IMAGE: GARY MICHAEL HILTON
Ben Gray  /  AP
Gary Michael Hilton in court in Blairsville, Ga., on  Jan. 7.
updated 1/31/2008 3:16:01 PM ET 2008-01-31T20:16:01

For three days, the grizzled drifter tried to drain the bank accounts of the young hiker he had abducted on New Year’s Day.

Prosecutors say Gary Michael Hilton finally told Meredith Emerson he was going to let her go. Then he hit her in the head with a tire iron until she was dead.

Hilton, 61, pleaded guilty Thursday to murdering the 24-year-old and was immediately sentenced to life in prison.

District Attorney Lee Darragh said Emerson fought for her life — first physically, on the trail in the north Georgia mountains where Hilton abducted her, and later by her wits.

Emerson kept feeding Hilton incorrect PIN numbers for her ATM cards, which Darragh said he believed was an attempt to alert authorities that someone was trying to access her accounts.

“The sole purpose was to acquire (bank) cards and PIN numbers,” Darragh said. “He mentioned at one point that he knew eventually he would take her life.”

Hilton decapitated Emerson to make it harder for authorities to identify the body, said John Cagle, a special agent in charge with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Emerson’s body was found nearly 50 miles from where she vanished during a New Year’s Day hike.

The resolution of the murder case was startlingly swift. Hilton could get parole in 30 years — when he’s 91 — but the judge said she signed off on the plea deal because even if prosecutors had won the death penalty, Hilton probably would not live long enough for the state to execute him.

Hilton was indicted Thursday morning by a specially called Dawson County grand jury that accused him of bludgeoning Meredith Emerson on Jan. 4, three days after he was seen with her on a trail in the mountains of northern Georgia.

Authorities have said they are looking at whether Hilton had a hand in the October disappearance of an 80-year-old hiker and his 84-year-old wife in western North Carolina, and in two other killings in Florida. Cagle and Darragh declined to say what effect, if any, Hilton’s plea deal might have on those investigations.

Hilton’s lawyer, Brad Morris, did not comment after the hearing and did not immediately return a message later Thursday.

The grizzled Hilton was well known in the area where Emerson was hiking with her dog, a black Lab named Ella, investigators have said. He was often seen with his own dog, Dandy, and a police-style baton.

Authorities fielded numerous calls after releasing a description of him, and caught him Jan. 4 after he tried to use Emerson’s credit card, according to an arrest warrant.

Hilton led investigators to her body after prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty, Darragh said. Her dog was found in a grocery store parking lot in Cumming, a suburb north of Atlanta, 50 miles from where Emerson was last seen.

On Thursday, Hilton appeared in Dawson County Superior Court before Judge Bonnie Oliver with an orange jumpsuit and a bulletproof vest draping his lanky frame. He said little beyond answering, “Guilty,” when asked for his plea.

Emerson’s father, David Emerson, told the judge no punishment was too great for Hilton.

“Our days are filled with tears and blank stares,” he told Oliver.

The judge made it clear she was not issuing the life sentence out of pity.

“Justice, in your case, Mr. Hilton, would be an immediate execution,” she said. “The court is not taking mercy on you because of your age.”

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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