Man who killed Army vet, stabbed woman on Appalachian Trail not guilty by reason of insanity

WYTHE COUNTY, Va. — A man who killed a U.S. Army veteran and stabbed a Canadian hiker on the Appalachian Trail in 2019 has been found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect and committed to a psychiatric hospital.

The judgment against James Louis Jordan, 32, of West Yarmouth, Massachusetts, was handed down Thursday in an Abingdon, Virginia, courtroom. Jordan fatally stabbed Ronald Sanchez Jr., 43, of Oklahoma City, on the trail early May 11, 2019, in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest.

Jordan, who went by the trail nickname “Sovereign,” also stabbed Kirby Morrill, 30, of New Brunswick, and threatened two other hikers. The trail, which extends from Georgia to Maine, sees more than two million visitors each year.

Two doctors from the University of Virginia Medical School told the court that they’d found that Jordan suffers from schizoaffective disorder and acute symptoms of psychosis. His illnesses were active at the time of the crimes and were sufficient to be considered a “severe mental disease or defect,” according to federal court records.

Jordan was at the time unable to appreciate the seriousness of his actions, the doctors concluded.

U.S. District Judge James P. Jones ordered Friday that Jordan be committed to a psychiatric facility “until he has recovered from his mental disease or defect to the extent that his release, or his conditional release, would no longer create a substantial risk of bodily injury to another or serious damage to property of another.”

‘Stronghold’

Heart-wrenching letters from Sanchez’s family, filed as victim impact statements with the court, beg the judge to ensure Jordan never leaves the hospital. Sanchez’s mother, Claudia Duncan, wrote that her family’s lives have been “shattered beyond words.”

“I can never be who I once was,” Duncan wrote. “My husband has lost the wife he once knew and my children lost the mother they once knew.

“I was thrown into a club no one wants to belong to: a club of grieving mothers.”

Sanchez’s family described the 16-year Army veteran, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after three tours in Iraq, as a kind and generous person who fought for years to come out from under the cloud of depression. Seeking peace through the nature of the Appalachian Trail, he was one of 5,000 hikers who’d registered for the hiking season, according to The Washington Post.

He registered early because he knew his bad knees, damaged by his time in the military, would mean he went at a slower pace than other hikers. Still, he made many friends along the way.

One of those friends gave Sanchez his trail nickname: “Stronghold,” because of the obstacles he overcame daily while hiking.

Sanchez’s stepfather wrote that when his knees forced him to take refuge for several weeks at a hostel, the owner needed to take care of some personal business. He trusted Sanchez to run the place while he was gone.

“Ronnie had a good and kind soul and was always ready to help, and it showed in his character,” his stepfather wrote.

Sanchez’s younger brother, Christian Duncan, wrote that his brother had made “leaps and bounds” since retiring from the service in 2010. Disabled by his injuries and his PTSD, he’d been working on his physical health and had become involved in a number of recreational activities through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The Ronald Sanchez fresh out of the Army and the Ronald Sanchez that was stolen from us were two totally different people,” his brother wrote. “People like Ronnie do not come around often. He always gave back more than he took and left places in better condition than when he arrived.”

Morrill wrote in her own victim impact statement that she has compassion for those with mental illness but has no compassion for Jordan. Many people are mentally ill, she said, but they are not violent or cruel.

“Mr. Jordan is a murderer,” Morrill wrote bluntly. “It is anguishing to have him labeled not guilty in any fashion, though I accept the legal ramifications of those words are very different from the effect they have on me.”

She begged the court to use whatever power it has left to “keep that man under lock and key,” even if he truly was unable to recognize his crimes and their impact.

“He has demonstrated that he is an unwavering danger to those around him, and I cannot bear the thought of him inflicting upon anyone else what he has on me. And on Ron,” Morrill wrote.

Jordan was charged with murder in Sanchez’s death, as well as attempted murder and assault with the intent to kill in the attack on Morrill. He was also charged with assault in connection with two other hikers who were threatened but uninjured.

‘The crazy guy with the knife’

The hikers on the trail May 10 knew Jordan when they saw him.

Less than three weeks before the fatal attack, he’d been arrested after threatening several hikers on the trail as he hiked through Tennessee and North Carolina.

In a Facebook post on April 21, the sheriff in Unicoi County, Tennessee, wrote that hikers at the trailhead at Devils Fork had reported being threatened by a man calling himself “Sovereign.” The man had also threatened hikers in Madison County, North Carolina, Sheriff Michael Hensley wrote.

Jordan, who was traveling with his pit bull, was armed with a machete and a knife, which he allegedly brandished at his fellow hikers.

Tennessee deputies caught up with Jordan in Unicoi County and arrested him. He was charged with aggravated assault, criminal impersonation, drug possession and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Federal court records indicate he pleaded guilty to all charges within days of his arrest. Released on probation, he made his way back to the Appalachian Trail.

That’s where he found Sanchez, Morrill and two other hikers on May 10. Morrill and the two other hikers, JH and GH, are referred to only by their initials in court records.

Morrill told The Canadian Press in December 2019 that she’d reached the quarter point in her 2,200-mile hike with no problems except for a bear stealing her food. She stopped at a restaurant where another hiker was going to meet her with more food.

While waiting, she spotted Jordan, who she referred to as “the crazy guy with the knife,” walking down the road. She knew who he was because a mobile app used by hikers had warned people about Jordan and described him and his dog.

“I left a note at the register at the restaurant to warn people. I figured my best bet was to get past him and continue on without having to see him again,” she told the Press.

That evening, Morrill chose a campsite in Wythe County with three other people: JH, GH and Sanchez. She knew Sanchez already because he’d helped her out during her encounter with the hungry bear.

“He was really comforting. He was a really great guy,” Morrill said of Sanchez. “I really appreciated him, so it was nice to see him at that campsite again.”

Later that night, however, Jordan showed up and made camp nearby.

Jordan was “acting disturbed and unstable,” the court records state. His state of mind appeared to deteriorate further as the night wore on.

“For example, (Jordan) talked to himself, played music and sang incoherently and conversed with his dog,” according to a statement of facts in the case.

Morrill, who said Jordan just wandered the campsite talking to himself, sang to himself by the fire for about 30 minutes.

“And then he came around to the tents threatening to kill us in a variety of ways and telling us why we deserved to die,” Morrill told the Press.

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Jordan, who spoke to the hikers through their tents, threatened to douse the tents in gasoline and burn the occupants to death, court records state.

By midnight, all four hikers had decided to get away from Jordan and began packing up their belongings. As JH and GH tried to leave, Jordan brandished a large knife.

“Why are you hunting me?” he asked them, according to the statement of facts.

The hikers tried to defuse the situation but Jordan continued to threaten them with the knife. They ran northbound on the trail, with Jordan in pursuit.

He gave up after about a quarter-mile to a half-mile, the document states.

JH and GH ran about four miles before reaching a road crossing, where they were able to call 911.

‘I tried not to breathe’

Meanwhile, Jordan went back to the campsite, where Sanchez and Morrill remained.

As they prepared to leave, Jordan made statements to Sanchez and Morrill about people “hunting” him, and he accused Sanchez of hitting him with a rock.

Sanchez denied hitting him and, like JH and GH before him, tried to defuse the situation. Jordan advanced on him with his knife.

Morrill, who had walked a few feet down the trail, turned to see if Sanchez was following.

“KM watched as (Jordan) stabbed Ronald Sanchez in the upper part of his body and stomach with the knife,” the statement of facts says. “KM saw (Sanchez) fall to the ground, at which point she turned and ran southbound on the Appalachian Trail.”

Jordan followed, chasing her down.

Morrill described what happened next.

“I was pinned. Because we had packed up and tried to get out of there with all our things, I had everything on me,” she told the Press in 2019. “I had a 30-something-pound pack on my back, and when he came at me, he came at my front, so I fell onto my back like a turtle, and he was on top of me.”

“There was nothing I could do.”

Jordan stabbed Morrill a total of nine times and caused more than three dozen cuts on her face, arms, legs and torso. Then he began beating her in the side of her head.

By that point, Morrill was playing dead.

“I held my breath and I held still,” she told the Press. “Eventually, he stopped, and he got up and stood over me for what felt like forever. I tried not to breathe.”

Jordan eventually ended the attack and went to find his dog, court records state.

Read the statement of facts in Jordan’s case below.

After Jordan was gone, Morrill, who did not realize how badly she’d been hurt, headed south on the trail toward a campsite over in Smyth County where she knew other hikers were camping. Along the way, she ran into a couple of people who helped her.

Morrill walked more than six miles to get help. Blood streamed down her face and her right arm would not work, she said.

“My left arm wasn’t working very well at all, and after I got up and started moving around, every time I took a step there was (blood) spurting from my leg,” she told the Press.

Along the way, she tried to patch the leg wound with duct tape but couldn’t. It took her three hours to get to the next camp.

Her call came into the Smyth County 911 center at 3:12 a.m., according to court records.

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About 15 minutes after Morrill reached safety, two other hikers camping back in the vicinity of the crime scene heard Jordan walking around their tent.

“I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything,” Jordan mumbled, according to the hikers.

The hikers, identified by the initials CB and CA, told authorities Jordan seemed to be talking to his dog.

“Are you scared?” he asked. “Yeah, I am too.”

Jordan at one point bumped into CB and CA’s tent. Telling them someone was trying to “bash his head in with a rock,” he asked for a flashlight. They gave him one and he left.

They never saw him outside the tent but witnessed his arrest by a Wythe County Sheriff’s Office tactical team nearly three hours later.

Jordan, whose clothes were bloodstained, was taken into custody near the campsite where he’d attacked Morrill and Sanchez. A knife was found near Sanchez’s body.

‘Haunted by Mr. Jordan’s actions’

Morrill was flown for treatment to Bristol Regional Medical Center in Bristol, Tennessee. The Press reported that it took about 50 staples and 10 sutures to close all her wounds.

It also took a lot of painful physical therapy and grueling exercise to regain feeling in and use of some of her muscles, particularly in her arms.

She addressed the physical toll the stabbing took in her victim’s impact statement to the court last week.

“I had never been stabbed before, but now that Mr. Jordan has provided me with that experience, I can confidently say that it is most unpleasant. I do not recommend it,” she wrote. “Nor do I recommend the nerve damage and physiotherapy that ensue. Through countless hours of effort, I have regained the use of my right hand and some of the feeling.”

Though she has ongoing “quirks” in function that will likely be permanent, Morrill wrote, she has regained the overall use of her arms, for which she wrote that she is grateful.

Gratitude aside, she said she now has to live with the reactions of strangers who feel inclined to comment on Jordan’s “handiwork,” which has left her face scarred. One person asked if a chainsaw kicked back into her face, while another asked if she “got chewed on by a shark,” she said.

“I’ve only just turned 30, so I should have the pleasure of hearing remarks like those for a long time to come,” she wrote.

Morrill also addressed the psychological toll Jordan’s crime has taken, including the survivor’s guilt she feels over Sanchez’s death. She wrote that she watched in horror that night as Jordan “transformed before (her) eyes from a bewildered, confused man into a violent animal.”

She said she saw him kill a good, kind man.

“And I remember his eyes when I tried to run, and when I looked back over my shoulder. They are burned into my mind,” Morrill wrote. “And I hear Ron’s voice. I hear him cry out. And I hear him again and again in my mind, asking me to wait for him.”

She wrote that she prides herself on her practicality, which motivated her feet to run from Jordan that night. Though she believes she made the best choices for herself given the situation she was thrust into, she wrote that she will never forgive herself for not going to her friend.

“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,” Morrill’s letter states. “Practicality provides no comfort now, and I now bear this burden with no relief.”

In September 2019, Morrill kept a promise she made to two fellow hikers while recovering from her injuries and joined them when they reached Mount Katahdin, the endpoint of the Appalachian Trail.

“We went up Katahdin together,” she told the Press. “I started the trail and I finished the trail. I just skipped a big part in the middle.”

She plans to someday start over at the beginning and hike the entire trail.