Saturday, January 5, 2008

Search for missing hiker narrowed

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 01/05/08

As the search continued for missing Buford hiker Meredith Emerson, officials have focused their hunt on a 5-square mile area of the North Georgia Mountains, authorities told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at 11:20 a.m. Saturday.

The area is near where Emerson's car was found after her New Year's Day disappearance, said Kimberly Verdone, a spokeswoman for the Union County Sheriff's Office. Verdone wouldn't disclose what led officials back to that area, which searchers have already scoured while covering 401 square miles the past three days.

A team of close to 100 volunteers planned to join professional searchers as noon neared Saturday. The volunteers had been anxiously awaiting marching orders since arriving at 8 a.m.

One of the volunteers, Angie Bogen, said at 11 a.m. that authorities told them there was a "new development" that held up the search. Bogen, 30, of Lawrenceville, said she was a friend of Emerson's.

Meanwhile, the "person of interest" connected to Emerson's disappearance is not cooperating with investigators, Forsyth County Sheriff Ted Paxton told the Journal-Constitution earlier Saturday.

Authorities said Gary Michael Hilton, 61, remained at "an undisclosed location" and is being questioned in the disappearance of Emerson, whose dog, Ella, turned up a day earlier at a Cumming-area grocery store.

Paxton said Saturday that investigators have surveillance tape showing that Hilton had been in the area where the dog was found, but added, "We don't have the luxury of him cooperating in the search for the woman."

Hilton, 61, was found Friday evening by DeKalb County police at a convenience store along Ashford-Dunwoody Road, authorities said. Hilton is believed to have been the last person to see Emerson, 24.

Investigators found "personal effects" of Emerson's in the area where Hilton was found, Paxton said Saturday.

Hilton was seen by other hikers at Vogel State Park as he and Emerson walked up Freeman Trail on Blood Mountain on New Year's Day.

The Union County Sheriff's Office and the GBI had been searching for Hilton since late Thursday to talk to him about Emerson.

DeKalb County police spokeswoman Mekka Parish said officers detained Hilton after receiving two calls about 7:40 p.m. Friday — both calls reported possible sightings of Hilton at the Chevron gas station in the 3500 block of Ashford-Dunwoody.

When officers arrived, they found Hilton and confirmed his identity, Parish said. They also found a dog in Hilton's white van, and it was taken to an animal shelter in DeKalb County.

Parish said DeKalb police had been helping in the efforts to find Hilton, whose last known address was in the Atlanta area.

A spokeswoman for the Emerson family, Peggy Bailey, said late Friday that the family is optimistic that Hilton will have information that will help the investigation, calling him the "missing link."

"We just feel certain that this is going to lead us to Meredith's whereabouts," she said. "If he doesn't know, he'll know someone who does."

The family was buoyed by news that Emerson's beloved Labrador mix, Ella, was found unharmed.

GBI spokesman John Bankhead said Emerson's dog was found about 3 p.m. Friday at a Kroger store in the Cumming area. Officials said a chip in the dog was used to confirm its identity.

Bailey said the family had been notified that Ella was safe, but they did not know where the dog was being kept Friday night.

"That's wonderful," she said of Ella's discovery. "The dog means everything to Meredith. When we find Meredith, that's the first thing she's going to ask: 'Where's Ella?' "

Meanwhile, the family will continue the search for Emerson. "I can't be happy until we know Meredith's OK," Bailey said.

By Friday the search was spread outside the borders of Vogel to include a 400-square-mile area of rugged terrain in Union and Lumpkin counties that crosses the Appalachian Trail.

Using dogs, helicopters and heat-sensing equipment, searchers planned to continue looking for Emerson or clues all weekend.

Emerson's friends found her 1995 Chevrolet Cavalier south of Vogel State Park at the head of the Freeman Trail, a common day-hiking trail that leads to the Appalachian Trail located below Blood Mountain.

Searchers have had to work in rugged, hilly terrain that rises from 3,000 to 4,500 feet above sea level and still has remnants of snow that fell Tuesday evening. Temperatures have ranged from the mid-20s to the mid-40s.

Friends and co-workers said Emerson left a note with her roommate that she was going to go hiking with her dog Tuesday.

They began searching the next day when she had not returned home and did not report for work at Process Container and Display in Winder.

They said she had been wearing warm clothes, including a fleece jacket and hiking pants.

Few of her friends, including those who had hiked the sections of the trail where her car was found, believed she could have lost her way on the well-marked trail where she often went running with a partner.

Emerson's father, Dave Emerson of Longmont, Colo., headed to the mountain trails Friday with investigators and rescue workers to help look for his daughter.

Emerson's friends produced fliers and a Web site —

— Staff writers Tim Eberly and George Chidi contributed to this article.

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