As It Happens

Accused in Appalachian Trail murder had threatened hikers before, says sheriff

Tennessee Sheriff Mike Hensley tells us about his deputies' bizarre encounter with James Jordan — weeks before he allegedly assaulted a Nova Scotian woman and murdered another man on the Appalachian Trail.

Sheriff Mike Hensley says he had the suspect in custody weeks before the murder — but had to let him go

Unicoi Country Sheriff Mike Hensley says he did everything he could to keep a man now accused of murder off the Appalachian Trail. (Unicoi County Sheriff's Department)

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The man accused of attacking a Nova Scotian woman and murdering an American man on the Appalachian Trail was briefly detained last month for allegedly threatening hikers with a machete, says a Tennessee sheriff. 

On Saturday, a woman from Nova Scotia and an American man were attacked by a man with a knife on a section of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

The man was killed and the woman was stabbed multiple times, but survived by playing dead.

James L. Jordan of West Yarmouth, Mass., has been charged with murder and assault with the intent to murder — and it turns out the 30-year-old man had become known on the trail for strange behaviour and alleged threats.

In April, Jordan passed through another section of the trail in Tennessee, where he was arrested by authorities in Unicoi County, but eventually released.

None of the allegations against Jordan have been proven.

As It Happens guest host Gillian Findlay spoke to Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley about the arrest and whether the deadly attack could have been prevented.

Here is part of their conversation.

You've been in touch with the family of this young woman in Nova Scotia who survived the attack on Saturday. How is she doing?

I've got a message from the young lady's parents and [they] said she was with her husband and is expected to make a good recovery.

And why were you in contact with the family? Why did you reach out?

I have received a lot of calls from media across the whole United States concerning this because we did have a run-in with Mr. Jordan back in April.

This is James Louis Jordan that you're speaking about — who has now been arrested, at least, and charged?

That is correct.

He was actually going by the trail name of "Sovereign." That is what I was told by the hikers who were making the reports.

On April the 21st of this year, we started receiving calls that there was an individual on the Appalachian Trail threatening people with a machete.

He had also chased some folks out of one of the shelters on the Appalachian Trail. He chased them out with a shovel.

Madison County, North Carolina, which is neighbouring county to Unicoi County, received a 911 call that there was an individual there waving a machete and asking hikers when they were approaching that opening if they knew the password — telling them they had to have a password to come through that opening to get on the trail.

James L. Jordan is shown in this booking photo from May 11, 2019. The photo is provided by the Washington County, Va., Sheriff's Office. (The Associated Press)

And did you eventually meet him?

No. I did not. But my officers came into contact with him.

And what did they tell you about him?

What happened was Madison County came to that location to check him at Devil's Fork and the hikers and him both had left.

They just hiked across the ridge into my county. That's when they called us. The guy had followed them over there and started some problems using profane language and also threatening them, waving the machete.

He also made the statement that it would be a bad day for hikers on the trail.

When I heard that he had made this statement, I deployed deputies on that portion of the Appalachian Trail trying to locate him.

There are obviously a couple of interactions that different people along the trail had had with him. What do they add up to? Why was this man allegedly threatening and bothering so many hikers?

I don't know. I don't know what his problem was.

But like I say, the next day, North Carolina [police] come in contact with him. There were no warrants on him and they turned him loose.

Well, that afternoon he shows back up at the Tennessee-North Carolina line in my county.

There were some folks at a little pull-off there that were giving food and water to hikers, and some of the hikers that had had a problem with him were there. That's when they recognized him and they called.

When my deputies arrived that afternoon, when the call came in, he was under the influence of something. It must have been drugs.

He gave my officer a fake ID and a fake name and they placed him under arrest.

So, he was in custody. He was under arrest.

At that time, yes ma'am. He was searched and he was found to be in possession of a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

So what happened then?

I put him in jail. I sent my investigators back out to the hikers that had encountered him. But they refused to press any charges against him.

He stayed in jail and he went to court. The judge ordered him to pay fines and costs and put him on probation and advised him not to be back on the trial. And he left Unicoi County.

And then the next thing you hear was of this attack.

The next thing I hear, he's a suspect in a murder up in Virginia.

I knew he was a threat and I'd done everything that I could do to get him off the trail, and I did. I did take him off the trail.

But I can only do so much and I was limited to what I could do because the hikers would not press charges or appear back in court.

Did you feel some sense of responsibility knowing that you'd had him in custody and had to let him go?

Yes, I did. But I checked myself and checked all the records we done. I rechecked over the whole investigation. There's nothing that I could have done any different.

Written by Chris Harbord and John McGill. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A edited for length and clarity.