DAWSONVILLE, Ga. – A drifter pleaded guilty Thursday to murdering a young woman who went missing while hiking in the north Georgia mountains. He was swiftly sentenced to life in prison.
Gary Michael Hilton, 61, attended the hearing in an orange jumpsuit and a bulletproof vest. He signed a plea agreement earlier in the day, District Attorney Lee Darragh said.
Judge Bonnie Oliver told Hilton that she agreed with the plea deal, which would allow parole after 30 years, because he likely would have died in prison before the state could have executed him had he been sentenced to death.
Meredith Emerson's father, David Emerson, said no punishment for Hilton is too great.
Darragh said Hilton intended to abduct the 24-year-old woman to take money from her bank accounts but eventually he knew he would take her life. Darragh said Hilton told Emerson he was going to let her go and then struck her several times with a jack handle until she died.
Emerson was believed to have been kidnapped in Union County and killed in Dawson County, authorities have said. She was beaten to death, then decapitated three days after her disappearance, according to an autopsy report. Her body was found nearly 50 miles from where she vanished during a New Year's Day hike.
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.