DAWSONVILLE, Ga. - A drifter agreed to lead investigators to a hiker's decapitated body in the woods of northern Georgia only after prosecutors pledged not to seek the death penalty against him, authorities said yesterday.
Gary Michael Hilton, 61, was charged with murder after Meredith Emerson's body was found Monday night. The 24-year-old died of a blow to the head three days after she disappeared during a New Year's Day hike, said Dawson County District Attorney Lee Darragh.
Hilton had already been charged Saturday with kidnapping with intent of bodily injury. He is being held in the Dawson County jail.
The finding that Emerson died before being decapitated was made by Kris Sperry, the state's chief medical examiner, said Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead.
Hilton was charged Saturday with kidnapping with intent of bodily injury. He appeared Monday before a judge who denied his request for bail. Hours later, he took investigators to Emerson's body, said John Cagle, an agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Emerson had gone hiking with her dog. Hilton was the last person seen with her on a hiking trail and had tried to use her credit card, according to his arrest warrant. Authorities are not releasing information on how Emerson met Hilton and what happened between the time she disappeared and when she was killed, Bankhead said.
Hilton's attorney, Neil A. Smith, declined to comment yesterday.
At a news conference yesterday in Athens, Ga., Emerson's godmother, Peggy Bailey, thanked law enforcement agencies and the news media.
"We would also like to thank the untold number of friends, volunteers and family who helped search and support all of us at this tragic and troubling time," she said. Bailey declined to answer questions.
Asked whether the family was told of the arrangement with Hilton before it was made, Bailey said, "We're just not discussing anything about that at all."
Authorities have said they are exploring a possible link between the disappearance of Emerson and the presumed killing of a couple from North Carolina in October, as well as the December death of a woman in Florida.
The agreement with Hilton that led authorities to Emerson's body covers only the prosecution in that case, and other jurisdictions could seek the death penalty for killings there if they find connections, Union County District Attorney Stan Gunter said.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan said there could be a connection to the case of John and Irene Bryant, a couple in their 80s who disappeared in October while hiking in the western North Carolina mountains.
Georgia officials met with North Carolina authorities Monday to discuss the case, Bankhead said.
The body of Irene Bryant, 84, was found covered with leaves in November. John Bryant, 80, is still missing, and authorities said he may have been kidnapped so that he would provide the couple's bank account security number.
Georgia officials also plan to meet with Florida investigators about the death of a woman there, Bankhead said yesterday.
The body of Cheryl Hodges Dunlap 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.