The twisted, fatal journey of the accused Appalachian Trail killer
James Jordan ran, his feet pounding the dirt, his hunting knife ready. Ahead of him, prosecutors say, two frightened hikers barrelled down the narrow and twisting section of the Appalachian Trail, out of Jordan’s world and into the backcountry of Wythe County, Va.
Jordan stopped and turned. Crawfish Valley spread out below him, dense stands of poplars, oaks, white pines, and rhododendron thickets, the nearest overgrown service road miles away. He headed back toward the campsite. He wasn’t finished.
For weeks, he had stalked the trail with his dog, Felicia, his beloved and only companion. He called himself Sovereign, “the captain of the hit squad,” and when he looked into the eyes of the hikers he encountered, he seemed very far away.
Back home in New England, where Jordan grew up, the friends who had filled the void left by his broken family might have recognized what was happening. To them, 30-year-old Jordan was JJ: childish and searching, damaged and vulnerable to delusions. When his paranoia flared, his pupils would dilate and he would slip into what a close friend called “the shimmer,” a terrifying plane somewhere beyond reality where ravens swooped and the government conducted experiments and incinerated bodies.
His whole life, he had evaded treatment for his mental ills. He signed himself out of hospitals and refused medication. His crimes were never serious enough to lock him up for long. The last chance to stop him had come in April, when police in Tennessee arrested him, slurring and stumbling and armed. But they, too, had failed to see the danger and released him days later.
And so, on the night of May 10, Jordan allegedly prowled among the campers on the Appalachian Trail, threatening to pour gasoline on their tents and burn them to death. He chased two hikers away, and then returned.
Back at the campsite, he found Ronald Sanchez Jr., an Army veteran with PTSD who had come to the trail hoping to find a way out of his dark memories. The two men fought, prosecutors say. Jordan raised his knife.
. . .
Long before Jordan set out on the Appalachian Trail as Sovereign, his life was grim and volatile, and he was alone.
He was the baby whose father once threatened to chop up his mother; the boy who fell asleep to his TV playing “Animal Planet’’ because he was afraid of the dark; the teenager booted from his house in the middle of the night, sleeping in the dugout of a baseball diamond; the young man searching for a stranger to beat, snarling: “I just hate the world.”
He was a hazard in plain view, a long, loud cry for help that was never really answered. This portrait of his unraveling is based on interviews with more than 20 people who knew Jordan: family members, close friends, former neighbors, and traveling companions. It draws on messages Jordan wrote, on his own narrative of his travels posted across social media, and on court records, including some from federal court, where Jordan is being held on a murder charge.
What emerges is the story a man trapped and tormented by his own mind, whose efforts to escape his troubles led him out into nature and, ultimately, onto the Appalachian Trail, which runs 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. His transformation into the menacing Sovereign, say many who know him, was at once shocking and sadly predictable.
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 denies. Adults who knew Jordan then said he was sweet and fragile, a budding guitar player who seemed in search of structure.
He started drinking and using marijuana as a child. He didn’t seem to go to school regularly. By 13 or 14, he was arrested with a friend for breaking into a car and prosecuted in juvenile court.
Back home, neighbor Lynette Lopes could hear Jordan and his mother, Dale Wildes, fighting inside their apartment. Wildes didn’t force her son into treatment. Instead, Lopes said, she had him banned from her apartment by housing management.
“The mother couldn’t control him,” Lopes said. When Jordan was doing better, Wildes would let him back in, but she had to sneak him past management because of the ban, Lopes said.
No one was certain of exactly when Wildes picked up and moved to Winooski, Vt., an old mill city near Burlington, and no one knew how long afterward Jordan followed, though most people estimated he was around 16 years old.
Those who lived in the ring of squat brick-and-siding apartments where the family settled remember the screaming from behind the door at Number 3.
. . .
The housing complex of 16 apartments looks out onto cracked blacktop, a threadbare place on a dead-end street. Residents recalled Jordan as a teenager with close-cropped hair and baggy jeans, spilling out of his family’s apartment at all hours, sometimes furious, sometimes dejected, trudging off to find a place to sleep under the stars.
“He was a lost kid from way back,” said Marcy Ryan, who lived next door.
The first time Ryan met Jordan, he was crowing about a burglary he’d committed, showing off the broken ankle he’d gotten as he jumped from the second-story window to escape the homeowner. Later, Ryan would hear Jordan’s shouts from inside the home: “I can do what I want and you can’t stop me!”
Jordan’s younger brother, Dustin Wildes, said Jordan trashed their house and refused to seek counseling. “He was and is to this day insane and just a terrible person,” he wrote in a Facebook message to a reporter. “[My mother] tried and tried but only so much you can do before someone becomes a lost cause.”
Away from his family, Jordan could be gentle. He was close with another teenager in the complex, and the boy’s mother took him in. The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Jordan’s family, said that the more time she spent with Jordan, the more she realized how little he had.
She would cook for him — standard dishes like mashed potatoes and meatloaf — and he would tell her he’d never had them before. She couldn’t understand it, until she realized no one else cooked him full meals; he ate ingredients.
Most heartbreaking, the woman said: the way Jordan would drape his arm across her shoulders and tell her, “I love you, Ma.” She would reply, “I love you too, kid.”
But his home life seethed, and Jordan grew more erratic. His hair hung long and shaggy and he started to paint his nails black. He began selling marijuana, and took to walking around Winooski at night, saying he wanted to beat someone up, said a friend from the time, who asked to be identified only as Stephen for fear of retaliation.
One of the last times Stephen hung out with Jordan, they walked with a group through the woods and down to a pond. Jordan walked to the water’s edge and scooped up a frog.
He put the frog on the ground, and he stomped it dead, Stephen said. Then James Jordan took out his switchblade and tore the animal apart.
. . .
Finally, neighbors said, Dale Wildes got her son a tent and sent him out into the world.
Jordan floated between Vermont and Cape Cod, selling drugs, according to friends. He could be strange: He would get fixated on escape routes from wherever he was or on the idea that people were talking about him. And he was quick to anger. He was obviously troubled. But until the winter of 2011, just before his 22nd birthday, his friends figured — that was just JJ.
Then, one morning in January, police in Shelburne, Vt., found him lying on the floor of a Days Inn that he had refused to check out of. He had piled his belongings on a table and was talking to himself.
Like so many of Jordan’s interactions with police, this was a nuisance call. Officers just wanted him to leave, according to the police report, until Jordan volunteered that he had a pound of marijuana in his car. He had also pilfered a cellphone from the front desk, he offered.
The officers let him return the phone, but arrested him for the pot. He pleaded guilty, according to court documents, and was sentenced to a few days behind bars.
He never went back for his car. Instead, he showed up at the home of the woman who had taken him in as a teenager in Winooski, babbling about ravens and gods and devils.
She and her husband took him to the University of Vermont Medical Center, she said, and later he was transferred to another inpatient facility. But he signed himself out of treatment, she said, and disappeared.
His longtime friend Marguerite Tynan, 32, found him some days later, walking down the street in Cape Cod, his pupils dilated, rambling incoherently in a blend of his wild tales and lyrics from a Lil Wayne song.
“It was like he was speaking a different language,” said Tynan, who has known Jordan since he was a teenager and repeatedly tried to get him help.
He told Tynan and other friends he was bipolar. He said he had been prescribed medication, but it made him feel like a zombie. Tynan remembers sitting at the kitchen table with Jordan as he cried and begged her, “Please don’t make me take them anymore.”
He stayed with Tynan and her ex-boyfriend for months, and she tried to soothe him while he ranted about a complicated matrix of conspirators. He was convinced that her ex was incinerating corpses at his restaurant job on behalf of the government; he believed his medication was a governmental plot to silence him; he tried to bury bullets in the backyard to keep them hidden, but close. His delusions were vague and terrifying, and populated by the people he saw around him. He talked with urgency, and grew frustrated when she didn’t understand.
“He thinks he’s seeing something, another layer that’s not always clearly there,” said Tynan. “Like he’s seeing what’s really real now. Like a door opened up.”
She called that world “the shimmer.”
Slowly, Jordan recovered himself. But he said he could no longer bear the smallness of his life, contained entirely within Cape Cod and Winooski. In the summer of 2011, Tynan said, he started hitchhiking, heading for Florida and then across the bottom of the United States to California.
Suddenly, briefly, he seemed to find happiness.
. . .
Jordan slept in the wilderness. He watched a moose run through the forest. He drank fresh spring water straight from the source. For a time, Tynan said, the road seemed to be better medication than his pills.
“I saw dope-ass scenery,” he would tell her.
But he couldn’t escape his racing mind. In June 2013, a year and a half after he took to the open road, he was arrested three times in quick succession in Barnstable County: for staggering shirtless down the middle of Route 28 and fleeing police while screaming incoherently; for fighting staff at Cape Cod Hospital and insisting they were trying to give him a lethal injection; and, the next day, for walking naked near Cape Cod Airfield. A judge ordered a mental health evaluation, but Jordan was found to be competent and released, according to court documents. An audio recording of the court session where his mental health was discussed has been destroyed.
He wrote on Facebook shortly afterward: “extreme apathy and empathy has pushed me on the edge of existential nihilism the wolf in me barely has tears left and is close to empty.”
His cases were continued without a finding, and he was ordered to obtain counseling in Vermont. Instead, he traveled to Florida, where he was again arrested and convicted, this time for stealing $6.98 worth of chicken and soda from a Publix, according to a police report.
Jordan stopped showing up to court in Massachusetts altogether. Friends tried to convince him to take medication or seek treatment. At least once, Tynan thought, he was hospitalized again, but he resisted both medicine and authority.
Instead, he kept moving, from state to state, hooking up with a group of fellow travelers who held regular gatherings in forests across the country. He played his guitar on the street for money, and put songs he recorded online, his voice warbling and muffled: “This world, this world, is a beautiful prison. . . .”
By February of this year, Jordan appeared deep in another bout of paranoia, when he and his dog, Felicia, attended an Ocala, Fla., “Rainbow Gathering” — a congregation of travelers celebrating peace and love. There, he became convinced his food was being dosed with “research chemicals,” said Haley Rose, 19, who spent much of the gathering with him. He picked fights, and he was deeply afraid that he was going to be attacked, Rose said.
“He was petrified,” Rose said. “He was so far gone.”
Weeks later, he got a message from his younger brother, Dustin: Their mother was dying of lung cancer. He had to come home.
“It’s shitty,” Jordan wrote back, Dustin said. “Have a nice life.”
Their mother died on March 2. Jordan didn’t show up for the funeral, Dustin said.
Instead, by April, Jordan was out on the Appalachian Trail in Tennessee, in cargo pants and heavy boots with only a tarp for a tent, his dog at his side. He brandished a knife, hissed at hikers, and spent nights screaming while other campers hid in their tents. “Do you want to [expletive] die?” he bellowed one night, according to two hikers who encountered him.
Police in Unicoi County, Tenn., arrested him on April 22 after the hikers reported the threats. Officers confiscated a 17-inch knife and charged him with drug and alcohol offenses, but he was released on probation seven days later. Jordan returned to the trail.
Out there on the winding path, closer every day, was Ronald Sanchez Jr., tough and hopeful and kind and aching, deep into his own journey.
Sanchez, 43, had fought in Iraq, and come back wounded in body and mind, said his former wife, Elizabeth Sanchez. He didn’t like to talk about it. He didn’t like to be around people, wouldn’t even go to the grocery store in the daytime. For Sanchez, as for Jordan, nature offered stillness and calm. Out on the trail, he did tai chi to heal his throbbing knees. He opened up about his friends killed in combat. He was given the trail name “Stronghold,” and told his ex-wife he’d found peace and clarity.
By May 10, Sanchez had hooked up with three other hikers. At some point that day, prosecutors say, the group ran into a shaggy man playing his guitar and calling himself Sovereign. They kept moving. Night fell.
. . .
Now in the darkness, back at the campsite where he had returned from his chase and confronted Sanchez, Jordan swung his hunting knife again and again, prosecutors say. He slashed at Sanchez until he fell.
A woman who was with Sanchez ran, then spun and put up her hands in surrender. Jordan attacked, prosecutors say, stabbing her until she pretended to die. When Jordan left to find his dog, she fled.
When the Wythe County Tactical Team finally made the 5-mile hike through Crawfish Valley to reach the trail, it was almost dawn. They found two petrified campers, said Chief Deputy Charles Foster, who told officers they heard a scream around 1 a.m. and were too afraid to leave their tent. Around 4 a.m., a voice from outside had requested a flashlight. The campers had unzipped just far enough to deliver it into a waiting hand.
The tactical team kept moving. A dog ran down the path. The officers raised their weapons.
In the lights fixed to their AR-15s, they could just make out Jordan’s silhouette, half-hidden behind a patch of mountain laurel. He had been just yards away from the couple in their tent, silent, watching.
He surrendered peacefully, Foster said. Nearby, officers found a knife and the body of Robert Sanchez Jr.
“I’m glad you got here just in time,” Jordan told police. “Somebody was just standing over my head with a rock.”
As Foster and another officer walked him the 5 miles back to the road, Jordan was quiet. He was staring straight ahead. Like none of them were there at all.
Jeremiah Manion and John R. Ellement of the Globe staff, and Globe correspondent Breanne Kovatch contributed to this report. Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.