Papa Pilgrim's passage: What lead him to Alaska and into a disagreement with the National Park Service

Anchorage Daily NewsOctober 6, 2003 

Second of two parts

Robert Allan Hale's father was a big football hero. In Texas the heroes don't come much bigger.

I.B. Hale was a 300-pound, two-time All-American offensive tackle for Texas Christian University who led his team to the national football championship in 1938. A first-round draft pick for the Washington Redskins the following year, Hale instead chose a career in law enforcement. He became a top agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Fort Worth and a close associate of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Later he became chief of security for General Dynamics, the giant military contractor. He was chairman of ASIS International, a professional association of private security firms, when he died of a heart attack in 1971.

"He will be missed for many reasons," ASIS said in a memorial, "but mainly because he was truly a big man in every sense of the word."

In a remote Wrangell Mountain valley outside McCarthy, where the Hale family's battle with the National Park Service is drawing national attention, three figures loom large over the landscape. One is Bob Hale himself, who goes by the name Pilgrim these days and is known as Papa to his 15 children. There is, of course, the Lord of Bob Hale's scripture. And there is the memory of I.B. Hale.

Among the Pilgrim family children, Papa's father is spoken of with awe.

"He was the best shot in the world," Elishaba said. "But he never needed to use it to kill anyone, because he was so good at his job."

Bobby Hale grew up in the 1950s amid the country clubs of Fort Worth, Texas. He left that life behind, he recounted in several recent interviews, to undertake a "pilgrimage" in his 20s.

He did not mention, until questioned about it, the incident that scared him into a "search for answers."

Hale's first brush with history came in 1958, when he was 17 and eloped to Florida. His teenage bride was the daughter of John Connally, the Texas political strategist who would later become Texas governor, Nixon's Treasury secretary and, most famously, the man wounded in the car the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Hale's marriage with 16-year-old Kathleen did not last long. Barely one month after they eloped, she shot herself in the head with a shotgun.

Shortly before his own death in 1993, Connally would write in his autobiography that Kathleen had changed after she started seeing Bobby.

"Kathleen had been open and sweet and wholesome, a daughter to be envied by anyone who raised a child, watched her bloom. She had never caused us the least of worries," Connally wrote. "But suddenly a wall had gone up that we could not penetrate."

At the coroner's inquest, Bobby Hale said she'd been alone in their apartment with the shotgun when he returned home from looking for her. He tried to persuade her to put it down. He said he'd grabbed for the gun and it went off, according to Connally's account.

"I have not spoken to Bobby since then," the former governor wrote. "Over the years, he has attempted to call me. I have never taken his call, nor will I. If this seems flinty and cold, so be it. Our daughter was gone and so was Bobby Hale, as far as I was concerned."

He said Kathleen's death was more shattering than any tragedy in his life -- his bribery trial, his bankruptcy, even the assassination of a president.

"This is the first time I have ever discussed it in any detail," he wrote at the end of the chapter titled "Kathleen," "and it will also be the last."

A JFK MYSTERY

Papa Pilgrim, stunned into silence when asked over the phone recently about the long-ago event, said only that the death was ruled an accident, not a suicide.

In a later conversation, however, he said the inexplicable nature of the tragedy was what set him on a lifetime quest for answers -- a journey that led eventually to the Wrangell Mountains.

Bobby Hale's name comes up in print one other place: a 1997 book about the Kennedy administration, "The Dark Side of Camelot," by one of the country's leading investigative reporters, Seymour M. Hersh. The book places Bobby and his twin brother, Billy, at the heart of a possible plot involving his father to blackmail President Kennedy.

Papa Pilgrim dismisses the book's account as a ridiculous lie and slander of his late father. The Hales had nothing to do with a burglary, he said.

"That's the most preposterous thing I ever heard in my life," he said. "My father was one of the most adored men in Texas."

Hersh's story is based on FBI documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. It involves Judith Campbell Exner, the woman revealed by a congressional committee in 1975 to have been having an affair with the president even as she had close ties with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana and mob associate Johnny Rosselli.

The affair was known to FBI chief Hoover. He had Campbell's Los Angeles apartment under FBI surveillance in August 1962, when agents observed two young men break in through a sliding glass door on a balcony.

According to FBI documents in the case examined by the Anchorage Daily News, the burglars' getaway car, a blue Chevy Corvette, was registered to I.B. Hale, the former agent who was now chief of security for General Dynamics.

Hersh's account was also corroborated by an ABC-TV documentary.

The FBI said the description of Hale's sons is "generally similar" to that of the two burglars seen at the glass door, one of whom later drove away in the car registerd to Hale. The Dallas FBI office reported one of the sons drove a Chevy sports car and was possibly in California.

The FBI agents did not try to intercept the burglars or report the incident to police -- presumably, Hersh wrote, because they would have blown the cover for their own stakeout. Exactly what happened in the apartment is unknown; the FBI agent interviewed by Hersh said agents assumed an electronic listening device was planted.

Three months later, Hersh wrote, the Kennedy administration shocked the Pentagon and Congress in awarding what was then the largest U.S. military aircraft contract in history. The $6.5 billion contract for the experimental TFX jet fighter went to General Dynamics, a distant second to Boeing in all the procurement studies. Had Kennedy been blackmailed? The surprise contract inspired investigative hearings in Congress, which found no collusion between the company and high government officials. But investigators did not have access to the burglary information in the FBI files, Hersh said. The congressional investigation, unfinished, was called off after Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

Hersh wrote that he was unable to follow up the report with the Hale family. Billy Hale had "disappeared into the Central Plains states" after giving himself up to Jesus. "Bobby Hale, as of mid-1997, was living in isolation with his family on a commune in rural Mora County, New Mexico," Hersh wrote. In an interview, Hersh said he made several efforts to get in touch with Bobby Hale but was rebuffed.

FOLLOWERS OF YAHWEH

Like many in his generation, Hale spent the 1960s dropping out, searching for meaning. Hale's own account has him spending time in Haight-Ashbury and in a rural commune in Oregon, learning the skills of a midwife and traveling by horseback for years in South America.

In 1974, at 33, he met 16-year-old Kurina Bresler in the California desert.

"The Lord spoke to me. He said, 'This is your wife. She's strong and she will bear you many children,' " Pilgrim said.

Betty Freeman, a singer and actress, said her daughter was in drug trouble and running from home and Hollywood when she met Hale and quit high school. "In spite of everything he tells you, he trapped her with sex and drugs," she said.

Pilgrim agreed his bride-to-be was headed for trouble but contends he was the one who saved her.

The new couple, who had taken the legal last name Sunstar, had their first run-in with federal authorities soon after. They were preparing to have their first child in a squatter's lean-to on federal land in California, Pilgrim said, when U.S. Forest Service rangers arrived with guns and drove them off.

Hale said he experienced his religious awakening several years later at a big church. The Sunstars left their hippie companions "in the peyote fields" and moved to New Mexico, where they lived almost for free on a remote, high-country ranch belonging to actor Jack Nicholson.

The living arrangements were worked out, Freeman said, by her second husband, a movie producer who was a good friend of Nicholson's business agent. Pilgrim attributed the ranch-sitting deal to a persuasive letter he wrote Nicholson about wanting to raise his family on the land.

In New Mexico the growing family raised sheep and horses. They lived more than three miles from the nearest paved road and got by with very little money, said their closest neighbor, Carolyn Vail.

In an interview, Vail expressed mixed feelings about the Hale family. She said she considered Kurina a good friend -- "a fantastic, excellent mother" -- who had consciously chosen an old-fashioned way of life, "the lifestyle of the people who were the original followers of Yahweh."

Vail said she found the kids well-mannered and impressively at ease roaming the nearby national forest wilderness on horseback. But she had trouble with Bob and his "pretty off-the-wall attitudes," she said.

"He takes the Bible and interprets it according to Bob, sometimes out of context, sometimes in," Vail said.

Vail said other neighbors complained about the Hales but she got on well with them, except for the time when they stole hay from her family's barn. The Vails had to start locking their barn. (Hale said he took the hay in an emergency for a dying horse.)

"I didn't like the fact that they would take it without asking," she said. "I told them if they need it next time, just ask. But they will not lie to you. They will tell you God told them it was OK."

Petty disputes and complaints about thefts came up often against the Hales and brought frequent official visits, but no one in the family was ever taken to court, according to interviews with four past and present police officers from the area.

"They had adversarial relations with almost all their neighbors," said Michael Francis, a retired deputy chief of the New Mexico State Police. "They never did anything really bad. They were just a thorn in people's sides."

Capt. Tom Maserve, the local state police detachment head, said police got several reports of the family chasing firewood permit holders out of the local state forest, claiming the land was theirs. He also recalled an accident where Hale rolled an army truck in a blizzard and spilled children out of bunks in the back onto the highway. Hale refused treatment or help, Maserve said. None of the injuries were serious, he added.

"They were difficult to deal with, to say the least," said Maserve, who has 20 years of experience in the area. "They were just noncompliant with a lot of things. He pretty much had the attitude he doesn't have to obey any rules or laws."

PRICKLY RELATIONS

Like the national park rangers in Alaska, Maserve said he felt he had to approach the Hale homestead carefully, armed and ready for ambush, even when calling on petty matters. There was never any violence, he said, but the potential seemed to be there.

Francis said the family would occasionally get moved off Santa Fe National Forest land for setting up semi-permanent grazing camps. But Vail, the neighbor, said the family cooperated readily when asked by the Forest Service to move their sheep because they might spread domestic diseases to the wild bighorns.

Despite keeping to themselves, the Hales made a few friends.

"I would trust that family with anything," said Jim Smith of Texline, Texas, who traded them an old Army truck for sheep and a puppy.

Asked about those days, Papa Pilgrim said they never did anything wrong but rumors spread because they were isolated and distant from their mostly Hispanic neighbors. It was a communication problem, he said. Pilgrim's own public evangelizing -- he said he was known to some as Preacher Bob -- probably added to local sentiments, he said. He said he'd dropped that approach to the Gospel in Alaska.

Vail said the family talked of leaving New Mexico as new housing developments were climbing the slopes in the boom years of the 1990s. They pulled out for Alaska in the summer of 1998 as a forest fire was bearing down on Nicholson's ranch. Vail said the flames turned aside before reaching their cabin.

Preacher Bob took the name Pilgrim about that time, and the family was soon known by the name too. They drove north, pausing along the Alaska Highway to add a daughter, Lamb, in the Yukon Territory. The first years in Alaska were difficult and unsettled, Papa Pilgrim said.

They had a run-in with law enforcement on the Kenai Peninsula in 2001 when Joshua was convicted of shooting two sublegal sheep along the Resurrection Trail. Fish and Wildlife Protection trooper Todd Mountain said Papa Pilgrim described the family's economic plight at the scene as all eight children cried, as if on command. When Mountain insisted on writing the ticket anyway, he said Papa turned angry.

"His face got beet red. I was going to hell, quickly. I was worse than the terrorists," Mountain recalled.

Pilgrim recounted the incident differently, insisting one sheep was legal and the other killed accidentally. He said they were turned in by other hunters jealous of his family's success. The family was sweet again at the jury trial, with the small children perched on the courtroom railing, Mountain said.

"They tried to pull the strings of the heart," Mountain said. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."

These stories from Papa Pilgrim's past did not come up during the journalists' visit to the Marvelous Millsite in late August. They were uncovered later. In a telephone call to the remote home in September to ask about them, Pilgrim said telling the stories would give ammunition to people jealous of his family and keep others from understanding who he has become.

"I'm not trying to get people's focus on who I used to be," he said. "That's the past. Alaska's going to be confused. They don't understand the kind of spiritual changes a person goes through. I'm going to be living under the shadow here of Jack Nicholson and John Connally and I.B. Hale.

"If these lies about my father and my past are told, people will think, 'Well, no wonder he's living in the wilderness.' But our life here has to do with my new life with the Lord. It doesn't have to do with running from my past."

FED-UP NEIGHBORS

Among the Pilgrims' new neighbors, there may be some who have come around to the position that the road to the Mother Lode Mine through the national park should be opened -- if only to let the Pilgrims go home and get them out of town.

The Pilgrim family's battle with the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park commenced last fall when Pilgrim used a bulldozer, without permits, to clear a historic right of way from their new property to town. The Park Service responded with surveys, surveillance, citations for breaking other park rules and an order closing the McCarthy Creek route to motorized vehicles. With the road closed, the Pilgrims piled up gear and vehicles and horses this summer around a wannigan in town owned by Walt Wigger, the miner who sold them the Mother Lode. Most of the older children lived in town with Papa, in the shack or in a wall tent, scrambling to find ways to make some money off the trickle of tourists heading out the McCarthy Road.

At the McCarthy Road parking area, where a footbridge across the raging Kennicott River leads into town, the Pilgrims and a nearby landowner had erected a visitor kiosk where tourists could purchase coffee or glossy photos of the Pilgrims while picking up information about local businesses.

Residents inclined to support the Pilgrims in the fight against the park called this a helpful innovation. Others called it presumptuous -- for the family of newcomers to speak for the community and for setting themselves up in the middle of a state road right of way. Inevitably, there were complaints that the family was favoring certain businesses, including their own three-wheeler taxi, over others.

Michael P. McCarthy, who owns a bed-and-breakfast at Kennicott, said he finally called the state Department of Transportation to complain after two guests, cancer doctors from Washington, D.C., coming for a weeklong wilderness expedition, arrived distraught over what they said was badgering from the Pilgrims at the footbridge.

The state sent a letter in September to Steve Syren, the landowner who charges $10 a day to park at the end of the road, telling him to remove the kiosk from the public easement, said DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy.

Meanwhile, the Pilgrims' nine horses had escaped several times to graze at the town's runway, aggravating local pilots. Others complained that the horses were being allowed to roam through the surface drinking-water supplies for Kennicott and McCarthy.

"We all gave them the benefit of the doubt," said wilderness guide Jacobs. "But if they're living the hard core reclusive mountain man life, what the hell are they doing here driving their three-wheelers all over town?"

The muddy sprawl at Wigger's wannigan drew attention to the fact that Wigger had never owned the property where his shack was built. When the absentee owners complained, the Pilgrims shifted their chattel onto adjacent land, a platted public right of way on the edge of town. There they remain.

Wigger is angry, saying the land deal didn't include permanent use of the in-town shack and his D-5 Cat, now at the center of the Park Service's civil damages investigation. He says the family has damaged or destroyed other machinery of his in apparent retribution, which the family denies.

"Maybe by now you know this is not a gentle Mennonite family," Wigger said. "They've got this made-up religion. They can justify anything that they do by saying that the Lord provides for them." The Pilgrims describe the deal with Wigger differently and blame him for many of their legal problems with survey lines up McCarthy Creek. "He stands in a very liable position on this," Pilgrim said. "His reasons for telling us wrong was just based on his own greed and own evil purposes."

FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES

The Pilgrims' camp in town largely blocks the legal access to the cabin of Stevens Harper, a four-year local resident who got a job as a national park ranger last winter. When Papa Pilgrim found out he had a ranger for a neighbor, he accused him of spying and strung up a clothesline of blue tarps on the property line.

Harper's new bride, Tamara Egans, spending her first summer in McCarthy, said she felt harrassed by goats nipping off her garden starts, late-night generators and high-beam headlights pointed her way. She moved to a friend's home after the Pilgrims butchered a goat and hung it in a tree outside her window.

"People come out here to live a quiet existence. A family of 17 next to you isn't a quiet existence," said Harper, who has driveway access across the land of a friend. "My legal access is through their stuff. It's so ironic. I'm a park ranger and my access is blocked."

The Pilgrim camp touched off a flurry of surveying of town lots this summer, stirring resentment over the loss of informality among neighbors.

The survey found, among other things, that Harper's outhouse was off his property. Papa Pilgrim was clearly delighted to catch a park ranger in trespass.

"What happened was really ironic. You could really see God's hand," he said. "In a town like this almost everybody's in the right of way in one sense or another."

Of course, nobody else is in the right of way in the sense of being entirely in the right of way. The Pilgrims' defenders in town said their situation is unique, and temporary, forced on them when the Park Service shut down the McCarthy Creek road. The family said it is looking for a lot in town to buy.

Still, by late August, tensions in town had reached the point where Papa Pilgrim distributed an eight-page, handwritten, photocopied letter "to help our neighbors, one and all, come to a reasonable understanding of some 'issues' that have surfaced these past months concerning the Pilgrim Family."

The long letter was inspired, Pilgrim wrote, by his desire to share the results of a conversation with a neighbor who had come to him with bad feelings.

"Immediately, during and at the end there was a real awakening, and a complete change of (heart) in my neighbor. He was release(d) from all his own misundertandings, his character healed, and we both enjoyed once again the endearment of good neighbor-ship."

He said the family had approached its first "community experience" by being as gentle and helpful as possible, given their large number. They did this despite some that had "set themselves against us in malicious and harmful ways." Burned out last winter and nearly destitute, he wrote, the family was blocked from hauling out building materials after Pilgrim told Harper, his neighbor, of the date they planned to travel by bulldozer, not suspecting at the time he was a park ranger.

After outlining examples of what he said was harassment and deceit by Harper and the park, he apologized for letting the horses get away to the airport, told of family efforts to clean up horse droppings, and described at length a gory attack by a dog on one of their horses.

As for the visitor kiosk, Pilgrim said he agreed with the landowner at the road's end who says the state's easement lies across his land, and said their only crime was turning a rock island into a garden. All the attention on the family has brought other changes. This summer, Pilgrim said, his family watched television together for the first time. It was a videotape of an Anchorage TV news program about themselves.

WINTER IS NO 'EMERGENCY'

With winter approaching in the Wrangells, a resolution between the Pilgrims and the Park Service doesn't seem near.

Working with a lawyer, former Interior Department solicitor J.P. Tangen, the family finally submitted a formal request for emergency access to their homestead on a bulldozer, "blade generally up," pulling a trailer of supplies. They added a footnote saying the permit was being sought under protest because, they contend, no permits are necessary under ANILCA, the 1980 law that created the park.

Park superintendent Gary Candelaria's formal response sought additional information. What protection would there be for several wetland areas crossed by the road? What about drainage at the river crossings? When would the blade not be up? The park suggested the family reapply for a special use permit for early winter access, when snow and freezing would protect the ground. Candelaria said such permits had been granted in the past. Travel over unfrozen ground, on the other hand, had never been reviewed and would require a lengthy environmental assessment study, he said.

The Pilgrims' political allies reacted angrily, calling the park's response a clear effort to stall and lock the family out. They see the park's intransigence as a rallying point, a chance to revive the decades-old fight over ANILCA's compromises meant to protect landowner rights.

"We're getting ready for a nationwide culture war," said Chuck Cushman, head of a national inholders' association. He said he hoped to prevail on Bush administration officials to rein in the "out-of-control" park administrators. In a national e-mail alert recently, Cushman said the Pilgrims were being "crucified because they are different."

Alaska inholder activist Ray Kreig called the wait-for-freeze-up request exasperating since most of the route is over gravel, not delicate tundra. "They need to get materials in to rebuild the cabin that burned down," he said. "Are they supposed to wait until January and do construction at minus-30?"

But Candelaria said it's hard to call this an emergency, given that there is access by plane and that the family had all summer to work out the road permit.

"When their cabin burned, if they came to us the next day, jeez Louise, we would have probably flown stuff out to them ourselves," Candelaria said.

"For people who are reasonable and who engage the Park Service in an honest discussion, I think the system has worked," said Jim Stratton, Alaska director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "For people who come in and slam the table and say 'I have my rights,' it hasn't worked."

Pilgrim's latest dispatch, nine pages long, describes food and fuel running low, a shortage of blankets and his mattress frozen to the floor of the cabin. By the last week of September, he said he had slaughtered three milk goats for lack of feed.

On Friday, Cushman's group put out a national call for funds, materials and volunteer pilots for an "emergency airlift" next weekend that they likened to the Berlin Airlift of 1948. Pilgrim these days is by turns conciliatory and defiant, with potential civil fines and litigation costs ahead.

He says he wants to talk to the park now and to follow the rules so he can get fuel and blankets to the cabin. "I'm hoping they really are sincere," he says.

But then he accuses the Park Service of breaking past promises elsewhere and says if they crush him then everybody else in McCarthy will be at risk. He isn't being used by others for their cause, he says. It's a crown of thorns he accepts willingly. "The hurt and the bitterness is incredible," Pilgrim says. "I think this issue is such a sore issue. I could go out and preach in the towns about this."

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