It was a case that resonated with just about everyone who followed it. Parents with daughters. Boyfriends and husbands. Outdoor enthusiasts. Women.
On New Year's Day 2008, Meredith Emerson set out for a vigorous hike up Union County's Blood Mountain with her black Labrador retriever mix, Ella. There she encountered a grizzled, toothless drifter searching for his next victim. Using his golden retriever, Dandy, to win her trust, 61-year-old Gary Michael Hilton kidnapped the 24-year-old University of Georgia graduate, holding her captive in his van for nearly three days before finally killing her. Hilton would eventually lead police to her headless body in Dawson Forest some 40 miles away.
Today he sits on Death Row in Florida, where he was convicted of murdering a nurse a few weeks before killing Emerson. Although 10 years have passed, memories of the case still haunt those who worked on it.
For retired GBI agent John Cagle, a series of near misses that allowed Hilton to elude law enforcement until it was too late still gnaws at his soul.
"I think about Meredith every day. Every single day," said Cagle, who led the search for Emerson and her abductor. "I think I got to know her well after her death simply by learning about her from her friends and family. She was an all-American girl. Nobody deserves to have something like this happen to her. But especially (not) her. She had a bright future."
He remains inspired by the uncommon courage and resourcefulness Emerson demonstrated during her captivity. And disturbed by Hilton's calculated depravity.
As a defense lawyer, Rob McNeill had also encountered his fair share of cold-blooded killers. Appointed by a Dawson County judge to represent Hilton, McNeill spent several hours a day with the serial killer, an experience that exacted a heavy toll.
“For two years after I was basically clinically depressed,” McNeill said. “(Hilton) was a total sociopath, and he held nothing back.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently caught up with the lawman and attorney, along with other key figures in the case. Their insights shed new light on how close law enforcement came to rescuing Emerson and what motivated Hilton to set off on a murderous spree spanning three states and several months.
Emerson’s parents have not spoken publicly since they returned to their home in Colorado days after their daughter’s body was found. They did not respond to the AJC’s requests for an interview. Neither Emerson’s then-roommate, her boyfriend or the godmother who acted as the family spokesperson responded to requests for comment.
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