The man accused of stabbing two hikers on the Appalachian Trail at the weekend, killing one of them, had been randomly approaching hikers' tents, threatening to pour petrol on the tents and burn them to death, according to court documents filed today in federal court in southwestern Virginia.

A group of four hikers decided to pack up and leave their campsite due to their fear of the man, but after two of them fled, he stabbed two others, one fatally, an FBI affidavit states.

The victims' names have not been released. When sheriff's deputies arrived at the campsite several hours later, the attacker was still there with blood on his clothes, the affidavit alleges.

James Jordan, 30, was arrested and charged with murder and assault with intent to commit murder. In his first court appearance, a federal magistrate judge in Abingdon, Virginia, ordered Jordan detained pending a psychiatric evaluation.

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Jordan, of West Yarmouth, Massachusetts, was known to hikers on the Appalachian Trail because of previous incidents involving threats to hikers, and he was arrested last month in Tennessee on charges of marijuana possession and providing false identification. He was placed on probation and released.

The affidavit for Jordan's arrest provides new details about the weekend incident, which stretched over two counties on the trail, within the George Washington and Jefferson national forests.

The four hikers reported that they were first approached by the man in Smyth County, Virginia, and that he was "acting disturbed and unstable, and was playing his guitar and singing," according to the affidavit by FBI Special Agent Micah Childers.

The group continued north into Wythe County, Virginia, and set up camp there. Childers alleged that the same man "spoke to the hikers through their tents and threatened to pour gasoline on their tents and burn them to death."

The hikers decided to leave, but as they did the man "approached them with a knife," Childers wrote. Two of the hikers fled with the man in pursuit, but escaped. They called emergency services at 2.30 am local time and reported being chased by a man with a machete, the affidavit states.

The man then returned to the campsite, and one of the two remaining hikers argued with him, the affidavit states. The attacker then stabbed a male hiker in the upper body, while the female hiker ran, Childers wrote.

Wythe County Sheriff Keith Dunagan said the male victim managed to send an SOS signal on his phone, and the mobile service provider alerted deputies to his location just north of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. But when help arrived, he was dead, the affidavit states.

The attacker caught up to the female hiker, who had begun to tire. She turned to face the attacker "and raised her arms as if to surrender" when the man stabbed her multiple times, the affidavit states. The woman fell to the ground and played dead, and the man left, Childers wrote.

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She then ran down the trail, back toward Smyth County, where she met up with two other hikers. Those hikers helped her walk 9.5km into Smyth County where they were able to call emergency services at 3.12 am, and the surviving woman was taken to a hospital in Bristol, Tennessee, Childers wrote.

Three hours later, tactical officers from the Wythe County sheriff's office were searching for the SOS signal when a dog approached them. Deputies followed the animal, who led them back to Jordan, and he was taken into custody without incident. Investigators then spotted the male victim and a 50cm knife "in close proximity to the body," the affidavit states.

The surviving stabbing victim and the two hikers who escaped all identified Jordan as the man who approached and attacked them, according to Childers' affidavit.