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Drifter pleads guilty, sentenced to life in death of hiker
Slain Hiker GAJB101 5837491
The statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are shown at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota in an undated file photo. - photo by Associated Press
    DAWSONVILLE, Ga. — Gary Michael Hilton was sentenced Thursday to life in prison — with possibility of parole in 30 years — after pleading guilty to murder in the beating-death of a young woman hiker in the north Georgia mountains.
    District Attorney Lee Darragh said the murder resulted from Hilton’s plan to abduct 24-year-old Meredith Emerson in order to steal money using her ATM cards.
    ‘‘The sole purpose was to acquire (bank) cards and PIN numbers,’’ Darragh said. ‘‘He mentioned at one point that he knew eventually he would take her life.’’
    But Emerson misled Hilton, giving him false identification numbers with the hope that authorities would be alerted to unsuccessful attempts to gain access to her bank account, Darragh said.
    Hilton attended the Dawson County Superior Court hearing in an orange jumpsuit and a bulletproof vest.
    Judge Bonnie Oliver asked Hilton how he pleaded. He replied, ‘‘Guilty.’’
    He had been indicted on a single count of murder Thursday in a specially called session of the Dawson County grand jury. The indictment charges he killed Emerson by blunt force trauma to her head on Jan. 4.
    Darragh said Hilton told Emerson he was going to let her go before striking her several times with a jack handle until she died.
    John Cagle, a special agent in charge with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said Hilton decapitated Emerson in an attempt to make it harder for authorities to identify her.
    The judge told Hilton that she agreed with the plea deal because the 61-year-old Hilton likely would have died in prison of natural causes before the state would be able to execute him even if he were sentenced to death.
    But the judge made her view of the case clear to Hilton.
    ‘‘Justice, in your case, Mr. Hilton, would be an immediate execution,’’ she said. ‘‘The court is not taking mercy on you because of your age.’’
    Emerson’s father, David Emerson, said no punishment for Hilton is too great.
    ‘‘We stand before you as brokenhearted parents having lost our beloved daughter to the vicious murder committed by Mr. Hilton,’’ said David Emerson, who broke down into tears as he spoke to the judge. ‘‘Our days are filled with tears and blank stares and we constantly struggle through each day.’’
    Emerson was believed to have been kidnapped in Union County and killed in Dawson County, authorities have said.
    Emerson’s body was found nearly 50 miles from where she vanished during a New Year’s Day hike.
    Emerson disappeared near Blood Mountain in Union County.
    An autopsy report says Emerson was beaten to death and then decapitated three days after her disappearance.
    Hilton was the last person seen with Emerson on the hiking trail and had tried to use her credit card, according to his arrest warrant.
    Investigators in North Carolina and Florida also have looked at Hilton to see if he was involved in killings in those states.

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