Is This Man Key to Blood Mountain Mystery?

It began as a search for 24-year-old Meredith Emerson and her dog, who were last seen taking a New Year's hike in Georgia's Blood Mountain wilderness.

Today, authorities will resume that search, but they will also be looking for a silver-haired, 61-year-old hiker named Gary Michael Hilton, who police say may have met Emerson the day she disappeared and who has not been seen since.

"Mr. Hilton is an individual that is believed to have contact with Miss Emerson on Tuesday along the hiking trails in Vogel State Park," said Kimberly Verdone, the spokeswoman for the Union County Sheriff's Department.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Hilton has a criminal record, having been convicted of two felonies — one for the possession and distribution of marijuana, another for theft by taking. He is believed to be living in DeKalb County in suburban Atlanta and driving a 2000 or 2001 Chevy Astro van.

Emerson's Chevrolet Cavalier was found early Wednesday morning near a trail head, but there was no sign of Emerson or her Labrador retriever mix, Ella.

The search began for Emerson the same day, with authorities in Union County taking the lead and warning about near-single digit temperatures along the Georgia stretch of the Appalachian Trail. High winds hampered the aerial search, but searchers on the ground found Emerson's water bottle and a dog collar. At least one witness reported that a police baton had been also recovered.

That search continued Thursday, with Emerson's family arriving from her native Colorado to join friends and volunteers who were already on the ground looking for her. Emerson moved across the country for college at the University of Georgia.

Emerson's roommate, Julia Karrenbauer, was distraught over the disappearance.

"She's not just some," Karrenbauer began, then dissolving into tears. Regaining her composure, Karrenbauer said, "She's not just some 24-year-old girl. You know, everybody here loves her." Karrenbauer said she has not slept in two days since she joined the search.

Police said witnesses had come forward with similar descriptions of a suspicious man who been seen on the same trail where Emerson and her dog were walking Tuesday. First, police announced a physical description of a man around 60, perhaps toothless and carrying a backpack and some sort of sheath. A dark-red, large-breed dog named Dandy was responding to his call and he may have had enough gear for a couple of days.

Hilton was later identified as authorities' person of interest.

Emerson is 5 feet 4 inches tall and 120 pounds, with blond hair and blue eyes. Her friends describe her as an experienced hiker and martial arts blue belt.

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