A man who calls himself “Sovereign” was charged with attacking two Appalachian Trail hikers with a machete, killing one of them—just weeks after he pleaded guilty to threatening other trekkers and was set free, authorities said on Sunday.
James L. Jordan, 30, from West Yarmouth, Massachusetts, allegedly knifed an unidentified man and woman early Saturday morning in an isolated stretch of the 2,190-mile hiking trail that runs through Wythe County, Virginia. The man died and the woman was seriously wounded.
The U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Virginia called it a “senseless and brutal attack” but did not provide any other details. A criminal complaint will be filed Monday as Jordan makes his initial court appearance.
He faces one count of murder within the special maritime territorial jurisdiction of the United States and one count of assault with the intent to murder within the special maritime territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
Jordan has allegedly been menacing people on the trail, which is in the midst of its high season, for weeks.
“He was well-known,” said Brian King, a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which manages the trail through 14 states with two federal agencies. “The trail has always had a fantastic grapevine.”
Larry Smith, a hiker from Charleston, South Carolina, told The Daily Beast that he ran into Jordan at a trail shelter in Atkins, Virginia, in early April.
Smith said he’d gone to bed after feasting on hamburgers and beer with fellow hikers but awoke to someone entering the shelter and starting a fire at about 10 p.m.
“He was ranting and raving,” Smith said.
After disappearing upstairs for a moment, Smith added, the man returned, and said, “I’m gonna burn this shelter down.” When Smith asked if he was alright, the man jumped up on a table, threw his cigarette in Smith’s face, and challenged him to a fight.
Smith said when retreated to the parking lot to call 911, the man followed, then disappeared into the frigid night.
“At that time, I thought he was just another hiker who’d gotten drunk, or one of the locals who’d gotten a little drunk,” he added. But when another trail blogger posted Jordan’s mug shot a few weeks later, he realized that he “looked just like the guy” who had threatened to burn down the shelter.
On April 21, Unicoi County, Tennessee, Sheriff Mike Hensley raised the alarm about the erratic figure nicknamed Sovereign, writing that he “ran hikers out of shelters with a shovel” and “brandished a knife and machete and stated it was going to be a bad day for hikers.”
Several days later, Jordan was arrested after an altercation with hikers on the Tennessee/North Carolina border; police found he was carrying a knife with a 20-inch blade. He reportedly pleaded guilty to several charges, was sentenced to a fine, and was then released.
“When he was arrested a few weeks ago, the hikers did the right thing—they called 911 and went to the sheriff and got him arrested,” King said. “The problem is when you are thru-hiking, you are on a timetable, and they couldn’t or wouldn’t go in to testify, and that’s why he went through the system so fast.”
The Washington Post reported Jordan apparently resurfaced in Virginia and went after a group of four hikers camped out for the night. They fled, but the knife-wielding attacker caught up to two of them and began slashing away.
The woman “pretended to be dead and when [Jordan] walked away after his dog, she took off running,” Wythe County Sheriff Keith Dunagan told the newspaper. She managed to walk six miles and get help.
Deputies in Bland County, Virginia, began looking for the assailant, Sheriff Thomas Roseberry II told The Daily Beast. But it was deputies in Wythe County, reportedly following an SOS signal activated by the male victim before he died, who found Jordan and the knife.
“I'm very appreciative that they acted as quick as they did, and apprehended him as quickly as they did, and that no one else was hurt,” Roseberry said.
The Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia to Maine, and an estimated 2 million people hike at least part of it each year. At the moment, many thru-hikers—who try to go from end to end in one trip—would have been passing through the area where the murder took place.
”Everybody is sad and sick to their stomach,” King said. “But the message is that this is rare and an aberration. The trail is still a refuge, and you can’t guard against every evil in the world.”