Eerie and disturbing is how Seth Blankenship recalls the scene he encountered on Blood Mountain on the afternoon of New Year’s Day 2008.
The hiking trail before him was torn up like there had been a fight. Water bottles, a leather dog leash, sun glasses, a police baton and a women’s hair barrette littered the ground.
Blankenship did not know exactly what had just transpired or the horror that was about to unfold. At this moment, he was what an excruciating number of others would soon become — one step behind serial killer Gary Hilton.
Minutes earlier, Blankenship saw a weathered, toothless man with a sheathed police baton walking near a pretty young woman carrying that leash. He thought they might be a father and daughter. But Blankenship, a former cop, got a gut feeling something was wrong after finding the odd assortment of gear. He started asking others if they had seen anything strange.
Bill Clawson, another hiker, had. Minutes earlier, Clawson, who was with his son and then-fiancé, spotted a scruffy man skulking in the woods as his family enjoyed a scenic moment. The man seemed impatient, as if waiting for the family to leave. Clawson and Blankenship walked back to where the stranger lurked.
Clawson left and turned in the items found on the trail to a nearby store. Blankenship readied the pistol in his pack and kept searching.
Blankenship found nothing, so he left as dusk approached. But despite his concern, his searching and questioning others at the scene, he failed to do something that still haunts him: “I didn’t call the police,” he said recently. “It’s horrible, but I didn’t call. If I had done things different, she could be alive today.”
“She” was Meredith Emerson, a 24-year-old woman who vanished from the busy trail that day. Six days later, police found her headless body in another forest 40 miles away. She had survived for nearly 72 hours after being kidnapped by Hilton, held captive in his van as he drove town to town unsuccessfully trying to withdraw money from her bank account before returning to the forest to hide out.
The intense manhunt for Emerson became national news, with scores of searchers hitting the trails and hundreds of tips flowing into police. The search grabbed the public. It was every parent’s nightmare. The young woman fought a violent battle on the trail against a vicious and evil tormentor and kept herself alive for three days by refusing to give up her ATM code.
The case has faded in the five years since. But not for witnesses such as Blankenship, Emerson’s friends and family and investigators close to the case. For them, it is still filled with heartbreaking what-ifs and couldabeens that haunt them to this day.
The tragedy was compounded by the fact that the troubled inklings several hikers had Jan. 1 were not weaved together until a full day after Emerson was reported missing and two days after her abduction. The search never fully widened from the trails until the last few hours of the young woman’s life.
“There were so many close calls,” said John Cagle, the former GBI agent who headed the search. “I don’t want to go as far as saying missed opportunities. I guess I’d say close encounters or near misses.”
Interviews and an exhaustive reading of the voluminous case file shows Hilton repeatedly was on the edge of being detected any number of times during the last 72 hours of Emerson’s life.
• The Clawson family, it turns out, was maybe 40 yards uphill from where a terrified and battered Emerson was tied to a tree. The strange man they saw in the woods was Hilton, who had grabbed Emerson from that spot just minutes earlier. After a brutal fight with the 120-pound woman, Hilton returned to the scene of his attack to retrieve his missing items, sure they would lead to his capture.
• At least two hunters spotted Hilton or his van in the woods while Emerson was still alive. • A Department of Natural Resource officer saw Hilton’s parked van but did not run the tags.
• While Emerson was still alive in the van, Hilton called his employer from Huddle House near Jasper. But authorities say they did not learn of the calls until two hours later, by which time Hilton was gone.
• Agents did not get word of repeated hits on Emerson’s ATM card until Jan. 4, when it was too late.
• A truck driver talked to a nervous Hilton in his hiding place in the Dawson Forest as the suspect’s face was being broadcast nationwide.
• And a lawman, whose identity has not been determined, drove past the van as Hilton planned to kill his victim. A couple hours later, he killed her with a tire iron.
Some people, like Steven Segars, Emerson’s boyfriend, say law enforcement was slow to pick up on clues or react to calls that came in. Segars said too much time and too many resources were spent searching the trails where she went missing rather than the wider area where Hilton traveled.
“We never realized the scope of it,” said Segars, a Gwinnett County firefighter who called in many of his comrades to join the search. “We kept checking the mountain, checking the mountain.”
“It was frustrating then, crushing now,” he added.
Cagle, who retired from the GBI and now works for the Daw-son County sheriff, still beats himself up over that case, although he said his agency did as well as it could.
“We were behind the eight ball in that investigation from the beginning,” he said.
Jan. 2: The manhunt begins
Emerson’s disappearance didn’t register until the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2008. Emerson, a University of Georgia grad trained in martial arts, left a day earlier to hike with El-la, her black Lab-mix, in North Georgia. Her roommate noticed she hadn’t returned to her Gwinnett County home.
Her boyfriend, Segars, drove to Blood Mountain, a favorite hiking area of hers, and quickly found her car in a trail parking lot. At first, he thought she got snowed in and stayed in a local motel. But soon she was listed as “an overdue hiker.”
Initially, the Union County sheriff ’s office and other local emergency personnel conducted the search as they often do in the mountains. Union County’s 911 incident log from that afternoon describes a close search of the area where the items were found. It shows that Emerson’s cell phone number was checked for activity, that search teams hiked trails and that a helicopter was called in.
Sometime the night of Jan. 2, the sheriff ’s department called in the GBI.
Later that night, Clawson saw a TV news story about Emerson’s disappearance. He called authorities at 10:30 to tell what he had seen a day earlier. He was so concerned he drove to the search headquarters at the mountain at 3:30 a.m. to personally tell the sheriff his story.
Late the morning of Jan. 3, authorities held a news conference to announce a “person of interest” in the case, a man hiking with a dog. Near Atlanta, businessman John Tabor was watching CNN before lunchtime and realized he knew the unnamed suspect. He called the tip line. Gary Hilton had done marketing work for his house siding business, he said. Tabor gave authorities Hilton’s birth date, description, his dog’s name, that Hilton drove a white Chevrolet Astro van and even its tag number.
A deputy drove to the parking lot near the trail to pass that information to a GBI agent. It was about 1:25 p.m., according to a report. Cagle does not know the reason for the apparent delay from the time Tabor called other than cell phone service was bad there.
The GBI called Tabor 45 minutes later. Tabor said Hilton once threatened his life, had talked about wanting to kill others and was “a very crafty individual who could elude law enforcement.”
Jan. 3: Hilton wanted
Later that afternoon, Cagle is not exactly sure when, authorities put Hilton’s description on a BOLO (be on the lookout for), to alert law enforcement that Hilton was wanted.
While Segars and other volunteers combed Blood Mountain that afternoon, Hilton — with Emerson in his van — was at a Huddle House restaurant in Marble Hill, 50 miles away.
Two hours after the GBI interviewed Tabor by phone, Hilton called him; first from a cell phone and minutes later from a pay phone at the restaurant.
Hilton wanted money. He told Tabor to leave a check for him at a DeKalb County business Tabor owned.
Tabor said he first called his family, telling them to leave the house and then his brother, telling him to arm himself and head to his home. Then Tabor said he went into a business meeting.
During the late afternoon newscast, authorities released Hilton’s name and photo to the public. Calls flooded in to the tip line.
About 6:30 p.m., according to a GBI report, an agent called Tabor for followup information. During the conversation, Tabor, according to a report, told the agent of Hilton’s two calls.
Authorities traced one call to the Huddle House. Agents called DeKalb police telling them to head to the business where the fugitive might pick up a check. Hilton never showed up. Cagle made it up to the Huddle House later that night. Hilton was long gone.
Cagle is still incredulous that Tabor did not immediately let authorities know Hilton called him. “That was one of the critical parts of the investigation,” he said.
Tabor, in a recent interview, said he was in his car when the wanted man called, frightening him to the core. “After hanging up, I’m thinking he’s coming after me,” Tabor said. “He’s nothing to lose.”
“As I look back, that is something I’ll always be troubled by,” said Tabor. “Had the GBI planted a seed in my mind that he had a hostage, I clearly would have changed what I did.”
“If I didn’t care, why would I pick up the phone in the first place?” he continued. “I’m the one who started the whole thing. If not for me, he might still be out there killing people.”
Emerson leaves a trail
Emerson, meanwhile, was doing all she could to leave authorities a trail to her rescue. On Jan. 1 and 2, Hilton tried from three different North Georgia locations to use Emerson’s Wachovia ATM card to withdraw cash. Each time, Emerson gave him bad PIN numbers, causing failed transactions and a record of their location. The gutsy move kept her alive. In previous months, Hilton had killed three other kidnap victims after they turned over their ATM codes.
A GBI report dated Jan. 3 states the agency asked Wachovia security to tell them of any activity on Emerson’s ATM card.
A spokesman for Wells Fargo, which has acquired Wachovia, said the bank was not asked to look into those transactions until Jan. 4, the day Emerson was ultimately murdered. “We have the ability to track debit card use rapidly,” said bank spokesman Jay Lawrence. “As soon as we got information we provided it to the police.”
On Jan. 4, the U.S. Marshals Service informed the GBI of two attempted withdrawals, indicating Hilton was traveling around from the start.
“You should get that information while you’re still on the phone with the bank,” Cagle said recently, insisting the original request went to Wachovia Jan. 3. “Had we had that in real time, at least on the second day, we’d have known (Hilton) was on the move.”
Numerous sightings In fact, Hilton covered hundreds of miles with Emerson as his captive. Witnesses spotted him, but those who saw Hilton did not realize he was a wanted man and reported the sightings to authorities after the fact.
“Most of the tips we got were ‘I know this guy,’” Cagle recalled. “No one said, ‘I know where he is.’”
On Jan 2. about 1:16 p.m., not 24 hours after the abduction, a man named John Cook was in the Dawson Forest when he spotted a white van. The van’s scruffy driver walked to the passenger side of his vehicle, shut the sliding door and waited for Cook to leave. Shortly after that, Cook saw a black SUV he thought was law enforcement. He did not think the officer saw Hilton’s van.
Either that morning or the next, according to a report, a Department of Natural Resources officer named Jim Johnson saw a white Chevrolet van with North Carolina license plates (Hilton had by this time replaced his Georgia tags.) The officer saw no one in the van and did not write down a tag number.
On Jan. 4, a lawn care truck got stuck by a stream near where Hilton and Emerson were camped. The driver, Michael Andrews, walked toward Hilton to ask for help. Seeing the driver, Hilton jumped from a chair and headed toward him “as if trying to keep Andrews away from his van,” a GBI report states.
Andrews then called police to help get his truck unstuck. Learning this, Hilton hurriedly loaded his van and drove off.
In his confession days later, Hilton said he told Emerson. “Hon, we gotta get out of here right now. The guy’s stuck and the law’s coming. He’s called.”
Earlier, Hilton warned his captive he would shoot her and anyone else nearby if she tried to run. Hilton then drove north out of the woods, east back through Dawsonville, back south several miles and west back into the same woods.
The world was closing in on him and Hilton was looking for a place to kill his victim.
“I stopped here, backed in and turned around to the kill location and there was a pickup there and as he drove by I waved at him,” Hilton told the GBI. “It was law enforcement.”
“It was that close,” Hilton said. “It was that close.”
Seven hours later, Hilton was arrested discarding evidence into a Dumpster at a DeKalb County gas station. Clues left from her battle on the trail, as well as her refusal to give up her PIN, thwarted his previously successful method of robbery and pushed Hilton into a desperate cycle ending in his capture.
Hilton’s arrest led authorities to solve his other crimes: the murders of an elderly couple in North Carolina and a nurse in Florida just months before.
Emerson was his last victim.
Her actions, Cagle said, “prevented him from killing other people.”