The tragic stabbing that occurred on the Appalachian Trail on May 11 left one man dead and one woman critically injured. Since the trail’s completion in 1937, there have been remarkably few (less than 10) murders on the Appalachian Trail. Its long 80+ year history has proven that the AT is a safe environment to enjoy God’s creation. When a murder does occur, it brings sadness and sobriety to the entire hiking community. The next three posts on this blog will attempt to share the facts of the situation and not to sensationalize this tragic situation. This post will focus on the accused murderer, the next on the victim who died, and the last on the victim who escaped and survived.
James Louis Jordan, trail name “Sovereign,” has been charged by federal authorities with one count of murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder following an attack on the early morning of May 11 near the Smyth-Wythe county line on the Appalachian Trail.
Jordan is last known to have lived in West Yarmouth, Massachusetts, a community of about 6,000 in Cape Cod, where he accumulated an extensive criminal record. On June 1, 2013, Jordan was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and trespassing. Another incident of bizarre behavior took place later in 2013 in Barnstable at Cape Cod Hospital when Jordan was delirious and was yelling, screaming and claiming that the staff was trying to give him a lethal injection. On June 9, 2016, Jordan found himself facing yet another criminal complaint. The Lawrence Police Department in Massachusetts (about 1 ¾ hour drive north of West Yarmouth) charged Jordan with possession of a stolen car.
This murder case on the Appalachian Trail is rather unique from previous violent deaths – it was preceded by six weeks of complaints about Jordan’s behavior and the hiking community was well aware of this man’s strange behavior. Brian King, the publisher at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and management of the trail), shared that the ATC was well aware of the recurring complaints about Jordan and had been urging hikers to contact local authorities or call 911 if he was a disruption on the trail. The organization had also asked its ridge runners (employees located along the trail to assist hikers and answer questions) to alert hikers to possible encounters with Jordan.
Jordan’s strange behavior was noted on the Appalachian Trail as early as April 2019. On April 22, authorities were called to a location along U.S. Highway 23 in Unicoi County, Tennessee, on the report of a suspicious person. Jordan appeared at a road crossing where trail angels (volunteer good Samaritans) were handing out food to thru-hikers. Jordan initiated a verbal argument with some of the backpackers, who then alerted authorities. Jordan was slurring his words and had trouble standing. He gave authorities a false name and birthday along with a fake ID. He appeared to be under the influence of intoxicants. Jordan was arrested by Deputy Ricky Dean Jr. after a search revealed marijuana and a 17-inch survival knife. That knife is being held in the evidence room at the Unicoi Sheriff’s Office. It’s unclear when or where Jordan purchased the knife used in the attack in May.
According to Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley, none of the hikers who had been assaulted by Jordan in the April incident were willing to press charges or testify in court, so Jordan was arrested only for the fake ID and drug charges. Jordan was booked into the Unicoi County jail and was later found guilty of criminal impersonation, public intoxication, and possession of Schedule VI drugs. He was released on probation on April 25 and ordered to stay off the trail.
After this Tennessee arrest in April, the word began to grow in the hiking community, through word of mouth and on social media that “Sovereign” was a strange character known for threatening hikers and aggressive behavior.
Odie Norman is the publisher of the Hiker Yearbook. Norman said he met Jordan, along with his dog in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, on May 3. Norman offered to buy him lunch and noticed right away that Sovereign was not in his right mind. According to the Washington Post, Sovereign told Norman that he was “on a mission to protect the mountain people from the infiltrators trying to steal their insurance.”
Early morning on May 5, Sovereign was seen in Bristol, Tennessee. He apparently stopped at the University C Mart around 1 a.m. The store’s owner, Mike Brown, told the Bristol Herald Courier that he was outside the store when he heard the sound of a can being kicked. He turned around and saw a dog wearing a service vest and then the dog’s owner – Jordan dressed in camouflage carrying a military backpack, a fishing pole, and a guitar. Brown thought Jordan was a veteran due to a tattoo on his arm. After Jordan said he was searching the dumpster for something to eat, Brown gave him a sandwich and a bottle of water.
The actual events leading to the deadly attack began on Friday, May 10 when Tigerlilly, a thru-hiker from Ohio, encountered Sovereign and his dog on the trail. She had just set up her tent off the trail and was hiking alone within the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in Smyth County, Virginia. Tigerlilly immediately felt uncomfortable in his presence and quickly but carefully retreated to her tent. After a short time, Sovereign continued hiking north along the trail. He then approached four hikers on the trail.
According to those hikers, he was acting disturbed and unstable. He was playing his guitar and singing to himself around the campfire. After nightfall, Jordan began randomly approaching the hikers’ tents, making noises and threatening the hikers. He spoke to the hikers through their tents and threatened to pour gasoline on their tents and burn them to death. At that point, all four hikers decided to break camp and move on to a safer location. Sovereign confronted them with a knife. Two of the hikers ran north on the trail and successfully escaped. They called 911 at 2:30 am, reporting that they were being chased with a man with a knife.
The other two hikers were attacked by Sovereign. Both were stabbed. One managed to escape and one was killed on the trail (their stories will be shared in future posts).
According to online news sources, at about 6:14 a.m., the Wythe County Sheriff’s Office tactical team entered the campsite where the attack occurred. The team initially located Jordan’s dog. Officers took Jordan into custody observing bloodstains on his clothing. The tactical team discovered the body of the fallen hiker along with a large knife, believed to be the murder weapon, in close proximity to the victim’s body. Jordan’s dog was taken to the animal shelter in Wythe County.
Both the female stabbing victim and the two hikers who fled from Jordan identified him as the attacker. The sheriff’s department, working in concert with the Virginia State Police, closed approximately 16 miles of trail to complete a crime-scene investigation. That section of the trail was reopened on Sunday, May 12.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Pamela Meade Sargent ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Jordan and he was found incompetent to stand trial “at this time.” The judge ordered James L. Jordan back into a mental health facility for further treatment, and she requested another report within four months
On July 8, based on the subsequent psychiatric report, Judge Sargent found Jordan “mentally incompetent for the charges against him to proceed at this time.” The Judge ordered him to be returned to a federal mental health facility for treatment and “to determine whether there is a substantial probability that in the foreseeable future the defendant will attain the capacity to permit the charges against him to proceed.”