One Year Later, Georgia Hiker's Murder Inspires Better Rescue Methods

Friends of Meredith Emerson were distraught when she disappeared while hiking in north Georgia on New Year's Day a year ago. They were devastated when the 24-year-old University of Georgia graduate was found murdered one week later.

But Emerson's many friends were determined to make sure she will never be forgotten. In the year since she and her dog vanished Jan. 1, 2008 near Blood Mountain, they have raised $35,000 for causes important to former resident of Longmont, Colo.

Friends who started the Right to Hike Foundation raised money through a restaurant promotion, a 5K race and a banquet. The foundation donated $5,000 to the university to help endow a scholarship to study in France, as Emerson did. The group also bought 15 GPS units and distributed them to hiking outposts in north Georgia, paying the $99 annual subscription fee for each. Lost hikers can use the GPS to signal rescuers.

A former drifter, Gary Michael Hilton, is serving a life term for killing Emerson. Hilton coldly described to investigators how he had kidnapped her, beat and eventually killed her. He also faces a murder charge in the killing and decapitation of a nurse in Florida.

Those involved in the Right to Hike try not to think about Emerson's death.

"We just want to remember her for who she was and the life she lived," said Julia Karrenbauer, who became a close friend at UGA in the summer of 2003 and was Emerson's roommate since 2005.

The 20 or so friends who began the Right to Hike Foundation have also gotten a trail named for her: Meredith's Trail, at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center. Karrenbauer said Emerson, who lived in Gwinnett County, often hiked there with her dog, Ella.

Brent Seyler, who met Emerson through Karrenbauer, said foundation board members plan to meet soon to plan this year's campaign.

"Obviously, we want to continue the initiatives we started in 2008," Seyler said.

The foundation will have more fundraisers and might sponsor a series of hiker-safety classes and events to promote pet microchips. A veterinarian used a chip to identify Ella, who was found days after Emerson disappeared.