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Judge denies bond for drifter accused of murdering hiker
Missing Hiker GAJA1 6277883
Gary Hilton, in an orange jumpsuit, is led out of the Dawson County courtroom surrounded by deputies after his first appearance for the murder of hiker Meredith Emerson, who disappeared while on a New Year's Day hike in Vogel State Park, pictured Wednesday Jan. 9, 2008, in Dawsonville, Ga. Hilton led investigators to Emerson's body in Dawson Forest, as part of a deal for him to avoid the death penalty. - photo by Associated Press
    DAWSONVILLE, Ga. — A judge denied bond Wednesday for a drifter accused of kidnapping and killing a 24-year-old hiker in the north Georgia mountains, and Florida authorities said he is now a ‘‘prime suspect’’ in a homicide investigation there.
    Gary Hilton, 61, had his first appearance in the Dawson County courtroom after being charged Tuesday afternoon with the murder of Meredith Emerson.
    Hilton had led authorities to Emerson’s body Monday evening in exchange for an agreement that prosecutors not seek the death penalty against him for Emerson’s killing, according to Union County’s district attorney, Stan Gunter.
    Dawson County District Attorney Lee Darragh said Wednesday he was not part of discussions between Hilton and other jurisdictions, including Union County. He said he does plan to work with other jurisdictions involved in the case.
    Darragh declined comment on whether he plans to seek the death penalty for the murder charges against Hilton.
    Gunter did not return calls Wednesday asking for comment.
    The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was part of the negotiation with Hilton but it was ultimately up to Gunter, GBI spokesman John Bankhead said Wednesday.
    ‘‘We felt it was the only way to find the body,’’ Bankhead said.
    Clad in an orange jumpsuit during Wednesday’s five-minute hearing, Hilton spoke only to his attorney, telling him he had finished two years of college in response to a question from the judge.
    Hilton’s attorney, Neil A. Smith, declined comment after the hearing, other than to say ‘‘there are significant mental health issues, I would think’’ involved in the case.
    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, where Hilton is charged with kidnapping with intent of bodily injury. He was denied bond on that charge Monday.
    An autopsy report says Emerson was beaten to death and then decapitated three days after her disappearance, according to a GBI news release. The autopsy report is not being made public because it is part of the investigation, Bankhead said.
    The GBI is awaiting the results of a rape kit test performed on Emerson’s body, WSB-TV reported.
    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.
    Three bloody fleece tops and a bloodstained piece of a car’s seat belt were found in a trash bin beside a convenience store where Hilton had used a pay phone, his arrest warrant stated. Hilton had tried to vacuum and wash portions of his 2001 Chevrolet Astro van, which was found without the rear seat belt, according to the document.
    Authorities still are not releasing information on how Emerson met Hilton and what happened between the time she disappeared and when she was killed. Those details will come out in court proceedings, authorities said.
    The GBI has asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to help put together a timeline of Hilton’s movements in recent months, Bankhead said.
    Meanwhile, the Leon County, Fla., sheriff’s office said Hilton can be considered a prime suspect in the death of Cheryl Hodges Dunlap.
    Her body was found Dec. 19 in the Apalachicola National Forest, southwest of Tallahassee. Authorities say a masked person suspected in Dunlap’s death used her ATM card three times after her disappearance Dec. 1.
    Leon County Sheriff’s Maj. Mike Wood said Wednesday authorities have confirmed that Hilton ‘‘was in our community during the time of Cheryl Dunlap’s disappearance. We have done that through citizens’ accounts as well as one law enforcement contact that he had with a forestry officer here — it was just a routine contact in the area of the national forest.’’
    He added that based on similarities in the Georgia and Florida cases and Hilton’s presence in the area when Dunlap disappeared, ‘‘... I am able to tell you he is the focus of our investigation right now.’’
    GBI officials had planned to meet with Florida authorities this week about Dunlap’s killing but the Emerson case is too time-consuming right now, Bankhead said. He was unsure when the meeting might happen but it is planned, he said.
    Authorities in North Carolina met with GBI officials earlier this week to talk about a possible link between Hilton and the disappearance and presumed killing of an elderly couple in the state’s western mountains, Bankhead said.
    Emerson family spokeswoman Peggy Bailey, Meredith Emerson’s godmother, declined comment on Hilton being named a suspect in the Florida death. The Emersons are focusing on mourning their daughter and not the case against Hilton, she said.
    ‘‘Dave and Susan said they don’t have a response to him,’’ Bailey said. ‘‘He’s not worth their time or effort. Their focus is on Meredith.’’
    A public memorial service is planned for Friday at 2 p.m. at Central Presbyterian Church in Athens, where Emerson attended college at the University of Georgia.
    Associated Press Writer John Lucas in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this story.

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