Meredith Emerson used her wits and martial arts training when she was attacked in the north Georgia mountains by a drifter who eventually killed and decapitated her, the convicted killer told investigators.
Gary Michael Hilton described his four days with Emerson, and how she fought him from the moment he tried to overpower her as she hiked with her dog, Ella, according to the interviews that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
"She was doing everything she could to stay alive," GBI Director Vernon Keenan told the newspaper. "It's not something you can train for. Instinct kicks in ... She nearly got the best of him. She's very much a hero."
Hilton pleaded guilty to charges he killed Emerson and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years. He had agreed to lead investigators to her body if prosecutors didn't seek the death penalty. He also has been indicted in Florida in the slaying of another woman whose decapitated body was found in a forest on Dec. 15.
He told investigators he targeted the 24-year-old University of Georgia graduate because she was a woman.
For a time, they had hiked together on New Year's Day near the Appalachian Trail in Union County, but the 61-year-old Hilton couldn't keep up.
When Emerson turned and headed back down the trail, Hilton was waiting with a military-style knife. He demanded her ATM card and Emerson immediately went on the defensive, grabbing the blade and a baton Hilton used to counter her struggle.
"She wouldn't stop," Hilton told investigators. "She wouldn't stop fighting. And yelling at the same time. So I needed to both control her and silence her."
Police: ‘We didn’t get there in time’
Hilton said he did that by punching her, blackening both her eyes and possibly breaking her nose. He said the blows also broke his hand.
When he thought he had worn her down, Emerson fought him again, he said.
Hilton said he calmed her down by telling her that he just wanted her credit card and PIN number, then avoided established trails as he led Emerson back down from the mountains and placed Emerson and her dog in his van.
Emerson bought herself three days by giving Hilton the wrong PIN for her ATM card, telling him each time that the numbers were correct.
"That's the one thing that broke my heart in this case," said GBI agent Clay Bridges, who interviewed Hilton. "She was doing everything she was supposed to do to stay alive, and we didn't get there in time."
On the day Hilton killed Emerson, he told her "she was going home." He secured her to a tree, walked back to his van to collect himself and make coffee, and when he returned, he said, Emerson told him: "I was afraid you weren't coming back."
He said he walked behind her and hit her several times with the handle from a car jack.
Hilton said he couldn't bring himself to kill Emerson's dog. When Bridges asked if Hilton had the same equivocations about Emerson, Hilton described the experience as "surreal."
"It was hard," Hilton told the investigator. "You gotta remember we had spent several good days together."