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Papa Pilgrim dies in jail, unrepentant and alone

Tom Kizzia

He came to Alaska at the head of a sprawling, picturesque clan -- the last true wilderness family, as he put it when he battled the local park rangers. Robert Hale presented himself as a pious, Scripture-thumbing patriarch who just wanted to raise his 15 children far from the sin and temptations of the modern world. He settled in the mountains near McCarthy and called himself Papa Pilgrim.

Hale was revealed in the end as a manipulative tyrant who kept his family illiterate and twisted his Bible teaching to justify torture and the violent sexual abuse of his oldest daughter.

He used to pray with his family that they all would die together. It was his "number one prayer," the children testified in court. Acquaintances once worried the prayer foretold a horrible cultlike suicide pact.

But on Saturday night, Hale died alone in an Anchorage jail. He was just months into a 14-year sentence for rape, coercion and incest.

Hale, 67, had been in poor health for years, and went into more rapid decline after his arrest in late 2005. At his sentencing last November, Hale's lawyer said he was being treated for advanced cirrhosis, diabetes and blood clots.

The family, now living in the Palmer area, is thriving in work, school and marriage.

"We felt we did all we could to reach out to him to get him to repent," said Joseph Hale, the eldest son, on Sunday. "But we have no reason to believe he repented before God."

Contact with his family had been limited by court order. Hale's wife, Kurina, and his five oldest sons were admitted to the jail for short visits Saturday. Hale was fading and unresponsive, the family said.

Jail staff said that when Hale was asked in his final days if he had anything to say to his family, he became silent and wouldn't talk, Joseph Hale said.

"To be honest, it's a relief that he will meet his destiny and we can go on in life without the burden of worrying about praying for him and where he stands before God," Joseph said.

Hale died about 9 p.m. in the medical segregation unit of the Anchorage Correctional Complex, where he had been in hospice care, according to the state Department of Corrections.

MAGNETIC PERSONALITY

It was the end of a remarkable journey that led from the wealthy suburbs of Fort Worth, Texas, through the '60s world of hippie communes and Jesus freaks, to a remote New Mexico ranch where Hale hid out with his fourth wife and built a family that revolved around him and his own interpretations of the Bible. His family lived in hardscrabble poverty, but they were taught to rub his feet, serve him special meals and call him "Lord."

Bobby Hale was known for a magnetic personality and a way with words even when he was a young man in Texas.

He was the son of I.B. Hale, an All-America football star and famed FBI agent. The Hale family were close friends with the family of soon-to-be governor John Connally. As a teenager, Connally later wrote, Bobby exerted a strange influence on his own teenaged daughter, Kathleen. When Bobby was 17, he and Kathleen eloped -- and he was alone with her two weeks later when she was shot fatally. A coroner's jury could find no evidence to conclude it was anything but an accident, but the Connally family blamed Bobby.

In 1962, Bobby and his twin brother were identified by the FBI as taking part in a break-in against Judith Exner, the mob-connected mistress of President John F. Kennedy. The event was later described, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, as a possible presidential blackmail scheme involving the boys' father, who had gone to work in security for the defense contractor General Dynamics. An investigation was dropped after the president was assassinated.

A footloose hippie decade followed: two more marriages, work in transcendental meditation and travel abroad for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a role as male midwife on a commune, and eventually a born-again conversion. Hale also spent a week on the ranch of cult-leader Charles Manson, but the two men clashed, according to the mother of Kurina Bresler, the 16-year-old girl who would become his fourth wife and the mother of the Pilgrim clan.

'PREACHER BOB'

Hale was living at a hot spring in the California desert when he met Kurina in 1974. He later described the moment as a holy vision of the girl half his age who would bear him many children.

For many years, the growing family of "Preacher Bob" lived in the remote Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, caretaking a high-country ranch owned by the actor Jack Nicholson. They left New Mexico in 1998 as the modern world was closing in, with new neighbors and curious police officers.

After several years bouncing around Alaska, they reached McCarthy in 2002.

Now known as the bluegrass-performing Pilgrim Family, they settled on an inholding inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and quickly became embroiled in an access battle with the National Park Service involving a bulldozer and a collapsed mining road. Hale's stand made him a hero for national property rights groups, though his McCarthy neighbors, liberal and conservative alike, soon tired of his self-righteous and demanding presence.

The family burst apart in 2005 after befriending another large Christian family from Palmer, the Buckinghams, who showed the Hale children another way of living. Hale reacted by locking up his oldest daughter in a shack in McCarthy and brutally raping her over several days, an incident later described in court.

The older children and Kurina turned against Hale, the Buckinghams brought the children to the Alaska State Troopers, and Hale was arrested after a two-week manhunt. The children later apologized to their McCarthy neighbors.

UNREPENTANT TO THE END

At his sentencing last November, Hale's children spoke one after another, describing years of torment at their father's hands. They agonized over never having seen past his threats of hellfire to uncover his own sexual abuses. They described his angry outbursts, his drinking, his "corrections" on the whipping barrel, and his teaching that it was OK to steal, poach game and lie to authorities.

"You taught all your children that wickedness was right," said one daughter in court that day. Another said he had used Biblical principles "to support your own lustful desires."

A son cited words from the last page of the Bible, a warning from Revelations about misusing Scripture: "And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book."

Hale, the silver-tongued innocent as always, denied everything in a three-hour courtroom defense. He blamed his wife and threatened "eternal judgment" on his accusers. He cringed, he begged his children to recant. "Now and then a man goes astray and open arms should await his return," he whimpered. There was not a moist eye in the court.

A private burial is being planned, with no date or place yet decided, the family said Sunday.


By Tom Kizzia
Anchorage Daily News