It was a frigid New Year’s morning when a young woman set off on a steep trail in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains – a hike that would end in a violent encounter with a drifter wandering the woods in search of his next victim.
But she didn’t go down without a fight.
In this story, we’ll cover the details surrounding the disappearance and murder of Meredith Emerson on Blood Mountain, and the courageous fight she put up against the National Forest Serial Killer, Gary Hilton.
What should have been the perfect start to a new year ended in a tragedy that rocked the Georgia community, and the nation as a whole. This is the story of Meredith Hope Emerson.
The Disappearance of Meredith Emerson
On the chilly winter morning of January 1, 2008, 24-year-old Meredith Emerson started a trek up to the peak of Blood Mountain in Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountain range with her Labrador retriever mix Ella by her side.
An avid hiker and trained martial artist, the University of Georgia graduate was more than capable of taking care of herself. But when she didn’t return to her home in Buford, Georgia as expected on January 2, her friends became worried and immediately took action, filing a missing person report.
Finding her car in the parking lot at the trailhead, Emerson was initially classified as an overdue hiker, who everyone feared was either lost or injured in the snowy, freezing-cold terrain, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But it wasn’t long before they realized something more sinister was afoot.
That same day, a former police officer who was assisting in the search found a baton, two water bottles, a dog leash, and dog treats abandoned on the trail next to a spot where the ground had been disturbed.
Following this discovery, a massive search effort ensued. Hundreds of concerned citizens and somewhere around 19 law enforcement agencies turned out to help look for the hiker.
But, tragically, they would be too late.
What Happened to Meredith on Blood Mountain?
According to witnesses who saw Emerson on the trail that fateful New Year's Day, as she made her way up the steep path, she came across an older man who was also hiking with a dog.
It is believed that Emerson walked alongside the man – who was later identified as 61-year-old drifter Gary Michael Hilton – for a while near the Appalachian Trail before pulling ahead of him and carrying on her journey alone, according to NBC News.
It wasn’t until she turned around to head back down the trail that she encountered Hilton again, this time wielding a military-style knife and baton and demanding her ATM card. But Emerson didn’t go down without a fight. Having been trained in two forms of martial arts, she immediately used her skills to defend herself as he tried to overpower her.
Hilton later told investigators that Emerson wouldn’t stop yelling and fighting him, even grabbing the knife and baton he used to threaten her. His hand was broken during the fight, and just when he thought he had finally beaten her, she got back up and fought him again.
"She was doing everything she could to stay alive," Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan told NBC News. "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 eventually wore Emerson down, telling her that he only wanted her credit card and PIN number. That’s when he forced her back down the mountain, avoiding established trails as they went.
Then he locked her and her dog in his van.
Emerson managed to stay alive for three more days by giving Hilton the wrong PIN number for her card, insisting it was correct. Not only did this strategy buy her time, but it ensured an electronic “paper trail” was left behind each time he tried to withdraw money from the ATM.
On the fourth day, Hilton told Emerson she was going home, tied her to a tree, and went back to his van. When he returned, he hit her over the head several times with the handle of a car jack, decapitated her, and left her body spread across the woods.
The Capture and Conviction of Gary Hilton
Searchers and investigators were holding out hope that they would find Emerson alive until they found her purse, wallet, and bloody clothing alongside a pair of men’s boots caked in blood inside a dumpster in town, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They also found her dog, Ella, in a parking lot across the street from where the evidence was discovered.
It didn’t take long for police to determine who they needed to look for.
As early as January 3, a tip came in from an Atlanta attorney who recognized a photo that had been made public of the man believed to have last been seen with Emerson. Officers from the DeKalb County Police Department quickly found Hilton thanks to another tip, in which a citizen reported seeing him cleaning out his van at a gas station in Chamblee, Georgia.
Fortunately, police officers were able to stop their suspect before he was able to bleach the inside of the van, which allowed them to collect blood evidence that proved Emerson had been inside.
After his arrest, prosecutors offered Hilton a deal. In exchange for leading investigators to Emerson’s body, they would take the death penalty off the table. It wasn’t long before Hilton not only provided a map to her location, but took them straight to her body himself.
What investigators found was a devastating sight. Emerson’s decapitated body had been left in two different locations deep in the woods of Dawson Forest, over an hour away from each other.
On January 30, 2008, 61-year-old Gary Hilton pleaded guilty to the Blood Mountain murder and was sentenced to life in prison with a possibility of parole in 30 years.
Unmasking The National Forest Serial Killer
As heartbreaking as Meredith Emerson’s story is, the conviction of Gary Hilton in her murder is not where the story ends.
In addition to the evidence law enforcement collected in Hilton’s van and at the location where Emerson’s body was found, police discovered additional crime scenes in Georgia that linked him to at least three more murders, giving the notorious nickname of the “National Forest Serial Killer.”
In 2011 he was convicted of, and sentenced to death for, kidnapping and murdering 46-year-old nurse Cheryl Dunlap in Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest in 2007. Dunlap disappeared from Leon Sinks one fateful December weekend, where her car was later found abandoned with its tires slashed on the side of the road. Her dismembered body was discovered two weeks later by a hunter in the area, according to WCTV News.
In 2012, Hilton received another life sentence after pleading guilty to killing an elderly couple from Henderson County, North Carolina. The two were hiking in the Pink Beds area of the Pisgah National Forest when they were attacked on October 21, 2007, according to a USA Today article.
Searchers found the body of 84-year-old Irene Bryant, who died from multiple blows to the head, near a trail close to where the couple had parked their car on Yellow Gap Road. Her husband, 80-year-old John Bryant, was discovered by a hunter several months later down a bank near Franklin, North Carolina. His autopsy revealed he had been killed from a gunshot wound to the head.
Despite a 2021 appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, today Hilton still sits on death row in the Union Correctional Institute in Florida. A decision that brings some measure of peace to the families, law enforcement agencies, and communities impacted by the senseless murders of Emerson, Dunlap, and the Bryants.
What Happened to Meredith Emerson’s Dog?
Though he had little regard for human life, Hilton himself reportedly told investigators he couldn’t bring himself to kill Emerson’s Labrador retriever mix, Ella.
Ella was found on January 4, 2008, in Cumming, Georgia, wandering the parking lot of a Kroger across the street from where they located Emerson’s purse and wallet in a dumpster.
Fortunately, the dog was unharmed, and Emerson’s parents, Dave and Susan Emerson, adopted her and brought her back to live with them at their home in Longmont, Colorado.
“(She’s) a part of Meredith that they’ll always have,” family spokeswoman Peggy Bailey told The Denver Post.
Hilton’s dog was also given into a good home, something that he ensured as part of his plea deal, according to an Access WDUN article. The golden retriever, Dandy, was taken in by Nancy Cupp, a Dawson County Public Defender's Office investigator, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Cupp wound up renaming the dog to “Danny,” as even the dog received death threats in the wake of Emerson’s murder.
The Legacy of Meredith Hope Emerson
Though it’s been over 15 years since Emerson’s death, the impact she had on the community is still felt to this day.
Shortly after she met her tragic fate, Emerson’s friends and roommate founded “Right to Hike” – a group created in her honor to raise awareness for hiking safety and advocate for safer trails.
The non-profit made an impact in the 10 years it existed, resulting in trails with better lighting and even emergency call boxes by raising funds through annual charity 5K events.
Beyond that, Emerson’s friends and family still remember and miss her bright, energetic personality.
“She just had a strength about her, and that’s the one thing I’ve always remembered about Meredith,” her friend Brent Seyler told Dawson County News. “Her story just touched so, so many individuals nationally certainly as well as locally.”
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Trail of Crimes is a true crime series featuring cases from the great outdoors. From murders to mysterious disappearances in forests, parks, and campgrounds, we cover chilling stories from wherever your hiking boots can take you. From the trail to the campfire, these crime stories are sure to keep you up long into the night.We know you love to explore nature. If you need a lightweight, minimalist wallet to toss in your backpack when you’re on the go, check out our entire collection of aluminum wallets at GeoGrit.com.