Volunteer plane crashes during airlift for Pilgrims during their dispute with National Park Service

Tom Kizzia

A volunteer pilot crashed his plane on a remote gravel airstrip while landing with supplies for the Pilgrims, the controversial family locked in an access dispute with the National Park Service.

The Anchorage pilot, Kurt Stenehjem, 52, walked away from the Cessna 180, which crashed Friday. Flights continued in the charity effort organized by friends and political supporters of the 17-member Pilgrim family, whose overland access has been blocked by the park service.

Organizers say more than 40 flights have been made so far, shuttling food and winter gear 14 miles from the settlement of McCarthy. The flights could continue for weeks, they say.

"For a family of that size, the needs don't stop," said airlift organizer Laurie Rowland of McCarthy. "Until that road gets opened up, which by law it should be, the need will continue."

Supporters say the Pilgrims, whose legal name is Hale, have been unjustly blocked from using a former mining road through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. They're blaming the park for the crash, saying the flights shouldn't have been necessary.

Park officials say the problems stem from family members' decision to use a bulldozer to open the old road without permits and their reluctance to seek permits thereafter. A September application for emergency access, filed under protest, will require environmental studies, park officials say.

"Once upon a time you could go wherever you wanted, any way you wanted. But 1980 changed a lot of things," park superintendent Gary Candelaria said Wednesday of the park's creation. He responded to critics on a call-in show on the region's public radio station, KCHU.

The story of the Pilgrims' fight with the park has played in newspapers across the country in recent days, and land-rights organizations supporting the Pilgrims are raising money for the airlift and legal fees with national e-mail alerts.

But even as volunteers were gathering clothing and other donations to help the family in need, several Alaska charities have come forward, stirred by recent publicity, to say the Pilgrims took advantage of them during the three-plus years the family spent in the state before settling in McCarthy.

"We helped them and due to their behavior, they're really not welcome to come back and use our resources again," said Mark Cline, director of the Holy Angels Thrift Store in Fairbanks, where the Pilgrims first settled after moving from New Mexico.

Cline said the family got large quantities of winter gear, sleeping bags and clothes for free from the charity. When they returned and said their gear had been stolen, Cline said he couldn't give them more unless he could account for the previous gear with a police report.

Papa Pilgrim, the family's 62-year-old patriarch, recalled the incident last week in a telephone interview, saying the family's belongings had been stored with a friend, who betrayed them and disposed of it all. Cline refused to give them goods even after they brought him a police report, he said. Pilgrim attributed it to personal animosity from Cline.

Cline said the Pilgrims never brought a police report. He was backed up this week by the Rev. Richard McCaffrey, a Catholic priest with the Immaculate Conception parish, which oversees the charity.

"If you're going to go into social services you know you're going to be taken, but you don't need to be blind about being taken," said McCaffrey, explaining the charity's policy about requiring police reports to make sure clients aren't peddling goods for cash.

Neither the Fairbanks police department nor the Alaska State Troopers could find a theft report filed by the Hale family.

There was a similar dispute in Anchor Point, where the family moved after Fairbanks and received aid in 2001 from Helping Hands, a local charity run by the senior citizens center.

The big family cleared the shelves repeatedly at the charity, said Kathy Toms, a local Chamber of Commerce official.

"It created such an uproar in this community," she said.

Pilgrim denied taking excessively, saying the family put more into the operation than it took, in money, donated clothes and labor.

"It was a beautiful unselfish service," he said, insisting that their friend Jackie, who worked at the store, could vouch for them.

But Jackie Metzler, who handled books for the charity at the time, said the senior center group had to change its policy and limit people to one plastic grocery bag full per visit because the Pilgrims were taking too much.

Metzler said she still feels affection for the mother, who goes by the name of Country Rose, and the young girls. But she said the family got a reputation locally for being a band of gypsies, deploying underclothed children to get handouts.

"They do use the kids to get people's sympathy," Metzler said.

A half-dozen other Kenai Peninsula residents told similar stories this past week, describing sympathetic efforts to help the family with housing or jobs, only to end up feeling cut off and misused.

"The kids are so sweet, they just break your heart," said Jill Lee of Ninilchik, who formed an easy bond with the Pilgrims through her own Christian faith and eight children. Lee said she invited the family to stay on her land but wound up summoning state troopers a year later to get them to move their camp -- a bus with a stove but no engine -- after the relationship soured. She became upset partly because she'd hooked them up to do Sheetrock work with a friend, she said, only to have them create problems on the job, accuse the friend of underpaying them and threaten to sue him.

"I wish I'd never met them. I feel like I lost some kind of innocence," Lee said. "I feel like the poor people who are helping them now are suckers, just like I was."

In the past, Pilgrim has described the early years in Alaska as a difficult, rootless time for his family, when they were frequently taken advantage of by employers and others. This week, the family hung up when a reporter called their homestead cabin. Papa Pilgrim said last week he wasn't happy with how the family had been portrayed by previous stories.

Organizers of the McCarthy airlift say they have heard complaints about the Pilgrims, but when they inquire more deeply there's nothing to the stories.

"They're wonderful, loving people who I find to have a high degree of integrity," said Rick Kenyon, a McCarthy pastor. He dismissed the complaints as sniping and a politically inspired effort to divert attention from the important issue of access rights.

"We keep tracing down these things and finding there wasn't much to them," said Chuck Cushman, head of the American Land Rights Association, a national group that has been sending e-mails to 40,000 addresses on the Pilgrims and the airlift.

"What it comes down to is these people are different," Cushman said. "They stand out because of their dress and the way they carry on their lives. Well, America was settled by people who were persecuted."

Both Cushman and Kenyon stressed that the airlift was organized by enthusiastic supporters, not at the request of the Pilgrims, whom they describe as self-sufficient. It wouldn't be necessary but for the park's blockade, they say.

One volunteer whose enthusiasm is unfazed is Stenehjem, who stayed on to help with the airlift even after the wreck of his $100,000 plane. Cushman's group, which has likened the effort to the Berlin Airlift of 1948, called Stenehjem an "airlift hero."

His plane lost a wheel on a landing, causing it to pivot on the axle and flip, an accident known as a ground loop.

"What frustrates me the most is I am grounded and I can't fly this mission of support," Stenehjem told The Associated Press.

By Tom Kizzia
Anchorage Daily News