Autopsy results have found that Meredith Emerson, the 24-year-old missing hiker from Vogel State Park, died from a blow to the head, says the Georgia Bureau of Investigations.
After the fatal injury, Emerson was decapitated, said Dr. Kris Sperry, the state's chief medical examiner.
Emerson's body was found Monday evening after a drifter accused of kidnapping her told authorities where to look and led them to the site. Emerson disappeared on New Year's Day.
Gary Michael Hilton, 61, was charged Saturday with kidnapping with intent of bodily injury. He appeared Monday before a magistrate in Union County and was denied bail.
Authorities also say they are exploring a possible link between the disappearance of Emerson and the presumed killing of a couple from North Carolina in October, and the December death of a woman in Florida.
Police make an arrest
Hilton was the last person seen with Emerson on the hiking trail and had tried to use her credit card, according to his arrest warrant.
The wiry, grizzled Hilton was well known in the Georgia area. He was often seen with his dog, Dandy, and carried a police-style baton, Union County Sheriff Scott Stephens said.
Investigators had received numerous calls identifying Hilton as a person of interest in her disappearance, Stephens said.
Hilton is charged with kidnapping with intent of bodily injury, and more charges could be added, Enotah Judicial District Attorney Stan Gunter said.
Similarities in unsolved cases
Authorities want to know if Hilton is linked the disappearance of a couple in North Carolina. John and Irene Bryant, both in their 80s, had gone hiking in the western North Carolina mountains in October.
Irene Bryant’s body was found in November; authorities say she was killed with a blow to the head. Her husband remains missing but is presumed dead.
Sheriff David Mahoney of North Carolina’s Transylvania County agreed that there are similarities “that we’re certainly wanting to look more closely at — nothing that we can release at this point.”
Mahoney did note that authorities in both cases were looking for someone wearing a yellow jacket, and that an ATM transaction was made with the Bryants’ card about 50 miles from the area of the Georgia investigation.
In Georgia, Emerson was last seen hiking with her dog in Vogel State Park, about 90 miles north of Atlanta. The dog was found 50 miles away Friday in a grocery store parking lot in Cumming, a suburb north of Atlanta, and identified using an implanted microchip.
Vogel is one of Georgia’s oldest and most popular state parks. The area includes a segment of the Appalachian Trail, the hiking route that stretches from Georgia to Maine.