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10 years later, friends, officials reflect on tragic loss of Meredith Emerson
Hiker slain by serial killer in 2008
May 2007 photo released by Pat B. Mitchell via The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Jan. 3, 2008, Meredith Emerson is seen with her dog Ella, in Flowery Branch, Ga.

In the years since Meredith Emerson’s death, Brent Seyler will go back to Blood Mountain and sometimes leave flowers. He thinks about “her spunk” and how she was someone to “live each day to its fullest.”

“She just had a strength about her, and that’s the one thing I’ve always remembered about Meredith,” Seyler said.

Seyler and Julia Karrenbauer are the respective vice president and president of Right to Hike, a group created in Emerson’s honor raising awareness on issues including hiking safety.

Emerson, 24, was kidnapped Jan. 1, 2008, from the Byron Herbert Reece Memorial Trailhead in Union County and later bludgeoned to death by Gary Michael Hilton, now 71.

Hilton was identified and captured a few days after Emerson’s disappearance. He was sentenced later that month to life in prison, with parole eligibility 30 years after the initial sentencing.

Hilton is now being held in a Florida prison awaiting the death penalty in a separate case.

Seyler said he and Karrenbauer look at each other in amazement at how the group has expanded. The group held its 10th annual Ella’s Run in October, named for Emerson’s black lab.

Seyler said the group decided to make this the last run as a way to go out on top, seeing people continually come out to remember Emerson.

“Her story just touched so, so many individuals nationally certainly as well as locally,” Seyler said.

In exchange for divulging the location of Emerson’s body, Union County District Attorney Stan Gunter made a deal with Hilton to take the death penalty option off of the table.

“I have seen many, many tragic homicides. This certainly is at the top of that list, not only because of who she was and the great loss it was to her family and to the community … but also because of the egregiousness and the evil nature of Gary Hilton,” said Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh, who was prosecuting the case at the time.

Darragh told The Gainesville Times in 2008 he believed Hilton deserved the death penalty, and he said Wednesday he still holds that same view. 

“It was regrettable that because of the deal that had been made by the District Attorney of the Enotah Circuit at that time that we could not seek the death penalty. But on the other hand, it did lead to the discovery of Ms. Emerson’s body in her tragic death,” Darragh said.

Gunter did not return a request for comment Wednesday by The Times. Attempts to reach public defender Robert McNeill on Wednesday for comment were unsuccessful.

Hilton pleaded guilty Jan. 31, 2008, to one count of murder.

“It got closed out quicker than any murder case I’ve ever seen,” said Hall County Public Defender’s Office investigator Stephen Gurr, who covered the case for The Times.

Emerson’s mother, Susan Emerson, said following sentencing she was not sorry that the death penalty was taken off of the table.

“That would have been an easy out for this menace. Let him stay alive and slowly rot,” Susan Emerson told the court in 2008.

Timeline

October 2007: John and Irene Bryant were killed on a trail in the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina.

December 2007: Cheryl Dunlap, a 46-year-old nurse, was killed. Her body was found in the Apalachicola National Forest in north Florida.

Jan. 1, 2008: Meredith Emerson, 24, went hiking with her dog near Union County’s Vogel State Park.
Jan. 1, 2008: Gary Michael Hilton tried to use a bank card belonging to Emerson at a Bank of America ATM in Gainesville around 9:30 p.m. 
Jan. 4, 2008: Meredith Emerson was bludgeoned to death and then decapitated.
Jan. 5, 2008: A warrant was signed for the arrest of Gary Michael Hilton on kidnapping charges.
Jan. 7, 2008: Hilton led authorities to Emerson’s body in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area.
Jan. 20, 2008: A memorial was held for Emerson in Athens.
Jan. 19, 2008: More than 100 gathered to hike in Blairsville to honor Emerson.
Jan. 31, 2008: Hilton pleaded guilty to Emerson’s murder and received a life sentence.

Oct. 25, 2008: The first “Ella’s Run” 5K and one-mile fun run was held.
April 2011: Hilton sentenced to death in Dunlap’s murder

June 2011: Hilton charged with killing Bryants.

April 2013: Hilton received life sentence in the murder of the Bryants.