He was nicknamed “Sovereign,” and he had been terrorizing hikers on the Appalachian Trail with a knife so large it looked like a machete. For the past several weeks, hikers who had run into him posted warnings on social media or called the police.
But neither the warnings nor the authorities prevented James L. Jordan from stabbing to death one hiker and severely wounding another after they set up camp in rural Virginia on Friday night, officials said.
A 30-year-old from West Yarmouth, he has a history of arrests for unstable and erratic behavior, including an attack on staff at Cape Cod Hospital in 2013.
The brutal slaying in southwestern Virginia sent waves of fear coursing through the close-knit community of Appalachian Trail hikers who had been raising alarms that just such an attack might be imminent. He had been arrested last month, then released on probation.
“The whole trail community is spooked out right now,” one woman, who said she and her friends were harassed by Jordan, wrote on Facebook.
Violent crime on the trail, which stretches 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia, is rare; the Appalachian Trail Conservancy says there have been nine hikers killed over the last 45 years, despite the 3 to 4 million who trek along it annually.
The man who called himself “Sovereign” was a notorious character, however.
In one YouTube video, a couple described running into the man late last month, as he hiked with a dog he had picked up on the trail. The couple say they heard the dog yelp and the man tell the animal, “It’s your fault I had to punch you because you showed your teeth at me.”
The man also threatened to rip the dog’s legs off and eat them, the couple say in the video.
“When you’re treating animals like that, it’s just a matter of time [before] you snap on a person,” the man in the video says.
The woman in the video says that the hiker they met “clearly does have some mental issues,” and that he told her “he’s off his medicines, so he’s very easily agitated.”
“He does need help just for his own sake, but also for the sake of all the other hikers out here,” the woman says in the video.
Authorities said Jordan was playing guitar and singing when he approached his victims on Friday in Virginia. Later that night, he stood outside their tents and threatened to pour gasoline on them and burn them to death, according to court records.
Fearing for their lives, the hikers — four in all — started to pack up and leave. But Jordan allegedly approached them with a knife and chased two of them away, authorities said.
When he returned to the campsite, two hikers were still there. Jordan argued with one of them and stabbed him repeatedly, killing him, according to court records. He then chased the other until she tired out and raised up her arms to surrender.
Jordan allegedly stabbed her, as well, severely wounding her, authorities said.
She escaped, authorities said, by lying on the ground and playing dead, and then hiked six miles through the night with the help of another couple who called 911.
Local sheriffs’ deputies found Jordan at the campsite at about 6:14 a.m. His clothing was blood-stained and a knife was found by the victim’s body, court records say.
The victims’ names have not been released.
During his initial appearance in US District Court in Abingdon, Va., on Monday, Jordan was ordered held without bail.
A judge also ordered him to undergo a psychological evaluation. Jordan’s public defender declined to comment by e-mail.
Jordan had been arrested just last month as anxiety spread throughout the region.
“I had people on the Internet sending me posts on him and people that have other business along the trail riding up in person to tell me about this guy,” said Mike Price, the owner of Mt. Rogers Outfitters, which sells hiking gear in Damascus, Va., by the Tennessee line.
Sheriff Mike Hensley of Unicoi County, Tenn., said Jordan was arrested April 22 after calls to police from hikers who reported being chased from their shelter with a shovel.
Other hikers called police after they said that Jordan blocked them from crossing a road by brandishing a machete and demanding that they give him a password.
Still others said Jordan told them, “It was going to be a bad day for hikers on the trail,” Hensley said.
Jordan was arrested, Hensley said, when volunteers giving food and water to hikers recognized him and called police.
Jordan, who was slurring his words, was charged with public intoxication, possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, and giving police a fake ID, Hensley said.
Deputies also confiscated the 17-inch knife.
Jordan was released on probation seven days later, on April 29, after paying fines and fees and being ordered by a judge to stay away from the Appalachian Trail, Hensley said.
The sheriff said authorities could not press more serious charges against Jordan because the hikers who were threatened did not want to leave the trail and go to court.
“I did everything in my power as sheriff to get him off the trail — and I did,” Hensley said. “But that’s all I can do. I really hate that this happened.”
According to Massachusetts court and police reports, Jordan lived in West Yarmouth between 2007 and 2013 and was arrested three times in June 2013. In one incident, Jordan allegedly fought with staff at Cape Cod Hospital, where he was undergoing an evaluation for an unspecified condition.
As security was escorting him to an observation room, Jordan ran into the radiology department, where he entered a closet and began destroying whatever he found inside, police wrote.
At least three hospital staffers reportedly were injured when they struggled to get Jordan under control.
“Jordan was making statements that they were trying to give him a lethal injection,” police wrote. Jordan was charged with assault and battery and disorderly conduct.
One day later, Barnstable police found Jordan around 5:15 p.m. walking along Route 149, where residents had reported seeing a naked man in their backyards.
Jordan was found naked except for a sheet draped over his shoulders, and he was charged with open and gross lewdness and being a disorderly person.
He listed Yarmouth for his address, records show.
In a third incident that month, Jordan was spotted at around 1 a.m., staggering down the middle of Route 28, shirtless and carrying a rubber ball.
Police cornered him in a McDonald’s and used pepper spray on him. Jordan “was sweating profusely, yelling incoherently, pacing back and forth, flexing his muscles, and clenching his fists,” police wrote. He told police he lived in Winooski, Vt..
Court records suggest that Jordan underwent a brief mental health evaluation on June 10, 2013, and was found to be competent and placed on pretrial probation.
Jordan stopped contacting probation in 2014 and was the subject of an arrest warrant until June 2016, when he apparently made contact with the court system and the warrant was canceled.
One week later, a new arrest warrant was issued when Jordan failed to comply with probation rules, records show. Since June 2016, a warrant has been outstanding for his arrest in Massachusetts, records show.