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Body of missing N.C. hiker is found

/ Source: The Associated Press

A body found in western North Carolina is a missing hiker believed to be a victim of the man who pleaded guilty in a Georgia slaying, a sheriff said Monday.

The skeletal remains found Saturday by a hunter in Macon County were identified as belonging to John Bryant, who disappeared in October with his wife, Irene, while they were hiking in the Pisgah National Forest, Transylvania County Sheriff David Mahoney said.

Irene Bryant's body was found near a hiking trail in November.

Mahoney has said he believes the person responsible for their deaths is Gary Michael Hilton, 61, who pleaded guilty last week to murdering a hiker in Georgia. After that plea, Hilton was immediately sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years.

"We've got a good case," Mahoney said of Hilton.

The sheriff declined to be specific but said evidence links the deaths in North Carolina to the killing in Georgia. Mahoney also said he expected criminal charges to be filed in North Carolina once prosecutors decide whether the case be handled in state or federal court.

Hilton was accused of bludgeoning Meredith Emerson, 24, on Jan. 4, three days after he was seen with her on a trail in the mountains of northern Georgia. Hilton told Georgia investigators he abducted the woman in a plan to steal cash from her bank accounts, Dawson County District Attorney Lee Darragh said.

Authorities said Hilton tried to use Emerson's credit card after she disappeared. Like Emerson, Irene Bryant died from a blow to the head.

The Bryants started their hike Oct. 21, the same day phone records show someone tried to make a 911 call from the couple's cell phone. The signal was lost. The next day, someone withdrew $300 from the couple's bank account at an ATM in Ducktown, Tenn., about 50 miles from the area in Georgia where Emerson was found.

Authorities had said they were looking at whether Hilton had a hand in the disappearances of the Bryants and in two other killings in Florida.

"You're seeing a lot of agencies really taking a closer look at some of their unsolved cases and some of their missing persons cases to see if there are any similarities," Mahoney said.

Mahoney said he wasn't aware of any other killings that could be linked to the Emerson and Bryant slayings. Mahoney said he believed Hilton's trail began in North Carolina and ended in Georgia.