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12 years after Emerson murder, lead investigator releases tell-all book
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Author John Cagle with his new book, "Those Days in January" - photo by Erica Schmidt

Over a decade since Meredith Emerson was kidnapped and murdered on the Appalachian Trail, lead investigator John Cagle has written and released a new tell-all book offering a behind-the-scenes look into the investigation of one of Georgia’s most shocking killings and the mind of serial killer Gary Hilton.

Cagle, who served as the supervising agent in the investigation, said that he wrote Those Days in January: The Abduction and Murder of Meredith Hope Emerson to give a new perspective on the startling case, which continues to gain attention more than a decade after its conclusion.

“There’s been a lot of coverage of it, even this year,” Cagle said. “There was a Dateline episode, several other things, but this book is really a more personal look into the investigation through the investigator’s eyes rather than a reporter looking in. So it’s more of a personal thing, and I go into details of the investigation that maybe haven’t been released yet.”

The investigation took place in January of 2008 when 24-year-old Meredith Emerson went missing from the Byron Herbert Reece Memorial Trailhead in Union County, where she had been hiking with her dog Ella. Authorities later found and arrested then 61-year-old Gary Hilton a few days after Emerson’s disappearance and charged him for kidnapping, killing and decapitating the young woman. 

Hilton later pled guilty and negotiated with authorities to avoid the death penalty by leading investigators to where Emerson’s body had been hidden in Dawson Forest. In addition to Emerson’s murder, Hilton was also convicted of kidnapping and killing John and Irene Bryant, a couple hiking in North Carolina, and Cheryl Dunlap, a nurse from Florida. 

He is currently awaiting execution in a Florida prison.

According to Cagle, investigating Emerson’s murder has had a lasting effect on all the officers and investigators who worked the case. To this day, one fact that sticks in the veteran detective’s mind is how much of the local community volunteered to help with the investigation, and how that led them to capture Emerson’s killer. 

“The hiking community, especially the Appalachian Trail hiking community, have a network to communicate,” Cagle said. “When she was reported missing, apparently the word went out and we had hundreds and hundreds of volunteers show up to help search for her. So you saw a lot of good happen even though it was a bad thing, just a lot of people wanting to help, and that was kind of refreshing cause when you’re in the criminal justice business you don’t see that a lot.”

Cagle said that he was personally and profoundly affected by the case, because much of the search took place in the Dawson Forest area, where he had worked during high school. Those personal connections and ties to the case, are a major theme of the new book.

“I grew up in Pickens County, and when I graduated from high school, Dawson Forest had just been decommissioned and I worked a summer job out there shoveling radioactive dirt,” Cagle said. “I would kind of explore out there after I’d get off and it was spooky. So I kind of described that experience, and then 36 years later I’m out there one night looking for a body.”

In writing his book, Cagle is also hoping to give readers a more personal look behind the scenes of the investigation, including an inside look at Hilton’s character.

“What I tried to do before each chapter is put a quote from Gary Hilton, which is pretty scary for people who haven’t been around the criminal justice business, to give a look at how evil he is by some of his own quotes,” Cagle said. 

According to the author, in its writing, Those Days in January became not just as a way to tell the story of Emerson’s murder and Hilton’s capture, but also for he and other officers to work through the case, and maybe put it behind them.

“Some people are hesitant to talk about it, and that might have been one of the reason I waited so long to write it,” Cagle said. “I’ve struggle with this case since them, as a lot of investigators have, and I thought it might be kind of therapeutic to write about it – and so far so good. And I’m getting a good response from folks; a lot of officers and some of my former agents have called me and said they felt the same way.”

Cagle’s book Those Days in January: The Abduction and Murder of Meredith Hope Emerson, can be purchased on Amazon or Book Logix.

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Author John Cagle looks through his new tell-all book - photo by Erica Schmidt