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A Missouri man who led a 31-person hike on the Buffalo National River where one participant died in a fall will face criminal penalties for acting as an unpermitted guide, a federal judge ruled this week.
In a bench trial in Harrison, Arkansas, Magistrate Judge Mark E. Ford ruled that Jeffrey M. Johnson had charged participants money to be part of a hiking group he organized despite not having necessary permits to engage in commercial activity on National Park Service-managed land.
On May 7, Johnson departed with the group on the Indian Creek Trail to the Eye of the Needle, a rock formation in the Ponca Wilderness. While popular and well-documented, the 4.3-mile round-trip hike isn’t an official trail, features drops of up to 50 feet, and can be extremely rugged, in one spot ascending a cliff with the aid of a fixed rope. In a telephone interview, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported, Johnson told investigators that he usually limited group size to about 15 people, but Facebook, where had had organized that day’s hike, hadn’t given him the option.
Hiker Veronica Gilmore told the court that she and another hiker, Brad Lee Thomas, decided to turn back because the section of trail ahead seemed too difficult. They waited at the group’s lunch spot for nearly three hours before attempting to make their way back on their own. At some point after that, Thomas fell 20 feet from the informal path, landing in a shallow pool of water. The National Park Service said in a press release that emergency crews had attempted lifesaving efforts, but they were ultimately unsuccessful, and Thomas died.
While Johnson’s attorney argued that he hadn’t taken payment for leading the hike, prosecutors produced evidence that he had asked for a $20 annual fee for membership in his informal hiking club, Arkansas Nature Lovers Group.
Johnson’s sentencing on the two misdemeanor convictions is set for March.
The incident wasn’t Johnson’s first tussle with local law enforcement over his guiding practices. After Thomas’s death, Newton County Sheriff Glen Wheeler told Missouri’s KY3 news that shortly before that, another member of Johnson’s hiking group had been injured on an excursion.
“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,” Wheeler told the channel at the time. “Just last Saturday, a person he was leading was injured, and he left her in the woods. We responded with a full rescue team who put themselves in jeopardy to help her, just like they did with Mr. Thomas.”