Papa Pilgrim wanted on sex, assault charges

Robert Allan Hale, the McCarthy-area homesteading patriarch who calls himself Papa Pilgrim, has been indicted by a Palmer grand jury on 30 felony charges including sexual assault, kidnapping and incest.

Alaska State Troopers flew to McCarthy in a helicopter Friday night to arrest him. But Hale, 64 and in poor health, slipped away, later heading down the 58-mile gravel road toward Chitina in a Navy blue camper van. Troopers were still hunting for him Monday and asked the public for help.

All of the charges, covering a seven-year span from 1998 through last January, involve a single family member, troopers said. The name and gender of the child was not revealed by troopers, citing the state’s victim’s rights law. Hale and his wife have 15 children.

Hale, who lived with his family on an old mining site inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, has been engaged in a high-profile feud with the federal government over access to his land since 2003. The Pilgrim family garnered support for their politics, their colorful appearance and their bluegrass-flavored musical performances. They also stirred growing anger and resentment among neighbors.

Describing his homespun clan as “the epitome of a wilderness family,” Hale espoused a strict and personal Christian doctrine that admitted no outsiders. His children range in age from 2 to 30.

The charges include one count of kidnapping, 10 of first-degree sexual assault, eight of incest, eight of coercion, and single counts of assault in the first, second and third degrees. An arrest warrant was issued Friday. The case developed after troopers were contacted over Labor Day weekend, according a statement issued by the troopers on Monday.

The whole family is cooperating with troopers, said Hale’s wife, Kurina Hale.

“We’re sorry for the things that happened and hope that God will help us through this,” she said Monday in a telephone interview from the family homestead, which they call Hillbilly Heaven. “We haven’t lost any sight of God through all this. It’s just that sometimes sin is hidden.”

Kurina Hale goes by the name Country Rose. Their children all have biblical names such as Israel, Hosanna and Psalms. She said her older children are staying with a family in the Anchorage area that offered support through the difficult break from the rule-bound homestead — a process that she said started late last winter.

The Hale family came to Alaska from New Mexico in 1998. After drifting between Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula, they bought the mining site 14 miles from McCarthy in 2002.

In their wake, people repeatedly told stories of powerful first impressions of the simple, Godly family with their handy, fresh-faced children. The stories ended with people feeling abused and taken advantage of by the family’s sharply honed feeling of victimhood.

The family was bound by strict rules drawn from the Scriptures as interpreted by Papa. The children, supposedly home-schooled, were allowed little reading matter other than the Bible. Hale said they never saw each other naked — the girls in the family were not allowed to shake hands with outsiders. Whenever they went out in the world, they were supposed to travel in twos, each a witness to the other, like Jesus’ disciples.

In McCarthy, the Pilgrim family had plenty of supporters at first. They were seen as peaceable victims of bureaucracy or, at worst, naive and socially awkward. On Monday, some of those former supporters reacted bitterly to the news of the indictments.

“I’m angry at myself for being suckered in to the nice-guy aspect,” said McCarthy Lodge owner Neil Darish, who said he hoped things worked out well for the children. “It’s a very sad day for the family and for McCarthy.”

The prominence of the Pilgrims has shined light in recent years on the patriarch’s strange past.

Hale traveled far to the Wrangell Mountains from his boyhood home in Dallas. His father was a football All-American at Texas Christian University and a prominent FBI agent. There were dark episodes in those early years — notably the death of his first bride, the daughter of soon-to-be Texas governor John Connally. An inquest ruled she shot herself with a shotgun in Hale’s presence a month after they eloped.

Hale, by his own account, went through an extended hippie life before meeting Kurina in Southern California. They experienced a religious conversion in the mid-1970s, used her mother’s connections to care-take a high-country ranch in New Mexico owned by movie star Jack Nicholson, and continued adding places at the dinner table.

They came to Alaska, he said, to live a subsistence life free from restraint. He made the down payment on the Wrangell Mountain property using his children’s Permanent Fund dividends.

Hale stirred trouble in 2003 when he used a bulldozer to clear an old roadbed from McCarthy to his homestead. He said God directed his hand. The Park Service was outraged, saying the old road was no longer open. Anti-park land rights activists disagreed, and a battle was joined that now waits for a decision from the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Their access blocked, the family set up a temporary camp in a road right of way in the middle of McCarthy, a town of about 50 set inside the park. Friction over that muddy, livestock-filled camp turned some former supporters against the Pilgrims.

Things seemed to quiet down last winter, but the indictment unsealed Monday identifies an incident in McCarthy on Jan. 10 that resulted in a multitude of charges against Hale, including kidnapping, incest, coercion, three assault counts and three sexual assault counts.

Sometime after that, the older children in the family moved away, according to Kurina Hale and several other McCarthy residents. They did not talk about any problems at home, but they apologized to neighbors for any trouble they’d caused, said Rick Kenyon, editor of the local newspaper, the Wrangell-St. Elias News.

Hale left the family’s homestead several weeks ago, Kurina Hale said. He was living in McCarthy in a tent with a wood-stove when the troopers helicopter arrived Friday to get him.

“The smokestack was still hot” when troopers reached the tent and found it empty, said Darish.

“We were expecting that this was going to go nice and easy, and apparently Mr. Hale had other plans,” said troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson. Troopers believe he has left the McCarthy area, he said.

Hale is diabetic and on medication. He recently had a hernia operation, and was known to carry heart-attack pills in a buckskin holster along with matches and a Bible. But he has decades of wilderness experience.

Troopers asked the public Monday to watch for a Navy blue 1990 Dodge Ram camper van, the kind with a slightly raised roof, license number EPN 405.

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