Rescuers search for hiker

January 4, 2008 9:45:34 AM PST
Rescuers, family and friends searched Friday for a missing 24-year-old hiker in northern Georgia as authorities said they were looking for a "person of interest" in the case. Friends said Meredith Emerson went hiking Tuesday with her black Labrador retriever. Her car was found abandoned Wednesday at the base of Blood Mountain, and authorities also found a water bottle and dog leash that belonged to her.

Emerson's roommate, Julia Karrenbauer, said as many as 100 friends and family members have come to the park to aid in the search. Emerson's father, Dave Emerson of Longmont, Colo., headed to the mountain trails Friday with rescue workers.

"They're frightened, scared and we're all very hopeful," Karrenbauer said of Emerson's parents. "We're all trying to stay really positive here. It's been a really long three days."

Karrenbauer said Emerson is an experienced hiker who has a blue belt in martial arts.

Fifteen professional search and rescue teams were searching for Emerson and volunteers were asked to pass out fliers instead of hitting park trails, said Union County investigator Kimberly Verdone. The searchers were combing a 400 square mile area of rugged terrain.

Meanwhile, officials were trying to find Gary Michael Hilton, who was reportedly seen with Emerson several times on New Year's Day. They said Hilton, who is in his 60s, drives a 2000-2001 white Chevy Astro van.

"It's not that, you know, he's a suspect. He is somebody that was last seen talking to her, last seen with her," Verdone said during a morning news conference. She said investigators want to know when he last saw Emerson and what they talked about.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation declined to specify how investigators learned Hilton's name and other details about him. Emerson is formerly of Longmont, Colo., and recently became a resident of Buford, Ga., in suburban Atlanta.

One of Georgia's oldest and most popular state parks, Vogel State Park is located at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest.