The strange story of Papa Pilgrim

Robert “Bobby” Hale, the Scripture-quoting “Papa Pilgrim” who used the Bible to pound subservience into his 15 children, went before a judge in Alaska last month, looking old and frail beyond his 66 years as he learned his punishment — 14 years behind bars — for sexually assaulting one of his daughters.

Prison time is only the latest chapter in the bizarre life of Hale, the son of a legendary TCU football player. He grew up in the west Fort Worth neighborhood of Ridglea Hills, attended Arlington Heights High School and, at age 18, eloped with the 16-year-old daughter of one of the most powerful and famous politicians in Texas history.
Robert Hale
Hale’s story, as well as the stories of those he was close to, is, indeed, nearly unbelievable. The wrinkled lines on his gray-bearded face suggest as much — early tragedy, religious extremism, family estrangement, government standoffs and a conspiracy theory that reaches all the way to the White House.

‘Hillbilly Heaven’

In the past 48 years, a lot has happened with Hale, most recently the fallen patriarch of his family’s religious compound — nicknamed “Hillbilly Heaven” — in the Alaska outback. Starting in 2002, they lived a life of subsistence — handmade clothes, no TV, only the Bible to read — on a 410-acre ranch surrounded by the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest national park in the United States.

According to a family member in Fort Worth, Hale once said in a thank-you letter that he had hidden encyclopedias sent as a gift so that only he could read them.

Last year, Hale told The Washington Post that he had ordered his children to bathe in their clothes and that they were not allowed to see each other naked.

Those same children were at Hale’s sentencing in late November, when he turned a deaf ear to them as they described years of whippings, sexual abuse and psychological torture.

“I can hardly believe the lips of my children,” Hale was quoted as saying in the Anchorage Daily News.

He then threatened, one last time, the daughter whom he had pleaded no contest to raping. He told her, nonsensically, “I’m asking my daughter to, please, it’s got to be done.”

Young wife’s death

Hale was a senior at Arlington Heights High when he eloped with his girlfriend, Kathleen Connally, a junior. They married in Ardmore, Okla., moved into a modest apartment in Tallahassee, Fla., and began a marriage of young hope.

It would last just over a month.

Kathleen Connally Hale died April 28, 1959, from a shotgun blast behind her right ear. She was pregnant. Her husband spent the next night in jail, a Star-Telegram report said at the time. But the death was later ruled an accident, caused when the gun discharged as Hale tried to take it from his wife.

Described as incoherent in the hours after his wife’s death, Hale was said to have later passed a lie-detector test, and his fingerprints were not found on the gun, despite the report that he had grabbed for it. So, authorities determined, Kathleen died during “a little squabble like kids will have.”

It meant an end to Hale’s brief role as son-in-law to John Connally, then a confidant to Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson and an attorney for Fort Worth millionaires Sid Richardson and Perry Bass. John Connally later became governor of Texas and was wounded in the assassination of President Kennedy.

Connally, who died in 1993, wrote in his autobiography that he had been told that there may have been a suicide pact between his firstborn child and her new husband, and that “Bobby backed out.”

“I could not shake my doubts that Kathleen would never have taken her own life if her young husband had been … kind and considerate to her in the dark moments she must have experienced,” Connally wrote. As he searched for answers, he said he was troubled by what his daughter’s landlady in Tallahassee told him: “She said she thought Kathleen was afraid — of what, she did not know.”

She would not be the last 16-year-old Hale would take as a companion. His future wife and the mother of the 15 children on Hillbilly Heaven ranch was reportedly the same age when Hale courted her in the 1970s.

All-American’s family

More than 3,500 miles and a world of difference separate the primitive ranch in Alaska — where Papa Pilgrim held court over his flock — and the home on tree-lined Fortune Road in west Fort Worth where Bobby Hale grew up with his twin brother, Billy, and younger brother, Tommy.

Their mother, Virginia, was an accomplished bridge player. Their father, I.B. Hale, was an All-American lineman for the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs football team and its captain during the team’s undefeated national championship season in 1938. He was a good friend and college roommate of another famous TCU player, Davey O’Brien.

I.B. Hale was a big man in town and in Texas. After TCU, he turned down an offer to play for the Washington Redskins so he could coach at Kilgore High School. After two seasons, Hale became an FBI agent, then security chief at the General Dynamics fighter jet plant in Fort Worth.

Bobby Hale and his brothers were neighborhood fixtures in Ridglea Hills. “He was just a regular little kid,” said Bob Bryden, 92, who still lives on Fortune Road. “They played down here all the time.”

After the death of Kathleen Connally Hale, Bryden said, he saw Bobby Hale outside his parents’ house and offered his condolences.

“At the time it didn’t seem to have a whole lot of an effect on him,” Bryden recalled. But “he was very polite and thanked me for being concerned.”

Bryden said the next time he saw Bobby Hale was after he had returned from New Mexico, where “he got into some kind of cult or something.”

“He came back from there and he was sitting in our front yard, next to our tree. He had all the long hair of a hippie,” Bryden said. “My wife didn’t even recognize him.”

Bryden wondered at the time “whether it was the shooting that did it, or just a loose screw.”

Hale seemed to answer the question during his sentencing hearing last month in Alaska, saying the loss of his first wife had begun to turn him into a hippie. “So,” the Anchorage Daily News quoted him as saying, “I became a pilgrim.”

In Fort Worth, Bryden remembered another disturbing change that eventually beset the Hale household.

“Billy,” he said, “turned out just like Bobby did.”

Troubled twins

William “Billy” Hale’s change in lifestyle came much later and was not nearly so public. He married, was well along in raising his kids and had established himself as a respected veterinarian on the west side of Fort Worth. Then, in 1993, he chucked it all — his home in Weatherford, his job, his family life.

Always known as a “devout” Baptist, Billy Hale decided to step his faith up a notch. “He wanted to go out on the street and preach. … He became a street person for a while,” said Hale’s former boss, David Ellison, who still works at Ridglea Animal Hospital.

On the streets, he blended his knowledge of animals with his proselytizing, attracting a crowd by training a puppy to play dead, so he could appear to bring it back to life. “He was fantastic with his hands,” Ellison remembered.

After he dropped out of sight in Fort Worth, family and friends learned that Billy Hale had wound up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, where he had reunited with his twin brother, Bobby.

Bobby and his wife, Kurina, or Country Rose, were expanding his family of children — all bearing names taken from the Bible.

Then, in the late winter of 1997, Patsy Hale was at her home in Weatherford when she received a call from the missing man she had been married to for 35 years. Billy told her he had managed to get down from a mountain during a driving blizzard after a heated argument with Bobby, apparently over the way Bobby was treating his children.

“He was not happy with that,” Patsy Hale said in a telephone interview from her current home in Florida.

The argument ended, she said, with Bobby Hale ordering his two eldest sons to take Billy to the top of a mountain and leave him there in the storm.

He likely would not have made it down, Patsy Hale said, if he had not come across a ranch family that allowed him to stay in their barn that night and then drove him to safety the next day.

“It was not a pleasant ending,” Patsy Hale said of her husband’s falling-out with his once-close twin. “He never saw him again for the rest of his life.”

The spy episode

Billy Hale’s unwavering belief that God had called him “to go preach to people who needed it” somehow drove him to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, where he died April 9, 2004, two days after his 63rd birthday.

Unable to retrieve his body, Billy Hale’s family and friends held a memorial in Fort Worth.

Patsy Hale believes that her husband died from complications from diabetes, an illness he had battled even as he tried to save souls in faraway places.

Unlike his twin brother, Billy Hale never made headlines. But in 1997, he, along with Bobby and their father, did make it into a notable book, The Dark Side of Camelot, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh.

Hersh said in a telephone interview that he relied on confidential FBI memos to document that in summer 1962, I.B. Hale, then General Dynamic’s security chief, dispatched his sons to break into and bug the Los Angeles apartment of Judith Campbell Exner, an alleged mistress to President Kennedy.

The apparent reasons for the burglary, according to Hersh, were to gain and use information about Kennedy’s extramarital affair to pressure him into making the Pentagon pick General Dynamics for a multibillion-dollar defense contract. That same year, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara overruled recommendations by both the Air Force and the Navy and, instead, ordered the TFX fighter plane, later named the F-111, to be built at Fort Worth’s General Dynamics.

Hersh says in his book that Exner’s apartment was already under FBI surveillance when two young men climbed onto a balcony. “After 15 minutes or so — more than enough time to sort through or install a wiretap — the pair fled.”

The FBI “tracked the break-in team to a getaway car rented by a former FBI special agent named I.B. Hale of Fort Worth,” and “the two men who entered Exner’s apartment were identified by the FBI as Hale’s twin sons,” Hersh said in the book.

Bobby Hale has since called the account “ridiculous.”

A person who had been close to the Hale brothers, who did not want to be identified because of a continued relationship with the family, would only say: “I know about the twins going to LA. And I know about the [rented] Corvette.

“Billy came home first. Bobby stayed. I thought it was unusual.”

Papa Pilgrim

Bobby Hale moved his family to Alaska in 1998 and eventually settled on the remote spread in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

Five years later, in summer 2003, Hale became a darling for land-rights activists and anti-government crusaders when he was cited by federal authorities for bulldozing a 13-mile clearing through the national park, purportedly to gain easier access to his property.

“We knew this land was in the middle of a national park,” Hale told the Anchorage Daily News at the time, “but that just meant to us [that] our neighbors would be few and far between.”

Now Hale’s neighbors are called inmates. And they are only a cellblock away.

His surviving brother, Tommy, 59, still lives in Fort Worth, with a good job and regular family responsibilities.

In a brief telephone interview, Tommy Hale said he had no interest in discussing his family’s past problems, or his brother’s most recent legal predicament.

“I don’t have anything to say in regards to my brother Bobby,” Tommy Hale said. “I haven’t seen the man since 1983.”

Researcher Marcia Melton contributed to this report, which includes material from The Washington Post and the Anchorage Daily News.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday December 9, 2007.
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