Georgia authorities have released a description of a "person of interest" this morning in the disappearance of a 24-year-old hiker and her dog who were last seen setting out for a walk in the wilderness on New Year's Day.
Meredith Emerson has been described by friends as a skilled hiker in good physical shape, but freezing temperatures — in the teens with a wind chill near zero on both Tuesday and Wednesday night — had initially concerned the authorities combing the area.
Authorities now want to identify and talk to a man described as a silver-haired, white male about 60 years old, perhaps with missing teeth, who was seen in the area where Emerson was hiking the day she disappeared. Some witnesses reported to authorities seeing the man talking to Emerson.
The man was wearing a yellow jacket and carrying a backpack; a dark red-colored large-breed dog answered to the man's call of "Dandy."
The man may be driving a white minivan with Georgia license plates.
Emerson's snow-covered 1995 Chevrolet Cavalier was found early Wednesday at a trail head at the foot of Blood Mountain, a popular hike that is part of Georgia's section of the Appalachian Trail. Emerson was reported missing after she failed to show up for work.
High winds prevented a Georgia State Patrol helicopter from searching the area Wednesday, and the search was called off at sundown before resuming this morning.
The Union County Sheriff's Office, a lead agency in Emerson's search, initially considered the investigation purely a missing person's case, citing no evidence of foul play.
Parents, Friends Concerned
But Emerson's friends had grown increasingly concerned and her parents arrived from her native Colorado to assist authorities after a dog's leash, water bottle, and pair of sunglasses were found near Emerson's parked car, according to ABC News' Atlanta affiliate WSB-TV
Another hiker reportedly told officials that he saw a man with a similar police baton clipped to a belt as he hiked the same trail where he had seen Emerson and her dog, Ella. Authorities would not confirm a report that a baton was found near Emerson's car, but did say he was carrying a sheath of some type.
"She's an experienced hiker and a blue belt in martial arts," Emerson's roommate, Julia Karrenbauer, told WSB-TV. "She's athletic and has a good head on her shoulders. So we're just hoping for the best."
Kimberly Verdone, an investigator for the Union County Sheriff's Office, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday that Emerson's car was first spotted by an employee at Vogel State Park. The park sits at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest.
Verdone, who made today's announcement about the "person of interest," said it would be easy for Emerson to get lost on the trails, especially under a layer of snow. "It's a very difficult trail," Verdone said, " especially when it's covered with snow."
Emerson is described as 5 feet 4 inches tall and 120 pounds, with blond hair and blue eyes.