NEWTON COUNTY, Ark. – The widow of a man who died while on an illegal guide through the Buffalo National River says the sentence against the man leading the tour doesn’t give her loved one justice.
On May 7, 2022, Brad Thomas of Springfield Missouri died when he fell 20 feet on a rugged and remote unofficial trail according to park rangers.
According to Tamra Thomas, her husband Brad was a nature lover. He shared his love of fishing, camping, hiking and more with his family, especially their three sons. However, Brad’s last hike, his last steps, he took without them.
“The eye of the needle I guess was a big one for him that he really wanted to accomplish,” Tamra Thomas said.
Jeffrey Johnson was sentenced on March 7, 2023, for running a business in the park without a permit. Johnson has been banned from the Buffalo National River Park for two years and fined.
Brad Thomas was with a group led by Johnson when he fell and died. According to Newton County Sheriff Glen Wheeler, Johnson’s tours were already causing problems.
“A member of his group was injured the Saturday prior to that, and he left them in the woods, and then this man got injured a week to the day later,” Wheeler said last year, shortly after Brad Thomas’ death.
Wheeler stated Johnson was offering guide service without a license or insurance. Wheeler called Johnson’s actions “ridiculous” and “irresponsible”.
Because Johnson accepted donations and membership fees for hikers according to park rangers, Johnson was convicted and sentenced this March to two years probation, ordered to pay $600 in fines, $80 in fees and $2,686.27 in restitution for the cost of both search and rescue operations performed for members of his hiking groups.
It hasn’t been easy for Tamra Thomas who is now raising the three teenagers on her own, and she questions the consequences.
“Justice can’t really be served here I don’t feel like,” she said. “My kids lost their dad, and it just feels like a slap on the wrist to me when I look at those charges.”
Tamra Thomas alleged Johnson was negligent in leading large groups in slippery conditions, but she also said her husband knew there were risks when he signed up.
“If I could go back and convince Brad not to go, of course I would,” Tamra said. “People need to be aware of how extremely dangerous these hikes are.”
The National Park Service provides several pieces of advice for hiking safety online. They say to check the weather before you head out on your hike. If weather or other conditions are not ideal for hiking, have a Plan B ready.
The NPS also said to take your time and watch your step. Be careful and watch where you are walking, especially on slippery areas or near cliffs. Stick to dry paths and solid rock areas with good footing.
Tamra Thomas stated according to an eyewitness one person on the hike was too concerned to go on and Brad stayed with that hiker while the rest of the group carried on without them. On the return trek, officials said Brad suffered his deadly fall from a bluff.
FOX 16 News attempted to contact Jeffrey Johnson about his sentencing but did not hear back as of Tuesday afternoon. The Buffalo National River Office was also contacted about how you can find if a hiking guide has a permit, but their public information officer was unavailable.
Since Johnson operated without a permit, rangers remind a Commercial Use Authorization permit allows for approved commercial activities to occur in the park while ensuring visitor safety and the preservation and protection of park resources.