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Search continues for missing hiker in N. Georgia woods
Missing Hiker GAATJ 5549138
Union County firefighter rescue Brad Niebrand, center, briefs volunteers before resuming the search efforts Thursday, Jan. 3, 2008, hoping to find Meredith Emerson, 24, of Buford, last seen on New Year's Day at Vogel State Park in Blairsville, Ga.. Emerson went hiking with her black lab. - photo by Associated Press
    BLAIRSVILLE, Ga. — Rescue workers and canine teams worked through the night and continued searching Friday morning for a missing 24-year-old hiker near Blood Mountain and for a man they described as a ‘‘person of interest’’ in her disappearance.
    ‘‘The last team came in at 6 o’clock this morning,’’ Union County investigator Kimberly Verdone said Friday, as the overnight search for Meredith Emerson continued into the daylight hours.
    Verdone said 15 professional search and rescue teams were searching for Emerson on Friday, and volunteers had been asked to pass out fliers instead of being on the park trails. The searchers were combing a 401 square mile area of rugged terrain.
    ‘‘Today it’s clear and the wind is not blowing and they will be able to cover a lot of area,’’ she said.
    Officials said they are seeking a ‘‘person of interest:’’ Gary Michael Hilton of DeKalb County in suburban Atlanta. They said Hilton, who is in his 60s, drives a 2000-2001 white Chevy Astro van. He was reportedly seen several times on New Year’s Day with Emerson.
    ‘‘It’s not that, you know, he’s a suspect. He is somebody that was last seen talking to her, last seen with her,’’ Verdone said during a morning news conference.
    She said investigators want to know when was the last time he saw Emerson and what they talked about.
    Authorities say they have found a water bottle and a dog leash that belonged to Emerson.
    One of Georgia’s oldest and most popular state parks, Vogel State Park is located at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest.
    On Friday, the door of the park’s Visitor’s Center displayed ‘‘Missing Hiker’’ fliers with pictures of Emerson and her dog, posted by friends and family members.
    Friends said Emerson went hiking with ‘‘Ella,’’ her 1-year-old black Labrador retriever, on Tuesday. Her 1995 Chevrolet Cavalier was found abandoned Wednesday at the base of Blood Mountain.
    Emerson, 24, is formerly of Longmont, Colo., and recently became a resident of Buford, Ga., in suburban Atlanta.
    Her roommate, Julia Karrenbauer of Buford, said as many as 100 friends and family members have come to the park to aid in the search. 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.
    ‘‘They’re frightened, scared and we’re all very hopeful,’’ Karrenbauer said of Emerson’s parents. ‘‘We’re all trying to stay really positive here. It’s been a really long three days.’’
    Karrenbauer said Emerson is an experienced hiker with a blue belt in martial arts.
    Tom and Peggy Hayduke of Seminole, Fla., said they have brought their four children to the park to hike for the last few years and were on the park’s trails just a day before Emerson disappeared.
    ‘‘It’s a little scary,’’ Peggy Hayduke said of the hiker’s disappearance. But the Haydukes said they plan to return to the park next year.
    At the request of the Union County Sheriff’s Department, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation sent four agents to join in the search Thursday morning, GBI spokesman John Bankhead said.
    John Cagle, special agent in charge with the GBI’s Field Division, declined to specify how investigators learned his name and other details about him.
    ‘‘We are making every attempt to locate him,’’ Cagle said.
    The Georgia State Patrol pitched in with a helicopter using an infrared device. The helicopter had been grounded by high winds on Wednesday. On Friday, the rescue staging area at the park’s Visitor Center was abuzz with takeoffs and landings from the helicopter amid the crisp but clear day.

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