Tuesday, January 08, 2008

What Is Lost

Since late New Year's day I have followed a local Atlanta story, one that became a national news event within 48 hours. Meredith Emerson, a resident from Longmont, Colorado who had graduated from the University of Georiga and was employed in a small community just north of Atlanta, was missing. She had taken her Lab mix pup, Ella, on a hike in Vogel State Park, a beautiful state park in the north Georgia mountains. Its lake and forested trails make Vogel popular with outdoor enthusiasts. It is here that hikers are connected to the beginning of the Appalachian Trail, a trail that winds from Georgia to Maine.

Eventually those of us who read the updates learned Meredith had last been seen walking along the trail with a 61 year old male whose dog frolicked with hers. They were seen walking and talking while their dogs scampered along the trail. He carried a backpack and an expandable police baton strapped along his leg. Several people noticed them and eventually reported these viewings to police. Soon this man, Gary Hilton, became a person of interest.

Time passed and searches continued for Meredith, none successful. Many volunteers and professional search teams scoured the area where her car was found; mittens, dog leash, a bottle of water, and a baton were scattered close by. Search areas expanded across a very large expanse of Vogel State Park, then switched again to a small, targeted area.

Over the weekend Ella walked into a grocery store in Cumming, Georgia, a small town in Forsyth County north of Atanta. She walked into the same grocery store where our friends shop each week. A shopper picked up the pup and took her to a Vet two blocks away hoping to find a place of safety for her until her owners could be found. The Vet identified Ella via the implanted ID chip she wore. Ella was now about 40+ miles from where she and Meredith were last seen. Police swarmed the area and found Meredith's wallet, UGA ID, a piece of bloody seatbelt, and 3 fleece tops like those Meredith wore, saturated in blood, all in a dumpster across the street from the grocery store. A telephone near the dumpster contained Hilton's fingerprints.

Within a few hours Hilton was spotted about 25 miles away within the Metro Atlanta area in DeKalb County. He was in the parking lot of a convenience store cleaning his van with a vacuum and a solution of bleach and water. A rear seatbelt of the van was missing. He was taken into custody and booked on "kidnapping with intent to do bodily injury" charges. GBI questioned him, but he did not cooperate. A surveillance tape in another GA county, northwest of where Hiton was located, revealed Hilton using Meredith's ATM card.

More search teams were dispersed, some near the grocery store where Ella had been found. Plans were developed to send other teams to the multiple locations now involved in the case. Another recent crime case, an hour from Vogel State Park, came to the attention of authorities, a case where an older couple, hiking in NC's Pisgah National Forest, went missing. The woman had been killed by a blow to the head; the man was still missing. A man wearing a yellow jacket like Hilton's was seen on surveillance tapes using their ATM card.

With a promise by police not to pursue the death penalty Hilton agreed on Monday to help them locate Meredith Emerson's body. She was found in a huge wildlife management area called Dawson Forest in yet another north Georgia county. Based on the autopsy, she had been killed by a fatal blow to the head on Friday and then decapitated. She had lived 3 days beyond her kidnapping.

I am grieving. I did not know Meredith Emerson. I did not know the killer. I grieve for a family who lost a young daughter with a full life in front of her, for a puppy who lost her mom, and for Meredith's friends and loved ones who will miss her always. I grieve for all the Georgians who no longer feel safe in a beautiful state park in the north Georgia mountains, a park where I spent many hours enjoying my youth through middle age.

I am sad that danger like this lurks in nature, sad that exploring the peaceful forests, walking the hiking trails, and taking in the beautiful mountainous landscapes now carry significant fear. This issue moves beyond the Georgia mountains. I have never been able to enjoy the Cascades alone for just such reasons. In October we found a beautiful spot in the Cascade Mountains, a spot perched by the river and perfect for summer outings. I thought how nice it would be to take my visiting girlfriends there for picnics on lazy summer days and show them the magnificent Cascades. Immediately I began assessing how safe the area might be, determining where I could park the car so we could easily access it if anyone came near. I resent the need to think this way, to plan and be prepared. I enjoy spontaneity. But, my husband and I try to remain aware of our surroundings and anyone who encroaches when we are out exploring.

We live near an area where Ted Bundy kidnapped 2 women and dumped some of his victims 30 years ago during his killing spree in the Seattle area. These are facts I keep in mind. After moving to the Pacific NW I wondered about the serial killers (Bundy, Ridgway, to name 2) who roamed this area. The topography, the evergreen wilderness and undeveloped mountains, provides a screen of privacy and freedom for the criminal mind. I grieve that this is part of the world in which we all live. When I was young we were not afraid in the forests except perhaps of stepping on a snake we might not see.

I am angry that violent death has come to the mountains I've loved in my home state, angry that violation and murder have splashed them with fear, eroding the tranquility which resided in nature's glorious home. I am sorry my nieces who are only now discovering this area will never have the same sense of safety in these mountains I have loved so much.

I grieve for what is lost.


Anonymous said...

I guess we will have to fight back and carry our pepper spray, maybe register to carry a weapon, and keep our eyes open. Mountain lions and bears at least have a natural permission to attack. I know that I will not give up the mountains to those who are sick.


Tammy said...

Oh Sky! What a sad commentary on our changing world. My thoughts turn to future generations that will be robbed of feeling safe.

I pray for our planet!

May peace and love wrap around you in 2008.


rdl said...

This is terrible. I don't watch the news much ( for these very reasons) so was unaware.
We live near cranberry bogs and i tell my son not to walk the dog there alone because of the remoteness.

PFE Music said...

A man tried to abduct me when I was about 10, and I was beaten and robbed in my 30s. I've never felt safe...

colleen said...

I just heard about this today but not in this kind of detail. It is so very upsetting and chills me to the bone. I actually couldn't watch the whole thing because it spooked me so.

And thank you so much for your recent comments at Loose Leaf and for sharing your own story.

Yolanda said...

This made me so sad.I feel so bad for her parents.

Frankie said...

What a truly powerful piece Sky. It is such a tragedy, what happened to Meredith, what happened to victims everywhere, what happened to our sense of safety. It is such a tragedy what is happening to our world, that our news is filled with so much crime and killing, that it only continues to grow. I know just how you feel, how even when I was a child things somehow seemed safer, seemed more available to us.

I think about this as I walk to work each morning. I think about whether I am putting myself in danger simply by walking a few blocks in suburbia before dawn. Would people say, "what was she thinking? She should have known..." if anything happened? Do I really need to give up the gladness of my walk simply because we live in this world that we do?

It is heartbreaking, and I am grieving right along with you.

All my thoughts and love xoxo

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Sad - but I appreciate your comments on the story, Sky. I'm familiar with that region of Georgia.

mm said...

Dear Sky, sometimes we can only pray. For this girl, for the planet, for your mountains.

Thank you for this powerful piece.

kate said...

Hi Sky,

This was a horrendous story. It is sad to know that evil exists in such beautiful places.

I spent some time reading through your blog ... thanks for sharing your beautiful writing!

San said...

Sky, I too followed the story of the young woman in Georgia.

A heartbreaking story whose sadness goes far beyond the boundaries of her immediate family and community. It is profoundly sad that we now have to fear human predators in not just urban areas but in the wilderness, where we seek the solace of solitude.

Thank you for pointing this out in your well-written post.

Veggies... said...

What a sad story and one that happens too often it seems. Walking should not be a guarded pasttime but it needs to be now, to be safe. Vigilance, keeping an eye on surroundings and staying away from deserted, densely treed areas is so crucial. I am very sorry to read of this terrible, senseless loss.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for saying what I have been feeling.
I live a couple miles from where the pup was found and I shop there each week.
I cannot even imagine what Merideths family and friends are going through. If it has this much affect on us, try to imagine............
God bless us all, be safe!

Brenda said...

Oh, oh, oh. For this there are no easy answers. Who to trust, where to go, how to sense danger when it is real and near, these are significant questions. And yet it is clear that there are those who seem to bypass our normal radar and gain our trust and yet who are lethal. The psychopath without true moral sense or feeling, this is the most frightening figure of all. I am grieved to hear of Meredith, a story you write with power and perfect clarity. You have remembered her here, her tragic end will be remembered in the wilderness she loved, as warning, as overture to the beauty of the land. xo

♥Nova said...

Whether it be in remote areas of a forest area or in the busy streets of a large city, it doesnt feel safe anywhere anymore. We seem to always have to be on the lookout for creeps and serial killers, and other lunatics. Even our own neighborhoods are no longer safe. It saddens me, and like you, I grieve for that loss of sense of safety and security and for the loss of being able to enjoy natural beauty without having to look over shoulder for fear of such hideous crimes.

kenju said...

Sky, thank you for the visit and comment. Bleach is a very good way to prevent bacteria in flower water and though I have heard of people using aspirin, I have no experience with it.

I had not heard of Meredith or her story. It is chilling and so scary to be in a world where this can happen.

Patty said...

its so sad, this story of violence. My hubby and I were just so profoundly sad as we are avid hikers and backpackers. It makes you look over your shoulder more on the trail and that stinks. It was a place we always felt safe from the harm of other humans.

Patty said...

Hi Sky,
The photo of the trees in my header was taken last year when an ice storm hit our area while everything was still very green.

Lori said...

Hi Sky. I found your site from Soul of a Dreamer and I'm reading through your writing and enjoying it! In college a group of us rented a cabin there and felt so safe to break up into groups and hike and explore - that was 12 years ago, so in that amount of time things have changed. It is so sad to not feel at ease in such pristine areas. I guess it is better to walk and be with nature in groups of people where we do feel safer, but no one should have to feel unsafe as we do. I will be visiting your site often - great!

Mary Sheehan Winn said...

Well written.Very upsetting.
This happens too often, unfortunately.
Way back when... I thought nothing of parking my car in a State Park or at a beach and being alone there, but no more. Being an outdoor painter, I now make sure to stay with a group or in a populated area.

Maryanne Stahl said...

beautifully written account, Sky, and far far more detailed and eloquent than anything I read (ever) in the Savannah paper.

I too love(d) Vogel and was crushed to read this story. I will add Vogel and your Cascades specifically when I meditate for peace.

I came to this via Patry Francis's blog and am pleased to meet you.