Ten years later, hiker’s murder still haunts those closest to case

It was a case that resonated with just about everyone who followed it. Parents with daughters. Boyfriends and husbands. Outdoor enthusiasts. Women.

On New Year’s Day 2008, Meredith Emerson set out for a vigorous hike up Union County’s Blood Mountain with her black Labrador retriever mix, Ella. There she encountered a grizzled, toothless drifter searching for his next victim. Using his golden retriever, Dandy, to win her trust, 61-year-old Gary Michael Hilton kidnapped the 24-year-old University of Georgia graduate, holding her captive in his van for nearly three days before finally killing her. Hilton would eventually lead police to her headless body in Dawson Forest some 40 miles away.

Today he sits on Death Row in Florida, where he was convicted of murdering a nurse a few weeks before killing Emerson. Although 10 years have passed, memories of the case still haunt those who worked on it.

John Cagle, shown at the GBI offices in Cleveland, Ga. in 2008, had a 35-year- career with the GBI that concentrated on drug investigations. One of his biggest investigations was the murder of a 24-year-old hiker Meredith Emerson. 

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For retired GBI agent John Cagle, a series of near misses that allowed Hilton to elude law enforcement until it was too late still gnaws at his soul.

“I think about Meredith every day. Every single day,” said Cagle, who led the search for Emerson and her abductor. “I think I got to know her well after her death simply by learning about her from her friends and family. She was an all-American girl. Nobody deserves to have something like this happen to her. But especially (not) her. She had a bright future.”

He remains inspired by the uncommon courage and resourcefulness Emerson demonstrated during her captivity. And disturbed by Hilton’s calculated depravity.

As a defense lawyer, Rob McNeill had also encountered his fair share of cold-blooded killers. Appointed by a Dawson County judge to represent Hilton, McNeill spent several hours a day with the serial killer, an experience that exacted a heavy toll.

“For two years after I was basically clinically depressed,” McNeill said. “(Hilton) was a total sociopath, and he held nothing back.”

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently caught up with the lawman and attorney, along with other key figures in the case. Their insights shed new light on how close law enforcement came to rescuing Emerson and what motivated Hilton to set off on a murderous spree spanning three states and several months.

Emerson’s parents have not spoken publicly since they returned to their home in Colorado days after their daughter’s body was found. They did not respond to the AJC’s requests for an interview. Neither Emerson’s then-roommate, her boyfriend or the godmother who acted as the family spokesperson responded to requests for comment.

'It was a long week in January. For everybody'

Ten years have passed. But for Cagle, the memories are as fresh as if they happened last week.

When Emerson died, she was the same age as Cagle’s step-daughter. Emerson had so much promise, Cagle said. She was smart. And she was strong. Trained in two different martial arts, Emerson came close to escaping from Hilton right after he pulled a knife, demanding her ATM card.

“She wouldn’t stop fighting,” Hilton told GBI investigators after his arrest.

Meredith Emerson and her beloved dog Ella, shown in May 2007. 

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Cagle said this murder, which closed out a three-decade career in law enforcement, was his most heart-wrenching — so much so that he attended nine of the 10 hiking events held in Emerson’s memory.

Emerson’s friends formed Right to Hike in her memory. This year they held the final Ella’s Run at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center, where she would walk her puppy, Ella. Right to Hike president Julia Karrenbauer, who was Emerson’s roommate, told the media it was time for the annual event to end.

Despite the bitter cold on Jan. 2, 2008, it seemed like the entire world came out to search Blood Mountain and the approach to the Appalachian Trail when the the Colorado native was reported missing.

“It was a long week in January. For everybody,” said Cagle. His emotions sometimes get the best of him when he thinks of how close searchers unknowingly came to Hilton and Emerson.

Although law enforcement and searchers were out in force, deployed expeditiously, not everything proceeded smoothly. There were delays in providing critical information that could’ve saved Emerson’s life. During the search, Hilton was even spotted inside Dawson Forest — a remote wildlife management area that once housed a secret Air Force facility that sought to develop nuclear-powered aircraft — but he was not questioned because his van didn’t match the exact description provided by law enforcement.

Hilton, now 71, eventually pleaded guilty to murdering Emerson and was sentenced to life in prison. He was convicted and sentenced to die in Florida on April 21, 2001, for murdering and decapitating Cheryl Dunlap, a 46-year old nurse and Sunday School teacher whose body was found in the Apalachicola National Forest near Tallahassee. Then in April 2013 Hilton received four life sentences after pleading guilty to kidnapping murdering John and Irene Bryant, an elderly couple he encountered while they were hiking in a national forest in North Carolina in October 2007.

Gary Michael Hilton is led into Dawson County Superior Court in January 2008, where he plead guilty to killing hiker Meredith Emerson.

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“I thought there was a chance (Hilton) would get the death penalty somewhere else,” Cagle said, explaining why he did not disagree with the decision to not seek the death penalty against Hilton for Emerson’s murder.

Hilton told agents where to find Emerson’s body, using that information to strike a plea deal. Hilton also said he would have kept killing if they had not caught him.

“In all my career I’ve only met a very few people that I knew to be evil and Hilton was one of them,” GBI Director Vernon Keenan said. “When you have an encounter with an evil person… they have an aura about them.. and Hilton was one of those evil people. When you talked to him, when you were in his presence, you could feel this was an evil person.”

It was evidence discovered at various crime scenes in Georgia, including the last one where Emerson’s body was found six days after she disappeared, that allowed the FBI and law enforcement in other states to link Hilton to Dunlap’s murder and the deaths of an elderly couple, the Bryants, who had been hiking in Transylvania County, N.C., near the Georgia line.

“We had the treasure trove of evidence from Hilton’s van,” Cagle said.

First report: Overdue hiker

Emerson was initially classified as an overdue hiker, feared lost or injured. But that assumption quickly changed after her car was found parked at the trail head and a former cop reported that he found a baton, two water bottles, a dog leash and canine treats abandoned at a spot along the trail where the ground had been “disturbed.

There was blowing snow and temperatures in the single digits when search began in earnest on Jan. 2. “It was terrible conditions,” Cagle said.

By the hundreds, hikers and everyday citizens showed up. “There were probably 19 different police agencies up here helping,” Cagle said. “It was a sudden thing. I was surprised at how big it got and how fast it got so big.”

The key tip came the morning of Jan. 3 from an Atlanta attorney who recognized the picture of the man last seen with Emerson. In a follow-up call later that day, that man, John Tabor, said he had heard from Hilton, a former employee, two hours earlier. His failure to immediately notify law enforcement proved costly.

At that point, Emerson was still alive but “we were two hours behind,” Cagle said.

They would never catch up.

Acting on a tip the next day, Forsyth County law enforcement found bloody clothing, Emerson’s purse and wallet and men’s boots with blood on them inside a dumpster. Then Emerson’s dog was found wandering in a parking lot of the Kroger across the street.

“That was when we realized this was not going to turn out like we had hoped it would,” Cagle said.

There would be more crucial information that would come too late. Bank officials didn’t notify investigators there were failed attempts to withdraw money from Emerson’s account until three days after her disappearance, a delay that still frustrates Cagle.

DeKalb County police finally caught up with Hilton because of a call from a citizen who watched Hilton clean out his van at a Chamblee gas station.

“We had him. We had his van,” Cagle said. “We didn’t have Meredith.”

From the start, Hilton struck a cavalier and arrogant tone.

"He's the only one (suspect) in my career who told us his Miranda warning. He lawyered up," Cagle said.

On Sunday, Jan. 6, two days after he was arrested, Hilton produced a map to where he left Emerson’s body.

“He told us she was not buried,” Cagle said. “She was under some leaves and brush. … He said he had washed her down with Clorox and water. I remember asking was she intact and he said she was not.”

Gary Michael Hilton, flanked by public defender Rob McNeill (left), was charged with killing Meredith Emerson on Jan. 9, 2008 

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Emerson’s body was found deep in the woods of Dawson Forest. As investigators had been told, she had been decapitated. Hilton, in handcuffs and leg-irons, led Cagle to a “second crime scene,” still in Dawson Forest, but more than an hour away, stopping just short of the log where they found the rest of her.

Cagle told other law enforcement officers to “to get him out of there. I didn’t want him around. There was no need for him to be there anymore. He needed to get locked up.”

And a now-retired Department of Natural Resources officer stayed behind, with Emerson’s head, tasked to secure the crime scene.

“It still sticks with me,” said that officer, William Thacker.

Thacker said he had encountered Hilton inside Dawson Forest, which covers more than 10,000 acres, once before. Some horseback riders had complained about Hilton’s behavior. Thacker investigated but couldn’t prove anything criminal had occurred.

“He was weird,” Thacker recalled. “But I had no idea just how evil he was. And that day (when Emerson’s body was recovered) I saw the definition of true evil.”

Gary Michael HiltonHeart of darkness

For Gary Michael Hilton, spending the rest of his life in prison wasn’t the worst possible outcome. According to his court-appointed attorney, it was all part of his plan.

Dawson County public defender Rob McNeill was assigned not so much to litigate but to protect the deal the 61-year-old drifter had brokered with Georgia authorities that took the death penalty off the table. He’d end up revealing much more than the location of Emerson’s body.

“He told me more than I ever wanted to know,” including details about the other three murders he committed over a span of 10 weeks, McNeill said.

“He thought he’d die in prison,” he said. What he didn’t know is that a death sentence awaited him in Florida, where he would confess to killing nurse Cheryl Dunlap. “As long as he had his morning paper and a cup of coffee, he was content.”

Hilton told his Georgia lawyer that he turned to murder after learning he had multiple sclerosis, though it’s unclear if he was ever diagnosed with the neurological disease. He filed an appeal in April to have his conviction overturned, citing “rancor” and “vitriol” among his defense team. No execution date has been set.

Dunlap was his third victim, killed one month before Emerson and in much the same fashion. He described to McNeill how he stalked her, slashing her tires then offering to help. Hilton eventually kidnapped the beloved Sunday school teacher then decapitated her, leaving her body in the Apalachicola National Forest. Surveillance cameras captured a masked, thin man using Dunlap’s ATM card on three separate occasions after her disappearance.

Had he not been caught, Hilton would’ve continued to kill, according to McNeill. Hilton told his lawyer he was headed to an Atlanta-area mall to search for more victims on the day he was arrested at the DeKalb gas station.

“It was such a stupid plan,” McNeill said. He would spot a victim — usually someone he figured he could easily overpower — force them to withdraw money from an ATM and then kill them. Of course he was caught on camera each time.

During his Florida trial, Hilton’s lawyers said he was driven to kill by an unhappy childhood and years of drug abuse.

“Mr. Hilton was never able to connect with people, only his dogs,” defense attorney Robert Friedman said in his closing argument at Hilton’s death penalty trial.

Hilton’s golden retriever, Dandy, ended up with Nancy Cupp, an investigator in the Dawson County public defender’s office. There were death threats against the dog’s life, said Cupp, who renamed the canine Danny. “They wanted Hilton to hurt,” she said. Danny died two years ago.

McNeill said there was no real explanation for Hilton’s mendacity. His childhood was tough but not extraordinarily so, according to the public defender.

“I think he felt like he didn’t get the respect he deserved,” McNeill said. “He was a true sociopath, just completely self-centered.”

While he viewed his other victims as disposable, Hilton’s feelings about Emerson were more complicated.

“He genuinely, as much as he’s capable of doing so, liked Meredith,” McNeill said. “The way she fought back … I think he respected her.”

Hilton told McNeill he had to talk himself into killing Emerson.

“It was the only time I ever saw him demonstrate some regret,” he said. “And then he said something I’ll never forget: ‘In retrospect I guess I should’ve just robbed a bank.’”

The case had a profound impact on McNeill. For awhile the avid hiker avoided the trails he had frequently roamed.

“I didn’t know how bad I felt until I started feeling better,” he said.

As much as he wants to, McNeill finds it difficult to forget memories of Emerson’s ordeal.

“I have a daughter who’s 18 and sometimes I look at her and think, ‘how does anyone live through the loss of a child?’ ” McNeill said. “And to see the impact her death had on so many people. It’s something I’ll never forget.”