HARRISON, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — A Bentonville man has been temporarily banned from Buffalo National River after leading a hike that led to a man’s death.

Jeffrey Michael Johnson, 47, was sentenced on March 7 after being found guilty of one count of engaging in or soliciting business inside a national park without a permit and one count of soliciting money inside a national park without a permit last December. Magistrate Judge Mark E. Ford presided over the case in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, Harrison Division.

On May 7, 2022, Johnson led a guided hike to an area known as the Eye of the Needle in the Indian Creek area of the Buffalo National River and accepted at least four payments of $20 for the service while in the Kyle’s Landing parking area of the park. According to court documents, Brad Lee Thomas, 46, of Springfield, fell about 20 feet from a rock ledge during that hike and died from his injuries.

Johnson created and operated an outdoor adventure group known as Arkansas Nature Lovers and hosted a site on Meetup.com as well as regularly posting and operating on Facebook, according to court documents. Johnson advertised membership to his group, which included attendance at as many of his hikes as the member wished, for a $20 annual fee, payable through Paypal, check, or cash at the first event attended.

Johnson admitted to Rangers that he had led multiple hikes within the Buffalo National River over an approximate seven-year period.  Testimony revealed that Johnson never applied for or received a permit to engage in business within the park or to solicit money within the park. 

Johnson’s attorney, Chris Flanagin, offered some thoughts on the charges and the sentence.

“Our position from the beginning was that he was not engaged in any business activities in the park,” he said of Johnson. Flanigan did state that his client accepted a pair of “$20 donations” that day, but he said that Johnson didn’t solicit those in the park and that they were “completely voluntary.”

“I think it is also worth noting that other hiking and outdoor clubs need to know that a voluntary contribution can be considered a business activity if received in a national park or national river boundary,” Flanagin added.

The attorney said that he and his client are thankful that the proceedings have concluded, and that they “respect Judge Ford’s decision.”

At the March 7 sentencing hearing, Judge Ford banned Johnson from the park for two years, sentenced him to two years of probation and fined him $600.