A Massachusetts man found incompetent to stand trial in the fatal attack of an Appalachian Trail hiker encountered a number of officers with law enforcement agencies — just a few of the dozens of departments that protect and serve the 2,180-mile-long corridor.
In early May, the FBI charged James Jordan, 30, of West Yarmouth, Massachusetts, with murder and assault in the fatal stabbing of Ronald Sanchez Jr., 43, of Oklahoma, and wounding of an unidentified Canadian woman.
Sheriff’s deputies in Bland, Smyth and Wythe counties in Virginia coordinated efforts on May 11, when they captured Jordan along the trail after finding Sanchez’s body.
Before his arrest, deputies in Unicoi County, Tennessee, encountered Jordan in April, charging him with drug offenses along the trail.
Local authorities often assist state and federal authorities in efforts on the Appalachian Trail, a narrow corridor that travels through 14 states.
The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, a National Park Service unit, has primary jurisdiction on the trail but works closely with other agencies, according to Kurt W. Speers, the acting chief ranger, and one of only two full-time law enforcement officers assigned to the unit.
“The safety of the Appalachian Trail hikers is our No. 1 priority,” Speers said. “We also have a duty to protect the resources of the trail. Based on my experience here, I think that we are able to accomplish these missions effectively.”
The trail also crosses through six National Park Service units, two national wildlife refuges and eight national forests.
Speers said the trail also passes through 74 state parks and other state lands, all of which have law enforcement officers who can respond to the trail.
“The National Park Service is the designated lead federal agency in our cooperative management structure,” Speers said.
Appalachian Trail patrol is part of the regular duties of many National Park Service law enforcement rangers from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, Shenandoah National Park and others, Speers said.
State police departments also respond to the trail, as do sheriff’s offices. Fish and game law enforcement officers and state parks also enforce the law on the trail.
Brian King, a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, said, “We also pass adjacent to a couple national security sites guarded by military. So, the law-enforcement network is considerable when called out; it’s just not dedicated full-time to the AT and its hikers.”
At the local level, King estimates there are about 80 police and sheriff’s offices that can respond to calls on the trail. One example: Damascus, Virginia, officers can respond to and monitor the trail.
“Given that the AT is a long linear entity made up of multiple land owners and jurisdictions, the only effective way to respond to emergency incidents in a timely manner is to utilize all the resources with law enforcement, as well as EMS and SAR, responding to areas that they regularly patrol and are familiar with,” Speers said.
The Appalachian Trail also uses 31 trail maintenance clubs who use Ridge Runners to patrol the trail and report back on issues and concerns.
Following May’s attack in Southwest Virginia, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy updated its website to provide more information about safety and easier access to incident reporting capabilities.
“We’ve seen a marked uptick in people using the reporting options even ‘when I didn’t think I should but was told I should,’” King said. “But, calling 911 and being conscious that Facebook is not a substitute is more important than reporting to us.”