A Massachusetts man faces federal charges in the brutal attack Saturday on two Appalachian Trail hikers that left a man dead and a woman hospitalized with severe stab wounds, authorities said Sunday.
James Louis Jordan, 30, was arrested early Saturday after Wythe County sheriff’s deputies located him along the trail in southwestern Virginia, by tracking an SOS signal triggered by one of the victims, officials said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia said in a statement Sunday that Jordan, of West Yarmouth, Massachusetts, is charged with murder and assault with intent to murder in connection with the attack.
Federal charges against Jordan will be officially filed Monday morning in U.S. District Court in Abingdon, the release said. His initial court appearance also is scheduled for Monday.
“The whole Appalachian Trail community of hikers and volunteers is profoundly sickened by the horrific and deadly attack Saturday morning,” said Suzanne Dixon, president of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
The names of the victims have not been released, but Wythe County Sheriff Keith Dunagan said no one involved was local.
It is high season for “through-hikers” traveling the length of the famed scenic trail, which stretches along 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine, and has a short stretch through the western tip of Wythe County. Hikers typically begin around spring and trek north.
The one-mile length of the trail that passes through Wythe County is extremely rural. It runs adjacent to Interstate 81 and is full of hikers this time of year, authorities said.
Many hikers begin their trek in Georgia in March and early spring and would have traveled 500 miles by the time they reached southwestern Virginia, said Brian King, a spokesman for the Conservancy.
Dunagan’s deputies were the first to encounter Jordan, several yards from the scene of Saturday’s attack.
It had been reported that a man wielding a large knife, accompanied by a dog, had threatened a group of four hikers camped out late Friday night.
Jordan allegedly pursued two of the hikers, who fled north, but they eluded him. Those two reached sheriff’s deputies in nearby Bland County and reported the nighttime attack, authorities said.
The other two hikers fled south but were unable to escape, and Jordan allegedly chased and caught up with them, leading to the attack, authorities said.
Dunagan said the male victim managed to trigger an SOS signal on his phone, and the mobile service provider alerted deputies to his location, just north of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.
The woman — who suffered defensive wounds and was severely injured by the stabbing — escaped.
“She pretended to be dead and when [Jordan] walked away after his dog, she took off running,” Dunagan said.
The woman found help in another group of hikers she encountered 6 miles away in Smyth County and was taken to the nearest trauma center, the sheriff said.
The Wythe County Sheriff’s Office tactical team traveled 4 miles into the woods to locate the wounded man’s SOS signal. They initially came across walkers who described a knife-wielding man known as “Sovereign” who roamed the trail with a dog.
While authorities were talking to the group, a dog ambled over to the camp. Deputies followed the animal, who led them back to Jordan, and he was taken into custody without incident.
Investigators later found a 20-inch knife nearby along the trail and soon thereafter, discovered the male victim.
The trail was closed Saturday from the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area headquarters to near Groseclose — an approximately 24-mile stretch, according to a post from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Facebook page. The trail since has reopened.
“I commend local law enforcement in Wythe and Smyth Counties for mobilizing successful rescue and tactical operations in this remote region,” U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said in the release. “Thanks to their efforts, the suspect was safely apprehended and a seriously wounded victim received critical medical care. We will continue to work with our state and local partners to bring the perpetrator of this senseless and brutal attack to justice.”
Jordan, who authorities think is “Sovereign,” was well known to the community of hikers on the trail. Recent news reports of incidents in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia describe a man threatening and chasing other hikers with a machete or large knife.
King, of the trail conservancy, said they had heard of the man through alerts shared between hikers and on Trek, a well-read blog that posts frequent updates about life on the Appalachian Trail.
“He had a reputation because of his belligerence with other hikers in Tennessee and Georgia,” King said. “With smartphones, word gets around very quickly.”
In late April, Jordan pleaded guilty to charges of drug possession and criminal impersonation (for giving deputies a fake ID), stemming from a confrontation with a group of hikers in Unicoi County, Tennessee, near the North Carolina border. He was sentenced to probation, fined and released from custody.
Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said Sunday that Jordan had been causing problems in different communities along the trail, running people out of hostels and threatening hikers with violence.
Witnesses related that Jordan had said: “It would be a bad day for hikers on the trail.”
Hensley said he knew Jordan was a threat, but hikers refused to press assault charges and testify against him in court. So his deputies charged him with what they could.
“I did everything in my power to get this guy off the trail,” Hensley said Sunday. “And I took him off the trail, I did. But the courts deemed something else.
“We have never had but just few instances concerning the Appalachian Trail and I take it very seriously,” he said. “I am an outdoorsman and a country boy, I love this trail and these mountains. I’ve been active in supporting and protecting the people of the trail all my life.”
Odie Norman, publisher of the Hiker Yearbook, said he met Jordan shortly after his Tennessee arrest. He had been tracking the reports about a man and his dog, interviewing hikers on video to post online and collecting information to report.
He thinks Jordan first appeared on the trail in Hot Springs, North Carolina, where he allegedly pulled a knife on other hikers at a shelter commonly used by trail walkers.
“I knew that it was getting dangerous for people on the trail and it was getting dangerous for him,” Norman said in a telephone interview Sunday. “He was scaring a lot of people and there was a lot of misinformation going around about him. People were in defense mode when they saw him.”
Norman said he met Jordan in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, on May 3, and offered to buy him lunch. He said it was clear to him Jordan was mentally ill.
Jordan told him he was “on a mission to protect the mountain people from the infiltrators trying to steal their insurance,” Norman said. “He said the mountain people are good people but at night, the infiltrators would come. His mind was not normal.”
Norman soon learned that Jordan’s dog was a service animal and that he had family in Maryland. He said he decided to drive Jordan about 30 miles northwest to Johnson City, Tennessee, and bought him a bus ticket. He said he wasn’t sure what other options he had.
“I was scared. My plan was to get him off the trail and send him somewhere else,” Norman said. “Now I wish that there could’ve been a place for him to check into for a mental assessment. He had at least one full contact with police and that did nothing.”
Appalachian Trail hikers are a well-connected community of athletes, enthusiasts and outdoorspeople who stay in close online contact, Norman said. His two videos about Jordan on Facebook garnered a combined 26,000 views and his website chronicles hiker life with photographs from nearly 2,000 people.
“Even though this happened, it’s still one trail. It’s the same people. It’s the world’s longest skinniest community,” he said. “We knew. We knew to avoid him.”
Homicides are rare on the Appalachian Trail, according to statistics; the last time the trail was the scene of a homicide was in 2011 when a man was found strangled in Amherst County. That case remains unsolved. More than 3 million people hike the trail each year, and most hikers take care of one another, King said.
“It’s a community like any other. Anyone who loves the trail feels like this is an attack on them,” he said. “The trail is extremely safe, but it’s not absolutely safe.”
Roanoke Times reporter Tiffany Holland contributed to this report.
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