Buffalo National River. (Photo: National Park Service)

Earlier this month, a hiker fell 20 feet from a path in the Buffalo National River into frigid water and died. Now, details are emerging about the unlicensed guide who took the hiker — with a group of 30 total individuals — out to one of the most treacherous hikes in the area.

The post Jeff Johnson made for the Arkansas Nature Lover’s May 7 hike along the Indian Creek Canyon to the Eye of the Needle was similar to one he had published a year prior. Both invited people to join him and explore an area of Buffalo National River that he described as a bucket list hike for many who live across the Ozarks. In each post, he wrote that hikers would see numerous waterfalls, and that they would be challenged. For one of the hikers who joined the group, the journey would prove fatal.

Brad Lee Thomas, a Springfield resident, fell about 20 feet from a path on an undeveloped backcountry area. Hikers pulled his unresponsive body from a cold Indian Creek and attempted numerous life-saving efforts until a search and rescue team made its way to the area. He was 46 and described in his obituary as a lover of the outdoors and a proud father of three.  

Johnson said it was a tragedy, that he felt awful for Thomas’ family and that he wished Thomas and his friend had heeded his advice to stay with the group. Johnson said he learned from another group member that two people had turned around 20 minutes earlier on the hike, and hours later came upon hikers trying to save a man’s life. Johnson would learn a day later that the man pulled from the water was one of the two who had left his group. 

Jobe Mclarty, the first hiker to reach Thomas and get him out of the water, said he recoiled at the cold temperature of the water when he went in to get Thomas. 

“I’m not 100 percent sure, but if that water hit me like that, and set my body into almost a state of shock, I’m sure it did the exact same thing to him,” he said. 

Toxicology report is pending

Steel Creek to Kyles Landing , a starting point for the Eye of the Needle trail. (Photo National Park Service)

On Wednesday, Newton County, Arkansas coroner Cody Middleton said that an autopsy would not be conducted, but a toxicology report is pending.

“I don’t know much,” Middleton said. “I just know he had some alcohol in a separate container with him, per the sheriff’s office. I wasn’t there. One of my deputy coroners worked (the death investigation).”

Efforts by the Daily Citizen to reach Thomas’ family have been unsuccessful so far.

What factor, if any, alcohol played in Thomas’ death will not be determined for about six months, Middleton said. He added that the area where Thomas fell is dangerous on its own, which is a point Johnson made in his post about the recent hike.

“This is not a place for dogs or kids,” Johnson wrote on the group’s private Meetup page in advance of the May 7 hike. “We will be on a trail at times and in the creek at times. The trail crosses creek many times. Trail can be very muddy and rocks we walk on can be very slippery especially when water is up. Expect to get your feet wet and getting dirty. We stick together as a group on this and help one another out. There are places along here that we go and have to climb up to and go along where we need to work as a team. We need to help others in the group out. We will be going up some ropes to get up one hill and then we’ll do that again to get back down. Make sure you wear good hiking shoes or boots. I highly recommend bringing a hiking stick or trekking poles.” 

He posted the invitation on the group’s Facebook and Meetup pages. Thomas was one of the people who responded to the Meetup invitation.

“Looking forward to meeting all of you and enjoying this adventure together,” he wrote, adding that he and other Springfield hikers who would be joining him would bring $20 for the group’s annual fee.

The hiking guide under scrutiny

Buffalo National River Map (Photo: National Park Service)

That annual fee Thomas mentioned is a point of contention between Johnson, the group leader, and Newton County, Arkansas Sheriff Glenn Wheeler, who said in a press release after Thomas’ death that Johnson, who he did not name, was running an unlicensed, uninsured guide service.

“The areas he is taking these people to are no joke,” Wheeler said in the news release. “They are rugged, treacherous and dangerous. He is not a legitimate guide and has no business leading these people to places where they can then be injured or killed and then leaving them on their own and risking the safety of emergency personnel.”

Johnson, a Bentonville resident, said he never tried to present himself as a licensed guide and said that the $20 annual fee is a donation request to offset the costs of starting the private hiking group page on Meetup and to cover the cost of gas to drive to areas that he pre-hikes before determining that they will be event hikes. Several dozen members of the group emailed the Daily Citizen to vouch for him, with some adding that they were embarrassed to admit they had not donated the $20 in recent years. 

“I have gone on several adventures with Jeff,” wrote one of them, James Fishback. “I can attest to the fact that he has never charged any money for a hike, so he’s not a ‘paid guide.’ He simply leads the outings. Jeff has been instrumental in helping dozens, probably hundreds, of people safely traverse the backcountry. I have been on this hike to Eye of the Needle with Jeff. He has always been clear on the physical requirements and dangers of this particular trail. The simple fact is that accidents happen and unfortunately this one was deadly. I grieve for Brad’s family in his accidental death. I hope and pray they can find peace in the midst of his tragic death. This could easily have been me that took one small misstep, and my family would be grieving. They know the risks that I take going into the wilderness.”

But after the hike that led to Thomas’ death, Johnson said he is making changes to the way he organizes group events, because that one, he said, was far too large.

30-person hiking group was “too big”

(Photo: National Park Service)

Johnson said when he posts information about a hike, he expects about 90 percent of the time that only half of the people who signed up to attend the event will actually show up. That was not the case on May 7. 

Thirty hikers showed up to hike to the Eye of the Needle, an area of Buffalo National River revered for its scenery and known for its challenging terrain, including a portion that involves a rope climb to get up a steep incline. About 20 of them, he said, he had never met. When Johnson saw how many people would be joining him, he said it led him to stress caution more before they set out. 

“I asked everybody, ‘Did you look at the description and read it?’ And I said, ‘Did you watch any of the videos I posted or the pictures I posted to help you make a logical decision if you could handle it or not?’ And then I went into stressing how important it was to stay with the group.”

No matter how many people showed up for the hike, Johnson said he always prepares for a technical, challenging trek. 

“I take that place very seriously,” Johnson said. “I know how dangerous (it is) and I’ve done it 36 times now. I think it’s serious every time.”

Around 11 a.m., the group embarked on the hike, with Johnson at the front. 

“We were about halfway to the ropes, a little over halfway to the ropes,” he said. “And I’m helping other people get through a tough area that we are all helping one another. And this one guy comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, this guy and this lady decided to turn around like over 20 minutes ago.’ I’m like, ‘What?’”

The man who left the group was Thomas.

Johnson said he had to keep helping people get through the pass, and the challenging terrain ahead.

“We were in a tight area,” he said. “We were in a tight area that was where the rocks were slippery and stuff and people needed help and to go very slow and stuff. It’s one of the challenging parts.”

He asked if anyone would be willing to go back and check on the two people who’d left. “Nobody wanted to,” he said. 

The large group proceeded to the ropes course that leads to the Eye of the Needle scenic point. Johnson said two other hikers said they didn’t feel comfortable climbing the ropes.

“I said, OK, that’s a smart decision,” Johnson said. “Stay down here, enjoy the waterfalls, wait for us. Don’t try to take off on your own. So those two stayed down there and waited for us.” 

On the return to the trailhead, Johnson said the large group began to splinter, and he tried to mobilize the ones who stayed with him to try to catch up to the people who’d gone ahead against his recommendations. 

“It was too big,” he said of the 30-person hike. 

A little over halfway to the trailhead, Johnson said a man came up to the group and said that others were trying to save somebody, and wanted his group to keep moving when they reached the scene. When they did, they looked down from the path to the waterway and saw hikers tending to a man who was lying face down. 

“We could see something was bad, and you know, we were worried,” Johnson said. “But I had no clue who it was or if he was in our group at that time. Then as we were continuing to work our way out, a bunch of rescue workers, search and rescue guys, kept coming in. We moved out of the way for them.”

Johnson said one of the rescue workers told him it was illegal to run a hiking business in Buffalo National River, and Johnson told him he wasn’t running one. After the group moved past the rescue scene, it split in two again. A man on the hike was having trouble, and Johnson said he led one group out and returned to a group that included the man to help them out of the area as well. 

“I made sure everybody was out of there,” he said. 

A day later, he would learn from a friend that the man who’d fallen about 20 feet into the water was Thomas, and that he’d been part of Johnson’s hiking group.   

Hikers converged to try and save Thomas 

Mclarty and some friends met Saturday morning to hike to the Eye of the Needle, setting out at about 8:30 a.m. because they knew a large group would be hiking the trail around 11 that day. Mclarty had reached out to Johnson to confirm his group’s start time so his smaller group wouldn’t get stuck behind them. He also said he texted a message of caution to Johnson about bringing such a large number of people to an already challenging area soon after a rainfall. 

He said Johnson wrote back that he had hiked this trail before, and their correspondence concluded. On the return from the Eye of the Needle, at what he described as the most dangerous and consolidated area, Mclarty’s group met Johnson’s. He didn’t know then that Thomas was a member of the group, or that he and a woman had left the group and turned around earlier. He noticed that the group members were enjoying themselves and that many were wearing tennis shoes. (In Johnson’s post about the hike, he’d recommended that people wear proper hiking gear, including boots.) Mclarty and his friends navigated past the large group. He and one of his friends, Brennen Duffield, are both photographers, and they lingered on the trail, taking photos and videos of Mclarty’s favorite place in the country to hike. The other four left Mclarty and Duffield behind. While the remaining two shot photos, Mclarty heard something, “and it sounded like it was in distress.” 

He wasn’t sure if it was an animal, but both he and Duffield heard it, and walked toward the noise. 

“And so we kept walking again and I heard it again,” he said. “And at that point in time, I knew something was wrong.”

In the direction of the scream, he yelled, “Hey!” He heard an immediate response, adjusted his next scream in the direction of it and began running and yelling to let the person he heard know he was en route. About 60 yards later, he said, he ran into a woman who was screaming and crying and said her friend had fallen in the water. 

“So, immediately, I dropped my pack and just started running,” Mclarty said. “The river was on my left side, so I just kept my head on a swivel to the left as I made my way down the trail maybe 70 yards.”

He saw Thomas in the water with a pack on. Mclarty said he made his way down to the bank, removed his heavy boots and jumped in. The area where Thomas was floating was deep water, even for Mclarty, who is 6-foot-4. And it was frigid. 

“I was in it for maybe two to three seconds and all of a sudden my body started to lock up a little bit, and it was getting hard to breathe,” Mclarty said. “And so I pushed off the bottom of the river a couple of times, and made it back to the bank and found a rock and pulled myself up. Because I couldn’t breathe. And my muscles were starting to lock up. So I took about, I don’t know, maybe seven and 10 seconds, let my adrenaline kind of subside and got my breath back and went back in the water.”

Another hiker who had arrived helped Mclarty pull Thomas to shore and then went running toward the trailhead in search of rescue help. Mclarty attempted a series of efforts to resuscitate Thomas. Mclarty said he was in the Army for seven-and-a-half years, including a 14-month combat tour in Afghanistan. “So my medical training was pretty extensive,” he said, and he used it to try to help the hiker. 

“The first thing I did is, not knowing what was going on, I just started slapping him,” he said. 

There was no response. Hoping he had been in the water only a few minutes, Mclarty tried striking him in the back of the lungs. Again, no response.

“So at that point in time, I went right into CPR and chest compressions,” he said. As more hikers converged around the scene, others took turns attempting CPR and chest compressions. Meanwhile, Duffield repeatedly pressed an SOS beacon she brought with her to alert search and rescue teams.

“We did make every attempt to try to bring him back,” Mclarty said. “But he was gone. He was gone. I mean, there was no pulse. There was no reaction to light. I mean, I tried everything. And I was … I was trying everything that I could to bring him back.” 

After rescue crews responded just before 5 p.m., Mclarty noticed something that had washed downstream. He recovered it and posted on a hiking group on Facebook that he had found an item that Thomas’ family might want. They’ve connected, he said, and plan to meet in Arkansas this weekend, when Mclarty plans to give the family of Brad Thomas his trekking pole. 

“You know, maybe his kids might want that,” he said. 

Johnson never claimed to be professional guide, he says

The sheriff’s press release noted that Johnson had left an injured woman in the woods a week before Thomas’ death. Johnson said that was true, to a degree. The woman’s husband told Johnson that he would go for help, and while he did, Johnson said the injured woman insisted that the rest of the group continue the hike. When one hiker stayed behind with the woman, the injured woman told her it was OK for her to leave, Johnson said. The way he handled that, by letting the injured party and her husband decide what they wanted the group to do, was a mistake, he said.

“I’ve been doing this for seven years, and this is the first year I’ve ever had accidents there, ever,” he said.

But he said it did not change the way he addressed the hiking group that included Thomas. 

“I talked about staying together every time,” he said. 

And he never claimed to be a professional guide, he said. While there are scores of public and private Missouri and Arkansas hiking groups on Facebook and other social media networks, only six businesses are permitted to conduct guided services within the Buffalo National River boundaries. Five are described as guided fishing and sightseeing services and one is described as a guided photography service. 

Johnson said that, after the fatal hike, he plans to take more classes and get more certification, but does not plan to serve as a professional guide. Instead, he is taking steps to make sure 30 people never show up for another of his hikes. 

“One hundred percent,” he said when asked if the accident changed how he will organize hikes. “First of all, I’m never posting it on Facebook again, because you can’t set a limit (of participants) on that. I’m going to do waivers more often than I did before. I’m going to find one that’s better, because I was told by some that the one I was using was OK, and wasn’t great. I’m going to go find a better one.”

And he said he’ll set a hard limit of hikers who join him to see the Eye of the Needle. 

“If I ever do this again, 10 at maximum,” he said. “If.”

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson