, far from over, just like that of another missing person’s case in nearby North Carolina. Eighty-year-old John and 84-year-old Irene Bryant disappeared while they, like Emerson, were walking along a rural hiking trail in the mountains of the Pisgah National Forest on Oct. 20.  It was not until Nov. 3 that the Bryants were reported missing and not until Nov. 9 that Irene Bryant’s body was discovered within 30 yards of their SUV that had been parked off the road in Brevard, N.C. Mrs. Bryant, whose body was covered with leaves, had died from a blunt force trauma blow to the left side of her head, possibly consistent with something like a baton. John Bryant has yet to be found. The couple, both avid hikers, had allegedly been happily married for over 55 years.

A clue to their fate, however, appears to be an Oct. 22 surveillance photo from a bank ATM machine in Ducktown, Tenn., a rural town about 100 miles from where Mrs. Bryant’s body was found and an hour’s drive from the hiking trail used by Meredith Emerson.  The ATM photo showed an unidentified man dressed in a yellow jacket, possibly one like that worn by Hilton on the day of Emerson’s disappearance. This individual, whose head was covered by the jacket’s hood, was able to withdraw $300 cash.  Another clue is the attempted use of Irene Bryant’s cell phone to call 911 on the believed date of their disappearance.  The call, however, never reached the call center and authorities have not been able to pinpoint the location from which the call was placed.

Although investigators suggest site differences between the disappearance of Emerson and the murder of Irene Bryant and the disappearance of Bryant’s husband, probably to include the possibility that the yellow jacket depicted in the Tennessee bank ATM photo may have actually belonged to John Bryant and not Hilton, the attempted use of two different victim’s ATM cards by someone wearing a yellow jacket with a similar build is just too much of a coincidence.

A murder occurs every 31 minutes in America; a rape almost every 5 minutes, and an assault every 36 seconds, many by serial offenders. In their investigation concerning Hilton, authorities not only need to consider the distinct possibility of Hilton as a suspect in the presumed death of North Carolinians John and Irene Bryant, but of other missing and murdered individuals in a multi-state area.

Many cases, one killer?
Although ATM cards are often the target of criminals, the combination of facts in these and possible other cases would seem to make Hilton a suspect in their murders.  Investigators and profilers will need to put together a time line for Hilton for the past several years, something difficult to do with a known drifter, and compare his suspected travels with records of the missing and murdered in this large geographic area.  With the abundance of physical evidence recovered so far in the murder of Emerson, I hope that similar evidence is available in these and other unsolved murders that could either link or exclude Hilton as a suspect. 

Emerson’s murder may have one terrible positive aspect to it; it may have put investigators on the trail of a transient serial killer who could be responsible for many unsolved murders over an unknown number of years.  I hope that Gary Hilton gets his old talkativeness back in time to help authorities solve more of these horrific crimes.  In the meantime, the families of these victims, like so many before them, hope for someone to come along who can explain the unexplainable; the how and why of their loss, because for them, murder never takes a holiday.

Clint Van Zandt is a former FBI agent, behavioral profiler and hostage negotiator as well as an MSNBC analyst. His web site, www.LiveSecure.org provides readers with security-related information.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,