Cops: Man Charged in Georgia Hiker Murder Linked to N.C. Slaying

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Investigators have linked the slaying of a North Carolina hiker and disappearance of her husband to a man charged with killing a hiker in Georgia, and are looking into whether he could be tied to the disappearance of another North Carolina hiker, authorities said Wednesday.

Gary Michael Hilton has been charged in the beating death and decapitation of 24-year-old Meredith Emerson, whose body police found Jan. 7 in a Georgia state forest with Hilton's help. He has also been named a suspect in the death of Cheryl Hodges Dunlap, whose decapitated body was found in Florida's Apalachicola National Forest on Dec. 15.

Transylvania County Sheriff David Mahoney said detectives have now linked Hilton to the slaying of 84-year-old Irene Bryant and disappearance of her 80-year-old husband John Bryant in the North Carolina woods. Mahoney declined to say how investigators linked Hilton to the case.

Hilton's attorney in the Georgia case, Neil A. Smith, said last week that the case involved "significant mental health issues." Hilton is being held without bail.

Searchers found Irene Bryant's body Nov. 9. She and her husband had been missing since Oct. 21, when they left for a hike in the Pisgah National Forest. Like Emerson, Irene Bryant died of a blow to the head and her body was found near a hiking trail.

Authorities believe John Bryant may have been kidnapped to provide a security code for the couple's bank account. Someone withdrew $300 from their account at an ATM the day after they went hiking.

The transaction took place in Ducktown, Tenn., about 50 miles from the area of the Georgia investigation. Authorities say Hilton tried to use Emerson's credit card after her disappearance during a New Year's Day hike.

The license plate found on the van Hilton was driving when he was arrested was stolen from a disabled car in Transylvania County, N.C., Mahoney said. The owner didn't notice the plates were missing until after learning of Hilton's arrest in the Emerson case.

The North Carolina Bureau of Investigation is also looking into whether Hilton could be linked to the disappearance of Rossana Miliani, 26, who was last seen Dec. 7, 2005, and had told her family she was going hiking.

A store clerk said Miliani came into her store with a white man in his 60s and seemed nervous when they bought a backpack, said private investigator Steve Siske.