Union County, GA (WXIA) - An autopsy performed on the body of slain hiker Meredith Emerson showed she was alive for three days before she was beaten to death and her body decapitated, the GBI said Tuesday.
There are also new charges and a new jail for the man accused of killing her, Gary Hilton, 61, of DeKalb County.
Emerson's body was found in Dawson County. According to murder warrants issued on Tuesday there, Emerson was killed three days after she disappeared from a hiking trail in Union County. The warrants said she was then brutally murdered.
Just before 3 p.m. Tuesday, Gary Hilton arrived at his new jail cell in Dawson County where he will face a more serious charge of murder. As he was escorted into the jail, he asked a sheriff deputy if the jail was nice.
"At approximately 1:30 today, an arrest warrant was issued for Mr. Gary Hilton," said Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle. "Mr. Hilton is being charged with one count of murder of Meredith Emerson."
Investigators said they believe Emerson was killed in Dawson County. Her body was found in a heavily wooded area of the Dawson Forest on Monday at about 7 p.m. Gary Hilton had given investigators an indication where her body would be.
After an autopsy was completed at the GBI's Decatur lab, the results were announced in Dawson County.
"Dr. Kris Sperry, the chief medical examiner for the state of Georgia, has determined that Meredith Emerson died of blunt force trauma to the head," said GBI Agent-in-charge John Cagle. "Dr. Sperry indicated that after Ms. Emerson received the lethal injuries she was decapitated."
Meredith Emerson disappeared from a hiking trail near Vogel State Park in Union County on New Year's Day.
"The contents of the warrant allege that the crime occurred on January the 4th, 2008," said District Attorney Lee Darragh.
That means Meredith Emerson was alive for three days after she was abducted. The GBI would not detail any more specifics of the case. Gary Hilton will face a judge for the first time in Dawson County on Wednesday at 1 p.m.
Emerson's body was found in the Dawson Forest -- about 24,000 acres of land near Dawsonville, north of the Forsyth County line. The park is near the Cumming gas station where Emerson's bloody clothes and ID were found.
Emerson's Family Releases Statement of Thanks
On Tuesday afternoon, Emerson's family released a statement expressing their thanks to all who helped search for Meredith over the past week, and they also announced a memorial service for her.
The GBI informed Meredith Emerson's family about today's autopsy results, and is giving the family updates on the ongoing investigation.
Meredith's parents, Dave and Susan Emerson, released a statement on Tuesday afternoon.
They had been actively helping in the search and the investigation. The Emersons asked their close friend and Meredith's godmother, Peggy Bailey, who lives in Athens, to speak for them one more time.
"The family of Meredith Emerson would like to extend their heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the following good people: Union County and Dawson County Sheriff's departments, fire and rescue departments, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and the 60-plus agencies involved in the search and eventual recovery of Meredith. The family would also like to express their appreciation in the professionalism and compassion of the local and national media and thank them again for helping to facilitate getting information out about Meredith as well as helping the world learn to know her, and learn to love her, as we always have and always will. We would also like to thank the untold number of friends and volunteers and family who helped search and support all of us at this tragic and troubling time," Bailey read.
The memorial service for Meredith Emerson will be on Friday, at Central Presbyterian Church on Alps Road in Athens, at 2 p.m.
The family asks that those who wish to honor Meredith can do so by contributing to their local animal rescue shelters.
Other States Eying Hilton in Other Murders
Florida has now joined North Carolina in requesting details of the Meredith Emerson murder to see if her killer could be responsible for more murders.
There are at least three unsolved murders detectives are focusing on.
There is a growing concern that the killer of Meredith Emerson may be a serial killer who has left a trail of tragedy in at least three states.
John and Irene Bryant -- hikers who traveled the world well into their 80s -- were last seen in the hills of North Carolina's Pisgah National Forest.
Their red SUV was parked not far from where the body of Irene was later found, beaten to death. John Bryant's body has never been found, despite agonizing searches by his family and other volunteers.
The suspect in their murder was seen at a Tennessee ATM, using their debit card and wearing John's jacket. The jacket may be the clue that links their killer with the suspect in the Emerson murder.
"They can make determinations between the Meredith emerson case and the case that they're working in North Carolina," said GBI Director Vernon Keenan. "There's no conclusion been made; no linkage been made, but they were very interested in the case that we're working in Union County."
Investigators in Florida will now follow in the footsteps of those from North Carolina, visiting the GBI in Georgia.
They want to compare the suspect in the murder of 46-year-old Cheryl Dunlap last month in the Apalachicola Forest with Hilton as well.
Dunlap's body was found by hunters in the woods, two weeks after the suspect used her credit card to try and get cash at a bank.
There are other cases in Georgia that may bear looking into as well -- notably, the murders of Patrice Endres and Levi Frady, though the GBI has indicated that they are not yet going over similarities there.