The Cape Cod-born hiker who stalked Appalachian Trail travelers in Virginia two years ago has been found not guilty by reason of insanity for a knife attack that killed an Iraq War veteran and grievously wounded a Canadian woman in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.
On Thursday, a federal judge accepted a plea agreement in the case of James L. Jordan, 32, who was known as “Sovereign” when he hiked the Appalachian Trail through Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia in the spring of 2019, court records show.
As part of the agreement, Jordan admitted to killing Ronald S. Sanchez Jr., 43, and attacking Kirby Morrill, who played dead after being stabbed and beaten on the head on May 10, 2019. Jordan also said he assaulted a married couple who was camping with Sanchez and Morrill. The couple ran from Jordan as he pursued them with a knife, court records show.
Two forensic psychologists who examined Jordan concluded that he suffered from schizoaffective disorder and acute psychotic symptoms at the time of the attacks and was “unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his acts,” according to documents filed in court by Jordan, his lawyers, and federal prosecutors.
US District Court Judge James P. Jones agreed to find Jordan not guilty by reason of insanity on all charges and ordered him to be committed until he is considered to recovered from his “mental disease or defect” and no longer poses a “substantial risk” of causing bodily harm or property damage.
Jones’s order didn’t specify where Jordan will be committed, but a statement from his defense attorneys said he will be in a psychiatric institution.
“Mr. Jordan is deeply remorseful for the profound sorrow he has caused. He regrets that his lifelong battle with mental illness ultimately resulted in this trauma and loss for innocent hikers and their families,” his lawyers said in their statement. “Most importantly, he would like the victims and the family of Mr. Sanchez to know that he thinks about the damage he caused every day and that he would do anything to change the past if he could.”
A spokesman for the office of Acting US Attorney Daniel P. Bubar in the Western District of Virginia declined to comment Friday.
In written statements filed in court, two of Sanchez’s sisters said they have tried to picture their brother dying in the wilderness.
Brenda Sanchez Loera recalled accessing information from a GPS device her brother wore to track his progress on the trail.
“The last day I looked at the GPS, I noticed something was wrong because his GPS was not moving. Deep in my heart I was wondering why,” she wrote. “I am sad to always think that my brother was stabbed out in the middle of nowhere and looking up into the stars in the sky, knowing he was dying.”
Another sister, Jayme Miller, said Sanchez served in the military for more than 20 years, but was killed on US soil.
“What gets me the most is wondering how my sweet brother took his last breath,” Miller wrote. “I can’t imagine being stabbed multiple times and then left there in the dark, cold wilderness to bleed to death.”
Jordan spent his childhood living with his mother and younger brother in low-income housing on Cape Cod. He didn’t know his father, who died of a drug overdose when he was 6. His mother drank heavily, friends and neighbors say, and allowed Jordan to wander without supervision, staying days at a time with friends, an account that Jordan’s brother has denied. Adults who knew Jordan then said he was sweet and fragile, a budding guitar player who seemed in search of structure.
Jordan’s victims had learned about him though social media posts that warned he had been threatening other Appalachian Trail hikers in Tennessee, where he was arrested in April 2019 for drug possession, criminal impersonation, and public intoxication, court records show. He was released on probation shortly after his arrest.
On the night of the deadly attack, Jordan set up camp near Sanchez, Morrill, and the married couple, Gina and Jason Hribik, spending the evening singing “incoherently,” conversing with his dog, Felicia, and threatening the hikers, according to a statement of the case.
As midnight approached, the hikers’ fear of Jordan made them abandon their campsite. As they were leaving, Jordan approached the Hribiks, brandishing a knife, and asked, “Why are you hunting me?” the statement said. The couple ran about four miles and called 911 from a road crossing.
Jordan then confronted Morrill and Sanchez, told them he was being “hunted,” and accused Sanchez of hitting him in the head with a rock, the statement said. Sanchez denied the accusation and tried to calm Jordan, who advanced toward him with a knife. Morrill told investigators she saw Jordan stab Sanchez, who fell to the ground. She said she then ran away, court records show.
Jordan caught up to Morrill, who turned to face him and raised her hands as if to surrender. That’s when Jordan began stabbing and beating her, court records show. He stopped after she fell to the ground and played dead.
Morrill, 30, wrote in a statement to the court that she is haunted by Jordan’s actions, and recalled how he transformed from a “bewildered, confused man” to a “violent animal.”
“I will never forgive myself for not trying to go to Ron before making my way out of the forest,” she wrote “I wish I had held his hand. I wish I had told him I was going to find help. I wish I had made sure he knew he wasn’t alone.”