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An Arkansas man who was convicted of leading illegal hikes along the Buffalo National River was sentenced by a federal court on Tuesday, March 7. The man, Jeffrey Johnson, led a 31-person hike through the public area last May, and one participant died during the excursion.
Johnson, 47, received two years of probation and was ordered to pay around $2,700 in restitution and fines. He is also banned from visiting Buffalo National River, located in northwest Arkansas, for two years.
Following a December trial in the Western District of Arkansas, Johnson was convicted of one count of engaging in or soliciting business in a national park without a permit, and one count of soliciting money inside a national park without a permit, according to a news release. Both charges are classified as misdemeanors.
Johnson advertised his services on Facebook, charging $20 for one year of unlimited guided hikes, KFSM-TV reports. According to investigators with the National Park Service, Johnson had been illegally guiding hikes along the Buffalo National River for seven years.
On May 7, 2022, Johnson led a group on the Indian Creek Trail to the Eye of the Needle, a rock formation in the Ponca Wilderness. As reported by Backpacker, one hiker testified in court that she and another hiker, 46-year-old Brad Lee Thomas, decided not to continue due to the trail’s difficulty.
They waited at the group’s lunch spot for nearly three hours before trying to hike back on their own. Shortly after, Thomas fell 20 feet and landed in a shallow pool of water. Emergency crews attempted lifesaving efforts, but were ultimately unsuccessful, according to a news release from the National Park Service, and Thomas died at the scene.
“This man brings people to the Buffalo River and other parts of Newton County and takes them into some of the most rugged terrain in the Ozarks. It appears they don’t always know what they are getting into,” Newton County Sheriff Glen Wheeler told KY3 news last May. “Just last Saturday, a person he was leading was injured, and he left her in the woods.”
Investigators found that Johnson never applied for a permit for his guiding business, KTHV reports.