An investigation is underway after a Springfield, Mo., man fell to his death Saturday in the Ponca Wilderness area of Buffalo National River, said Newton County Sheriff Glenn Wheeler.
Brad Lee Thomas, 46, was hiking with a group near a rock formation known as the Eye of the Needle when he fell, Wheeler said.
Wheeler said Thomas was led into the area by an "illegal and unlicensed guide out of Bentonville." The same guide led someone into the area the previous Saturday, resulting in an injury, Wheeler said.
"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," Wheeler said. "It appears they don't always know what they are getting into. 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. They do it because they love it and have servants' hearts. But none of that never would have been necessary if this man had not led them into areas that was possibly beyond their preparation levels. Then to leave an injured 'client' is just absurd!"
Cassie Branstetter, branch chief of interpretation for the national park, said hiking guides must be permitted by the National Park Service if they charge a fee.
"If they're just taking some friends out, there's no permit required for that activity," she said.
Branstetter said she couldn't provide the guide's name and she didn't know if the guide had a permit or needed one.
"A piece of that investigation is understanding everyone who was in the group of the individual who passed away," she said.
Wheeler, who wouldn't release the name, said the guide was neither permitted nor insured.
"This man has a responsibility to these people," Wheeler said. "He takes their money then leads them places without any kind of license, insurance or emergency plan and when something goes wrong, he apparently bails on them."
Wheeler said he's working with the prosecuting attorney's office to see what recourse there may be, and National Park Service personnel are speaking with the U.S. Attorney's office to see if federal charges would be more appropriate.
"If state charges are a better fit, I'll be happy to save a bed in my jail for this guy," Wheeler said. "The areas he is taking these people to are no joke. 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. Now a family in Missouri is mourning the loss of a loved one due to his actions."
According to Branstetter, Thomas fell about 20 feet near Eye of the Needle in the Indian Creek drainage.
The site is between the towns of Ponca and Pruitt in Newton County.
Buffalo National River's dispatch center was notified at 4:49 p.m. Saturday that a hiker had fallen in the undeveloped wilderness area.
"Dispatchers were advised that Mr. Thomas was unresponsive and that CPR was in progress," according to a news release from the Buffalo National River. "Witnesses conducted CPR and rendered aid until rangers and first responders arrived on scene. Lifesaving efforts continued but were unsuccessful."
Several other agencies assisted during the incident.
Branstetter said people post photos of the area on social media, which entices hikers, but getting to those sites is dangerous.
"This area, which has no established trails in it, is just a backcountry bushwhack, but it's a very beautiful area," she said.
Rangers have responded to several hiking accidents in the Indian Creek drainage over the past month, according to the news release.
"This undeveloped backcountry area includes extremely technical, loose and slippery footing and steep terrain," according to the release. "Even the most experienced hiker is susceptible to injury. Hikers should be equipped for self-rescue, as emergency response can take several hours at this location."
Kevin Middleton, administrator for the Our Buffalo River Facebook page, wrote a warning on the site Monday: "The Eye of the Needle at Indian Creek has become a quite popular hiking destination. There have been several recent rescues here and there was a fatality on Saturday. It is a difficult and in places technical hike and climb and should not be attempted by everyone.
"It can require hiking in water, balancing on narrow, slippery ledges, and the use of ropes and other climbing devices. If you do attempt this hike it is best to go with someone who has experience hiking this route. If an accident happens it often takes several hours for rescuers to respond to the location. Then it can take dozens of mostly volunteers to accomplish any rescue."
Information about trails in the park is available at https://www.nps.gov/buff/planyourvisit/hiking-trails.htm.