January 2008 was one of the most difficult months in Investigator John Cagle’s 30-year law enforcement career.
The former GBI special agent in charge said the grizzly discovery that missing hiker Meredith Emerson had been killed in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area is one of the few cases that touched him personally.
“I let it get too close,” said Cagle, who retired in April and now leads the criminal investigations division of the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office.
It was that touching spirit, coupled with his professionalism on the case, that led to Cagle’s All-Star nomination on the “America’s Most Wanted” TV show.
Voting in the national contest runs through mid-April. The All-Star who receives the most votes each week advances to the final round.
“I think the world of John Cagle,” said a longtime friend and law enforcement colleague in northeast Georgia, who cannot be identified because he’s an narcotics investigator. “He’s one of the most intelligent GBI agents there’s ever been.
“If it hadn’t been for his leadership, and how he ran the investigation, Gary Hilton wouldn’t be sitting in a jail in Florida possibly facing the death penalty.”
Hilton, who is awaiting trial 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, Hilton led Cagle to her mutilated body in the forest.
Cagle keeps in touch with Emerson’s friends and family and has attended several events in her honor during the past year.
“He’s been to every event we’ve had to honor Meredith,” said Julia Karrenhauer, Emerson’s roommate and vice president of Right to Hike, a nonprofit organization founded in her friend’s memory.
“We’re so thankful for him. This case was so hard for him. So many times he’s said he’s sorry they didn’t find her in time. He easily could have just walked away.”
Finalists will be profiled on “America’s Most Wanted” TV show. They will then be entered for the grand prize: $10,000 and a trip in May to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series All-Star Challenge at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C.
If he wins, Cagle said he would split the winnings between Right to Hike and a scholarship fund set up in Emerson’s memory at the University of Georgia.
“Both of those organizations do great work. They need as much support as they can get,” Cagle said, adding he will continue to do what he can to keep Emerson’s memory alive.
Added Karrenhauer: “There’s no telling how many lives John Cagle and the GBI saved when they caught Gary Hilton. They were able to do something no one could do — catch a serial killer.”