Hiker's friends react to Hilton death sentence

Friends of Georgia hiker Meredith Emerson, Gary Michael Hilton's last victim, welcomed a Florida's jury's decision Monday to put the 64-year-old drifter to death for decapitating a Sunday school teacher.

"I think he deserves [death] and a heck of a lot more," said Julia Karrenbauer, formerly Emerson's roommate. Emerson, 24 at the time, disappeared on New Year's Day 2008 while hiking along Blood Mountain in Union County. Hilton was apprehended six days later and within weeks was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to Emerson's murder.

The plea deal was dependent on Hilton leading officials to Emerson's body, which he had hidden in Dawson Forest north of Cumming.

Georgia authorities knew there was significant evidence in Florida linking Hilton to Cheryl Dunlap's slaying, information shared with Emerson's parents when presented with the plea agreement. Dunlap's headless body was found a few weeks before Emerson disappeared.

"I think we all felt pretty confident [Hilton's death sentence] was going to be the happen," said Emerson's former boss, Chris Hendley. "I wasn't surprised. I wasn't shocked. It was a relief."

"It wasn't her case, but [Meredith]'s getting her justice," Hendley, now general manager of the Georgia Force arena football team, told the AJC.

Hilton remains a suspect in at least three other deaths and very likely will be charged in connection with the slayings of John and Irene Bryant, an elderly North Carolina couple who disappeared in October 2007 while hiking in the Pisgah National Forest.

"I think the [Florida] verdict was just and appropriate," son Bob Bryant told the AJC. He declined further comment. Hilton has long been the chief suspect in the Bryants' deaths, and North Carolina authorities are confident they have enough evidence to convict him.

The Florida jury took only an hour Monday to decide Hilton's fate. It's not yet known whether Hilton, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, will appeal the decision.

"There's no doubt [Emerson] stopped a serial killer," Karrenbauer told the AJC. "There's not a lot of comfort that comes from this story other than that."