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.