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Appalachian Trail Killer Found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity


In 2019, Ronald S. Sanchez Jr., an Iraq war veteran, set off to find peace in nature along the Appalachian Trail, a quest that millions of others take each year on the long route through mountains and forests from Georgia to Maine.

On May 10 that year, after he had reached southwest Virginia, he encountered James L. Jordan, who fatally stabbed Mr. Sanchez and seriously wounded another hiker in one of the worst episodes of violence in the trail’s long history.

On Thursday, a judge found Mr. Jordan, who had been charged with murder, not guilty by reason of insanity and committed him to a psychiatric institution, Mr. Jordan’s lawyers said in a statement. He will not be released until a court determines that he would not create a “substantial risk of injury” to anyone else, the lawyers said.

The prosecution’s expert in the case concluded that Mr. Jordan, 32, suffers from a “severe psychiatric illness that features psychosis and mood disorder,” the statement said. Experts from both sides, the lawyers added, agreed that, at the time of the attack, he “could not appreciate the nature and quality of his actions and therefore he met the legal standard for insanity.”

Mr. Jordan is now “deeply remorseful for the profound sorrow he has caused,” the lawyers said in the statement. “He regrets that his lifelong battle with mental illness ultimately resulted in this trauma and loss for innocent hikers and their families.”

Some of the case’s documents have been sealed by the court, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. A family member of Mr. Sanchez declined to comment on Monday.

His family members said in impact statements provided to the judge, James P. Jones, that Mr. Sanchez was “a great father to his two children,” and that the family members’ lives have been “shattered beyond words,” The Washington Post reported last week.

The attacks in 2019 sent a shudder through the widespread community of the Appalachian Trail, where every year two to three million people hike and camp along parts or all of the 2,190 miles that thread through 14 states.

Killings along the trail are rare. Mr. Sanchez’s killing was the 10th in 45 years of record-keeping, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which leads management of the trail.

“When it happened in 2019, it certainly sent some ripples of shock through the community, but it is a resilient bunch,” Sandra L. Marra, the president of the conservancy, said in an interview on Monday. “I think that people are a little bit more vigilant now than they were.”

She said numbers were starting to rebound after the conservancy urged hikers last year to stay away because of the pandemic.

The trail’s community has embraced a neighborly spirit, creating an insiders’ lingo and culture of hospitality.

Hikers often congeal into a spontaneous “tramily,” or trail family. Trail “angels” help provide food or aid. Travelers bestow nicknames on one another. Information networks share advice about trail conditions and supplies. “Thru-hikers” navigate the entire length of the route, sometimes giving up jobs and devoting years of their lives to train and prepare.

As it had in the days after the stabbings in May 2019, the news about Mr. Jordan’s case last week spread quickly along the grapevine, which usually shares notes about more common perils, such as lightning strikes or bears foraging for food.

“Great now he can get out so he can kill again like the one that killed 2 hikers in VA back in 1981,” wrote one person on the Facebook page of the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association, referring to previous killings on the trail. Another person shared concerns about threatening people reported at shelters.

Weeks before the attack, Mr. Jordan had been known to hikers and the authorities whose jurisdictions stretch along the trail. He had been accused of threatening people in Unicoi County, Tenn., his arrest affidavit said. Hikers shared photographs and descriptions of him on social media after he waved a knife and an ax at a shelter, Brian King, a conservancy spokesman, said in 2019.

On a portion of the trail that veers into Wythe County in Virginia, Mr. Jordan spoke to four hikers “and threatened to pour gasoline on their tents and burn them to death,” the affidavit said. He threatened them with a long knife, but they escaped, it said.

Mr. Jordan then fatally stabbed Mr. Sanchez, who was camping in the same spot, and chased and stabbed a woman until she played dead, according to the affidavit. After Mr. Jordan left to find his dog, the woman found other hikers who helped her hike six miles to safety, it said.

It was Mr. Jordan’s dog and a GPS device that led to his arrest.

Law enforcement officials followed an emergency signal that had been sent from a hiker’s GPS device, and as they stopped to talk to people on the trail, a dog wandered over. It then led them to Mr. Jordan, who was standing about 30 yards away, Sheriff Keith Dunagan of Wythe County said after his arrest.

Mr. Jordan was arrested and charged by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia. In June 2020, after lawyers said he had been treated with psychotropic medication, he was found mentally competent, a court document showed.

Mr. Jordan’s lawyers said his illness was “consistently and appropriately treated, likely for the first time in his life, when Mr. Jordan was found to be incompetent to stand trial and sent to a medial facility for restoration of his competency.”

In the aftermath of the stabbing, the hiking community rallied in mourning and on the trail. Four months after the attack, Kirby Morrill, the hiker who survived the stabbing, climbed Maine’s Mount Katahdin, at the northern end of the trail.

“I am statistically more likely to die in a car crash than I am on the trail. It’s just pretty bad luck, a complete fluke, that I got stabbed,” she said in an article published in Outside. “I wasn’t scared the first time, and I won’t be scared the second time. And even if I was scared, are you really going to let a little fear stop you from what you want to do in life?”

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