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Accused killer spotted while hiker may have still been alive

  • Story Highlights
  • Gary Hilton used a phone at a Huddle House, the restaurant's owner says
  • Meredith Emerson may have been inside his van at the time
  • Florida sheriff calls Gary Hilton "prime suspect" in another woman's slaying
  • Florida slaying victim also decapitated, WSB-TV reports
  • Next Article in Crime »
From Tristan Smith
CNN
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(CNN) -- A man accused of abducting and killing a hiker who vanished New Year's Day in the north Georgia mountains was seen at a restaurant one day before investigators believe she was killed, the eatery's owner said Thursday.

Gary Michael Hilton directed investigators to Emerson's body, according to officials.

Jim Barkley, owner of a Huddle House in Marble Hill, Georgia, told CNN he saw Gary Hilton there around 4:30 p.m. January 3.

The restaurant is about 8 miles from where the decapitated body of 24-year-old Meredith Emerson was found Monday evening, Barkley said.

Investigators also are looking into whether evidence links Hilton, 61, to other crimes in North Carolina and Florida.

Hilton was searching for a pay phone because two nearby businesses didn't have one, Barkley said. The Huddle House doesn't have one either, but he let Hilton use a business phone. Video Watch how events have unfolded since Emerson's disappearance »

A waitress who described Hilton as "real fidgety" to the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said she was disturbed to later realize that Emerson may have been alive and inside Hilton's van at the time.

"It kills me to know that," Amanda Peacock told the newspaper. "If we knew what he looked like before that, we could've saved her."

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Hilton sat in a booth near the cash register and appeared agitated at times while he talked, though no one overheard the conversation, Barkley said.

As Hilton was leaving, he said, "That's good, at least I'm going to get my old job back," Barkley recalled.

One of the waitresses left at the same time as Hilton, and she told co-workers the next day that Hilton stared at her as she walked to her car, which made her feel "uneasy," Barkley said.

Hours after Hilton had visited the Huddle House, officers from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation came to the restaurant to collect a surveillance videotape and confirm with employees that Hilton had been there. It was unclear how the GBI had learned of the incident.

Emerson's body was found with guidance from Hilton in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area -- about 30 miles south of the Union County, Georgia, state park where she went hiking in the mountains with her dog, Ella. Ella was found Friday in nearby Forsyth County. Follow the case on an interactive map »

Several witnesses told authorities they saw Hilton and Emerson together, letting their dogs play along a hiking trail in Vogel State Park.

In exchange for leading authorities to the body, a Union County prosecutor agreed to drop consideration of the death penalty for Hilton, Enotah District Attorney Stan Gunter said.

But now it's unclear whether that deal will stick.

Lee Darragh, the district attorney representing Dawson County, where Emerson's body was found, told CNN he was not involved in that deal.

He said that he learned about it only after the body was discovered.

Darragh would not say if that meant he would put consideration of the death penalty back on the table. He said he would likely pursue indictment during the next Dawson County grand jury's term, which begins in March.

Darragh said authorities believe Emerson was killed January 4 -- three days after she disappeared -- but would not elaborate.

A judge in Dawson County denied bond Wednesday for Hilton, who is charged with malice murder in Emerson's death.

Georgia Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Kris Sperry concluded Emerson died of blunt force trauma to the head and was decapitated after death.

Florida and North Carolina inquiries

Meanwhile, authorities in the Florida panhandle say a woman killed there last month was also decapitated, CNN affiliate WSB reported.

Hilton is a "prime suspect" in the slaying of Cheryl Dunlap, sheriff's investigators in Leon County, Florida, said.

Her body was found December 19 in Apalachicola National Forest, southwest of Tallahassee.

Florida authorities say they have confirmed that Hilton was in the area at the time of Dunlap's disappearance.

Hilton came in contact with a forestry agent who wrote down his vehicle's tag number, said Leon County Sheriff's Major Mike Wood.

Wood described the encounter as a "routine check" and said no warrants came back when the agent ran the tag number.

"Our interest is focused utterly and completely on Mr. Hilton," said Wood.

Wood said Florida authorities have received numerous tips from citizens in the Dunlap case, including one from a hunter who reported seeing a "homeless-looking, disheveled man with a knife" December 7 in the forest, Wood said.

The hunter said he warned the man the forest was a bad place to be during hunting season. The hunter notified police of the encounter after Dunlap's body was found December 19. Wood said Florida authorities are preparing to travel to Georgia to meet and coordinate with authorities.

In addition to the Florida case, state and federal authorities are also trying to determine whether Hilton may have been involved in a North Carolina case.

In Transylvania County in North Carolina, investigators said Wednesday they were following leads developed during a meeting with Georgia authorities earlier this week.

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Sheriff David Mahoney said the disappearance and deaths of Irene and John Bryant have several similarities to the Emerson case.

The Bryants, an elderly couple, disappeared after going for a hike in the Pisgah National Forest a few months ago. Irene Bryant's body was found near the couple's car, but her husband's body has not been found. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Rusty Dornin contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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