ATLANTA --- Using her wits and training as a martial artist, Meredith Emerson struggled to survive in the north Georgia mountains after she was abducted by a drifter who was looking for easy prey, interviews with her convicted killer have revealed.
Details of the interview with Gary Michael Hilton --- obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation --- tell the tale of Mr. Hilton's four days with Ms. Emerson, and how she fought him from the moment he tried to overpower her as she hiked with her dog, Ella.
In the end, it was Mr. Hilton who outsmarted her before bludgeoning Ms. Emerson to death and decapitating her. But investigators said she never gave up.
"She was doing everything she could to stay alive," GBI Director Vernon Keenan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution . "It's not something you can train for. Instinct kicks in ... She nearly got the best of him. She's very much a hero."
Mr. Hilton, a wiry man with a slight build, told investigators he targeted the 24-year-old University of Georgia graduate because she was a woman. For a time, they walked together with their dogs on New Year's Day near the Appalachian Trail in Union County, but the 61-year-old Mr. Hilton couldn't keep up.
When Ms. Emerson headed back down the trail, Mr. Hilton was waiting with a military-style knife. He demanded her ATM card and Ms. Emerson immediately went on the defensive, grabbing the blade and the baton Mr. Hilton countered with.
Mr. Hilton calmed her down by telling her that he just wanted her credit card and PIN number, and bound her hands with a zip tie.
Mr. Hilton avoided the established trails as he led Ms. Emerson and her dog back down the mountain and into his van.
Ms. Emerson bought herself three days by giving Mr. Hilton the wrong PIN for her ATM card, telling him each time that the numbers were correct.
"She was doing everything she was supposed to do to stay alive, and we didn't get there in time," said GBI agent Clay Bridges, who interviewed Mr. Hilton.
On the day Mr. Hilton killed Ms. Emerson, he told her "she was going home." After securing her to a tree, he walked back to the van to collect himself and made some coffee.
When he came back, Mr. Hilton said Ms. Emerson told him, "I was afraid you weren't coming back."
Then he walked behind her as if he were coming over to remove the chains holding her to the tree and hit her several times with the handle from a tire jack.
Mr. Hilton was worried that the microchip identifier embedded in Ella, Ms. Emerson's Lab-mix, might lead back to him. Still, he couldn't bring himself to kill the dog.
When Agent Bridges asked whether he had the same equivocations about Ms. Emerson, Mr. Hilton described the experience as "surreal."
"It was hard," Mr. Hilton told the investigator. "You gotta remember we had spent several good days together."