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Slaying tops biggest stories of 2008

Confessed killer faces death penalty in Florida case

POSTED: January 7, 2009 4:00 a.m.
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John Cagle announces the discovery of Meredith Emerson's body in Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area during a Jan. 7, 2008 press conference.

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Former GBI Special Agent in Charge John Cagle says it is one of the few cases he worked in his 30-year career that touched him personally.


“I let it get too close,” said Cagle of the Meredith Emerson slaying.


The grizzly discovery that missing hiker Emerson had been killed in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area made state and national news during the first week of January 2008.


Cagle, who retired in April and now leads the criminal investigations division of the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office, still keeps in touch with Emerson’s family in Colorado and has attended several events held in her honor during the last year.


Gary Michael Hilton, who a year later is awaiting trial in Florida for a similar slaying, admitted he abducted the 24-year-old Emerson on Jan. 1 from the Byron Reese Memorial Trailhead in Union County. He killed her three days later in Dawson County.


In exchange for authorities not seeking the death penalty against him, Hilton led local and state investigators to her mutilated body in the forest.


Hilton, 61, told investigators he beat the Gwinnett County woman to death with a tire iron and decapitated her to hide forensic evidence. He said he had abducted Emerson to rob her.


Within a month, Hilton had pleaded guilty in Dawson County Superior Court and was sentenced to life in prison. He will be eligible for parole in 30 years.


He has since been transferred to Florida, where he is being held on charges he killed another woman under similar circumstances.


E-mail Michele Hester at



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