Authorities Find Possible Link Between Missing Hiker, Presumed Deaths of Couple

Authorities said Monday they are exploring a possible link between the disappearance of a female hiker and the presumed killing of a couple from North Carolina in October.

Gary Michael Hilton, 61, who investigators said was the last person seen with 24-year-old Meredith Emerson on the trail, was awaiting his first court appearance, scheduled for Monday in Blairsville. He was served Saturday with a warrant charging him with kidnapping with bodily injury.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan said there could be a connection between the Emerson case and the disappearance and presumed killing of — John and Irene Bryant, a couple in their 80s who disappeared in October while hiking in the western North Carolina mountains.

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GBI spokesman John Bankhead said officials planned to meet with North Carolina authorities Monday in Cleveland, Ga., to discuss the case.

Asked whether authorities believe the two cases are related, Bankhead said, "We don't know. But there are similarities where we feel it necessary to meet with North Carolina and others involved in the investigation."

Emerson is believed to be dead, so authorities have changed the search to a recovery effort, not a rescue mission. The search was to resume Monday, but it was to be scaled back. Only law enforcement and trained searchers, not volunteers, were set to participate, officials said.

Emerson's father pleaded for information Monday.

"Please have everyone search their minds to recall any evidence that could help bring our daughter home," said Dave Emerson during a news conference near the trail where Meredith was last seen alive.

Hilton was detained Friday. He had tried to use Emerson's credit card, according to the warrant.

Three bloody fleece tops and a bloodstained piece of a car's seat belt were found in a trash bin beside a convenience store where Hilton had used a pay phone, the warrant stated. Hilton had tried to vacuum and wash portions of his 2001 Chevrolet Astro van, which was found without the rear seat belt, according to the document.

Hilton was not cooperating with authorities, Bankhead said.

Union County Officer Gayle Bachelor declined to allow The Associated Press to speak with Hilton by phone.

On Sunday, searchers focused again on a 5-square-mile area of mountainous terrain about 90 miles north of Atlanta in the Chattahoochee National Forest, near where Emerson's car was discovered Wednesday, sheriff's investigator Kimberly Verdone said.

The search had been focused on Vogel State Park, at the base of Blood Mountain, where Emerson was last seen on New Year's Day hiking with her black Labrador retriever, Ella.

The dog was found 50 miles away Friday in a grocery store parking lot in Cumming, a suburb north of Atlanta, and identified using an implanted microchip.

Vogel is one of Georgia's oldest and most popular state parks. The area includes a segment of the Appalachian Trail, the hiking route that stretches from Georgia to Maine.

Transylvania County, N.C., Sheriff David Mahoney, whose office is investigating the Bryant case, did not return a telephone message Monday morning.

The body of Irene Bryant, who was 84, was found covered with leaves in November. John Bryant, 80, is still missing, and authorities said he may have been kidnapped to provide the couple's bank account security number. Someone withdrew $300 from the account in Tennessee one day after the couple tried to dial 911, according to cell phone records. The call never went through.

The person who withdrew the money from an ATM was caught on a security camera, but the hood of jacket obscures the person's face.