Firsthand accounts and court records detail how two men — a 43-year-old Army veteran from Oklahoma and a troubled 30-year-old from Massachusetts — crossed paths along the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia in a terrifying ordeal that left one dead.
James Louis Jordan, of West Yarmouth, Massachusetts, has been charged by federal authorities with one count of murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder following an attack reported the morning of May 11 near the Smyth-Wythe county line.
The frightening encounter authorities said Jordan had with a group of hikers left Ronald Sanchez Jr. dead.
Before attempting a through-hike on the Appalachian Trail, Specialist Sanchez had served as a combat engineer in the Army from April 1995 to December 2011, according to William J. Sharp, an Army public affairs officer. Sharp said Sanchez was deployed to Iraq three times, from February 2003 to March 2004, March 2005 to January 2006, and January 2007 to April 2008.
Sanchez’s sister told CNN earlier this week that Sanchez’s hike on the trail was among the outdoor activities that helped lift him from the “darkness” of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that followed his deployments.
For Sanchez, cycling, and other outdoor activities, was an escape. After serving, Sanchez would lock himself in a room, rarely going outside, according to an article published in 2018 in the Oklahoman newspaper. When he had to shop for food, he would do it late at night to avoid being around other people.
Sanchez told the newspaper that recreation therapy programs at the Veterans Administration helped him and the cycling program broadened his horizons.
“These programs at the VA just kind of opened it up for me,” Sanchez told the Oklahoman. “Before the VA, my health was just going downhill. I sat around and ate junk food all the time. The VA was welcoming, and it’s been a good program for me. I tell everybody about it.”
Sanchez also became interested in hiking and was looking forward to trekking the Appalachian Trail.
“My husband and I met Ron back in January when we were all starting out,” said Kellie Robinson, who has been hiking with her husband, Steve, this year.
Robinson described Sanchez as a kind and gentle soul.
“The type of guy you immediately liked upon meeting him,” she said. “He radiated an inner strength. He talked to us about why he was out here. He talked about the adversity he overcame and the inner demons he held at bay. It’s why we named him Stronghold. It just fit.”
Robinson, one of many trail hikers mourning Sanchez’s death, said he wasn’t the type of person to give in and play the victim.
“That wasn’t who he was,” she said. “He faced his problems head on and dealt with them the best way he could. Others would have just laid down and given up. Not Stronghold. Ron just stood tough, weathered the storm and came out the other side stronger for it.”
The Robinsons knew Sanchez for just a few months, but he became a standard to aspire to, they said.
On the trail, aching knees led Sanchez to the Gooder Grove Hostel in Franklin, North Carolina.
“His suffering made him more compassionate than most people,” the hostel’s owner, Colin Zen Gooder, wrote on Facebook. “And it showed in the way he helped others in any way he could. He had such an effect on those around him that they told me they felt more at peace, the same peace he was searching for along the trail. And here he was bringing it to other people he met along the way.”
By mid-April, Sanchez made it to Damascus, Virginia, before he decided to call his girlfriend and told her he was ready to go home, said Brenda Kelley, according to Outside Magazine.
Kelley made a round trip to Virginia to take Sanchez back home, but days later, he was ready to return to the trail to continue his journey, the magazine reported. Kelley then returned Sanchez to Damascus.
Bob Walker, a section hiker from Maryland, told the Bristol Herald Courier in a telephone interview Friday that he met Sanchez on May 5 in Damascus, where they shared a room at the Woodchuck Hostel. Walker was undertaking a nine-day, 160-mile hike from Hampton, Tennessee, to Bland County, Virginia.
The two men enjoyed dinner together at a Damascus restaurant, and they chatted while preparing to embark on the trail.
“He was very open,” said Walker, explaining that Sanchez freely told him about his experiences of overcoming challenges. “He was getting stronger.”
Walker described Sanchez as caring, sweet and thoughtful.
“He was very concerned of people around him,” Walker said.
The two men left the hostel about the same time and crossed paths many times throughout the coming days.
“We were leapfrogging,” said Walker, adding that the pair spent the night at shelters on May 6 and May 7.
At Mount Rogers, Walker recalled hiking a side trail to the top of the mountain with Sanchez.
On the morning of May 8, Walker said he decided it was time to leave ahead of Sanchez. He said he typically tried to hike about 18-19 miles a day while Sanchez had a goal of 15 miles due to his condition.
On the evening of May 10, Jordan, who was on the trail alone, approached four hikers on the trail in Smyth County in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Abingdon, Virginia.
Jordan was known by the hikers as a suspicious person through social media after he had been arrested in April in Unicoi County, Tennessee, after authorities said he was threatening hikers. When he approached the hikers he was acting disturbed and unstable, playing his guitar and singing, the complaint states.
Later that evening, the group of hikers made camp in Wythe County. Jordan began randomly approaching the hikers’ tents, making noises and threatening the hikers, the complaint states. It says Jordan spoke to the hikers through their tents and threatened to pour gasoline on their tents and burn them to death.
The four hikers decided to pack up their things and leave the campsite. But as they tried to leave, Jordan approached them with a knife, the complaint states.
Two of the hikers, who have not been identified, ran and Jordan gave chase. Jordan soon returned to the campsite and then approached Sanchez and a female hiker, who has not been identified.
The woman later told authorities that Jordan began stabbing Sanchez. She watched as Sanchez fell to the ground, at which point she ran, the complaint states.
At 2:21 a.m., the International Emergency Response Coordination Center contacted Wythe County 911 and informed dispatchers they received an S.O.S. from a hiker.
The S.O.S. apparently came from Sanchez’s phone, the information states.
As the woman ran from the scene, she began to tire and Jordan managed to catch up to her. The complaint says Jordan began to stab her as she raised her arms as if she was trying to surrender. The woman fell to the ground and played dead, and Jordan left to find his dog, which he had been traveling with.
The woman ran down the trail toward Smyth County and received assistance from two hikers for an additional six miles. They then called 911.
At 3:12 a.m. on May 11, a woman called Wythe County 911 and advised she had been stabbed multiple times, and she was in the Davis Hollow section, according to information provided by the Wythe County Sheriff’s Office.
“She advised she was beaten and stabbed and played dead until he ran off looking for his dog and chasing other hikers,” the information states, adding that the woman referred to the man as “Sovereign.”
Within the next few hours, authorities found the injured woman, developed Jordan as a suspect and found Sanchez, who had been stabbed to death.
At about 6:14 a.m., the Wythe County Sheriff’s Office tactical team entered the campsite where the attack occurred. Officers took Jordan into custody after they first saw his dog. Jordan had some blood stains on his clothing, the complaint states.
Jordan was eventually taken to the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail in Abingdon, where he is being held without bail. He originally appeared in U.S. District Court with an attorney, and the judge ordered him to undergo an evaluation for competency.
According to a motion, Jordan has not sought an insanity defense.
Jordan’s dog was taken to the animal shelter in Wythe County, according to Wythe County Sheriff’s Office Major Anthony Cline.
Walker, who met Sanchez, said he later crossed paths with other hikers who had been woken in the middle of the night by law enforcement who were searching for possible victims. Walker said he wasn’t approached by authorities.
Brian King, a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, said the organization had heard about Jordan, who went by the trail name “Sovereign,” for weeks.
“This fellow was known on the trail,” said King, noting that other hikers had been warning about his behavior.
Walker, who completed his hike in Bland County and returned home, said he and Sanchez had heard about “Sovereign,” but they weren’t concerned. They were more worried about bears, which had been causing issues recently on the trail, than “Sovereign,” Walker said.
Dustin Rucker, a hiker who goes by the trail name “Honest Abe,” told the Smyth County News & Messenger that he wasn’t surprised Jordan was the suspect in the attack. He crossed paths with Jordan several times during a two-week period in April and described him as unsettling.
“There was just an eerie feeling about him,” Rucker told a reporter.
In a hail storm in early April, Rucker ducked into a shelter, but Jordan’s presence put him on edge.
“We were all on alert to him,” said Jim Ryan, a hiker who goes by “Puck Carrier.”
The hikers said they didn’t believe Jordan was actually traveling the trail so much as hanging out on it, saying he bounced around too much.
Trent’s Grocery in the Hollybrook community of Bland County keeps a logbook for hikers to sign as they pass through. On April 13, that logbook was signed by someone with the trail name “Sovereign.”
A store employee told the Bristol Herald Courier they had not yet been able to confirm “Sovereign” was the same person as the one arrested.
Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley alerted the public about Jordan on April 22. Hensley said his department received calls from hikers that said “Sovereign” threatened them on the trail head at Devils Fork and in Madison County, North Carolina.
Jordan was seen along Rector Trail Road entering the Appalachian Trail, Hensley said. The sheriff added that Jordan was with a pit bull and had a knife and machete.
“He has brandished the knife and machete at hikers,” Hensley wrote in a public Facebook post.
Hensley said Jordan ran hikers out of shelters with a shovel at Jerry’s Cabin, a shelter along the Appalachian Trail.
“Yesterday in Unicoi County, he brandished a knife and machete and stated it was going to be a bad day for hikers,” Hensley wrote.
Jordan was later arrested after authorities were called to a location along U.S. Highway 23 in Unicoi County on the report of a suspicious person. Deputy Ricky Dean Jr. wrote in a criminal complaint that Jordan gave him a false name and birthday and that he appeared to be under the influence of intoxicants.
“He was slurring his words, trouble standing to the point I allowed him to rest on the hood of my car,” the deputy wrote.
Dean searched Jordan and found marijuana and a large knife, the complaint states.
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.
“Done all I could on the charges we had,” Hensley later wrote. “The hikers that were assaulted wouldn’t press charges or come back to court.”
The sheriff added that his office did not return the knife to Jordan.
It’s not known whether any hikers were physically harmed in the Madison County and Unicoi County incidents.
Odie Norman, publisher of the Hiker Yearbook, told the Washington Post that he met Jordan shortly after his arrest in Unicoi County.
“I knew that it was getting dangerous for people on the trail, and it was getting dangerous for him,” Norman told the Post. “He was scaring a lot of people, and there was a lot of misinformation going around about him. People were in defense mode when they saw him.”
Norman said he met Jordan in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, on May 3 and offered to buy him lunch. He said it was clear to him that Jordan was mentally ill, and he told Norman that he was “on a mission to protect the mountain people from the infiltrators trying to steal their insurance,” according to the Post.
The man told the newspaper that he decided to drive Jordan to Johnson City, Tennessee, and bought him a bus ticket.
“I was scared. My plan was to get him off the trail and send him somewhere else,” Norman told the Post. “Now I wish that there could’ve been a place for him to check into for a mental assessment.”
On May 5, Jordan was seen in Bristol, Tennessee. He apparently stopped at the University C Mart at the corner of King College Road and Cedar Street around 1 a.m.
Mike Brown, the store’s owner, 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.
“I then saw the man dressed in camouflage,” said Brown, adding that the man, believed to be Jordan, was also carrying a military backpack, a fishing pole and a guitar.
Brown talked with the man and gave him a sandwich and a bottle of water after Jordan said he was searching the dumpster for something to eat. But Brown said the more they talked, the more he became concerned for his safety.
The store owner said Jordan talked about being an assassin and that his target drove a large white truck, similar to one that Brown had been driving.
Brown then called 911 and two Bristol, Tennessee, Police Department officers responded to the store.
Officer Eric Keller wrote in a report that he found Jordan lying on the floor with his dog in front of Simply Nails.
“I spoke with Jordan and asked him about the threatening comments, in which he replied that he was joking with him,” Keller wrote. “He was on private property and was advised of that. He did not appear to be under the influence of any intoxicant and remained on scene after our departure.”
Major Matt Austin said officers confirmed there were no warrants out for Jordan’s arrest, and they found no reason to detain him.
“I had the worst feeling about this man,” said Brown, adding that Jordan was gone the next morning when he returned to the store.
Although it has not been confirmed, an individual wrote on the Bristol Herald Courier’s Facebook page that Jordan was also spotted in early May camping out in the Exit 7 area near Interstate 81.
It’s not known how or when Jordan returned to the Appalachian Trail.
Trouble at home
Jordan is last known to have lived in West Yarmouth, Massachusetts, a community of about 6,000 in Cape Cod, where he has an extensive criminal history.
The man was previously charged in Barnstable District Court in three incidents that authorities said occurred during the first week of June 2013.
In one incident, on June 1, 2013, at 1:05 a.m., Jordan was arrested during a suspicious person investigation at a McDonald’s and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and trespassing, Cape Cod Today reported.
Another 2013 incident occurred in Barnstable at Cape Cod Hospital, where authorities said Jordan attacked staff. During the incident, Jordan was yelling, screaming and saying the staff was trying to give him a lethal injection, a police report stated, according to an article in the Cape Cod Times.
Information provided by the court clerk shows the cases were “continued without finding.” A representative at the district attorney’s office said Friday the cases were closed, and there are no active warrants.
The Lawrence Police Department in Massachusetts charged Jordan with possession of a stolen Buick on June 9, 2016, according to a criminal complaint. An officer said he saw the Buick and discovered it had been reported stolen.
Several officers stopped the vehicle, driven by Jordan, in a restaurant parking lot. The man told police the vehicle did not belong to him, but a “friend of a friend” let him borrow it. He was then advised it was reported stolen, and he was taken into custody, the complaint states.
The officer said he learned it had been stolen weeks earlier in Ossipee, New Hampshire.
Court records provided by Lawrence District Court show Jordan was listed as indigent, but was able to contribute to court costs. Records do not show the case was adjudicated.
Jordan previously lived with his family in Winooski, Vermont, which is listed in some court records.
His mother, Dale Ann (Burtis) Wildes, died on March 2 in Colchester, Vermont, according to an obituary. Family members did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
Authorities have not yet identified the woman injured in last weekend’s attack on the Appalachian Trail.
Hensley, Unicoi County’s sheriff, said the woman’s family contacted him following the attacks.
“They expressed their appreciation for my department’s efforts in getting the suspect off the trail, and stated they fully realize the limitations we encountered in our investigation, and know we done all we could do,” Hensley wrote on Facebook this past week. “They told me their daughter was with her husband and is expected to make a full recovery from her injuries.”
Many hikers affected by the attacks attended the annual Trail Days festival this weekend in Damascus, where the Appalachian Trail and Virginia Creeper Trail intersect.
On Wednesday, Norman shared a photograph of the “survivors” on the Hiker’s Yearbook Facebook page, which has been shared nearly 800 times.
“These are the feet of the 3 survivors, they are all doing well, a little broken, but nowhere near defeated,” Norman wrote. “They want to thank everyone in the hiking community for their love and support and let you guys know they are strong. Their collective message to the community is keep going, keep hiking and stay forever #ATstrong!!”
Norman asked the Herald Courier to respect the victims and their privacy.
“We are keeping ‘Stronghold’s’ family in our thoughts and prayers,” he said.
Cline, from the Wythe County Sheriff’s Office, confirmed that the female victim, who he declined to identify, had been released from the hospital.
Many people in the trail community, including the Robinsons, have been sharing photos and stories of Sanchez.
“We’re in contact with his girlfriend, and through her, his family,” Robinson said regarding a Reddit request for photos and stories. “I wanted to do something, anything for them, and collecting photos and stories was their request.”
Walker said he plans to return to the trail next year, likely in Bland County, to continue his journey. He’s hiked a total of about 1,000 miles over the years and continues at the same place he ends his hike each year.
“The AT is a special place, and it’s precious to those who use it,” Walker said. “I can’t imagine something like this happening again.”