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Police look for links in cases of missing hikers

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  • NEW: Investigators try to determine whether evidence links suspect to other crimes
  • Search teams plan to fan out over a larger area than they have previously covered
  • Roommate hoping for a "miracle" despite switch from rescue to recovery effort
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BLAIRSVILLE, Georgia (CNN) -- A man charged with kidnapping a missing hiker in Georgia is scheduled to make a court appearance Monday as investigators try to determine whether evidence links him to other crimes.

Meanwhile, search teams plan to fan out over a larger area Monday than they have previously covered, focusing on specific sites in five counties they identified after examining evidence. The sites range from the mountains of north Georgia to the suburbs of metro Atlanta.

Investigators have charged 61-year-old Gary Michael Hilton with kidnapping with intent to cause bodily injury to Meredith Emerson, a 24-year-old who vanished after venturing into the mountains with her dog.

Authorities arrested Hilton after finding blood-stained clothes, and they said Sunday that the chances are slim that Emerson is alive.

Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said law-enforcement officers and trained search crews will conduct a "target-specific search" of locations that investigators identified after examining "hundreds of pieces of evidence."

He also said investigators in Georgia were comparing notes with authorities in North Carolina to determine whether any evidence links Hilton to a similar case there.

"There are some similarities, but I am not in a position to discuss it further than that," he said.

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His comments were an apparent reference to the killings a few months ago of John and Irene Bryant, an elderly couple who were found dead after going for a hike in the North Carolina mountains.

Authorities searched for any signs of Emerson on Sunday in Forsyth County, Georgia, where the woman's dog was found in a grocery store parking lot three days after her disappearance.

They made a point to look behind churches as a result of a 2004 case in which someone apparently kidnapped a hairdresser in Forsyth County. Her remains were later found behind a church, said Capt. Frank Huggins of the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office.

There is no evidence to link the disappearance Patrice Endres, the hairdresser, to Emerson's case, but investigators looked behind churches out of an abundance of caution, Huggins told CNN.

Meanwhile, Emerson's relatives clung to hope despite the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's insistence that search-and-rescue efforts have given way to trying to find Emerson's body.

Emerson's mother is "focused on waiting and hoping that word comes soon" and on sharing "good memories of Meredith," a family friend, Peggy Bailey, said at a Sunday press conference.

Emerson's roommate, Julia Karrenbauer, said "you have to ... keep going" and that "there's always the possibility of a miracle, especially with Meredith." Video Watch Emerson's roommate describe the ordeal of waiting for word »

Investigators found Emerson's black leather wallet containing her identification cards in a convenience store trash bin in the Forsyth County city of Cumming. They also found blood-stained clothing consistent with what she had been wearing, according to a criminal warrant filed Saturday.

The QuikTrip Dumpster is next to a grocery store parking lot where Emerson's Labrador mix was found wandering Friday and 50 miles from Blood Mountain, where Emerson was last seen hiking on New Year's Day with her dog, the warrant said.

The warrant alleges that Hilton made a phone call Friday from a pay phone at the QuikTrip.

The animal was positively identified through an implanted microchip.

Police said Sunday that Hilton -- who was taken into custody Friday at a convenience store in suburban Atlanta -- would make his initial court appearance in Union County on Monday.

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When Hilton's 2001 minivan was searched, agents "determined that the rear seat belt had been cut out," the warrant said. "Hilton was attempting to vacuum the vehicle and wash portions of it with a bleach and water solution."

The warrant also alleges that Hilton attempted to use one of Emerson's credit cards at a Regions Bank Branch in Canton, Georgia, which is about 34 miles north of Atlanta. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Reggie Aqui contributed to this report.

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