A hiking guide from Bentonville, Arkansas, has been found guilty of two misdemeanors after leading a large group of walkers along an unsafe trail, which resulted in one man falling to his death. It was determined in court that he had led the group, and charged for his services.
Jeffrey Johnson led 31 hikers along Indian Creek Trail in the Buffalo National River park in May this year. He told investigators that he advertised the hike on Facebook, and although he usually restricted groups to no more than 15 people, the site wouldn’t let him limit the number of people able to sign up.
Johnson’s chosen route isn’t an official park trail. According to park ranger Daniel Romes, who worked at Buffalo River over the summer, it’s very challenging, with narrow areas, sheer drops, and a rope climb to tackle.
“You shimmy along a shelf and you squeeze through a hole to get there,” Romes testified during the trial at Federal Court in Harrison. He explained that one point on the route skirts around a 50ft drop, and said he had asked Johnson to stop leading groups in the area.
During the Indian Creek hike, at least two people decided to turn back as the route grew increasingly challenging, which Johnson didn’t notice. One of those who doubled back – 46-year-old Brad Lee Thomas from Springfield, Missouri – fell from the trail after separating from the main group.
Romes, who had heard Johnson was planning to lead a walk in the area, learned that a person had been injured and arrived to find emergency responders trying to save Thomas, who had fallen 15 or 20ft and landed in a pool.
Conviction and Sentencing
According to local news site Arkansas Online, Johnson’s attorney denied that his client had taken payment for leading the hike, but documents produced during the trial suggested Johnson had taken a $20 annual membership fee from participants. He was found guilty of engaging in or soliciting business in park areas without a permit; and illegally soliciting money, goods or services. He will be sentenced in March 2023.
“We really encourage visitors to come prepared, not only to have fun, but to be educated,” Cassie Branstetter, public information officer for Buffalo National River, told Springfield News-Leader after the accident.
“Whenever these tragedies happen, we want to educate our visitors to make sure that they are best prepared, because that type of memory is definitely not one we want anyone to leave here with.”