The spark plugs had been removed. Papa Pilgrim headed down the mountain valley at first light toward McCarthy to pick up a barrel of fuel. He would be back before dark. He took the last good snowmachine.
Two of his daughters, Elishaba and Jerusalem, started packing as soon as he left. And now they discovered he had pulled the spark plugs from the two old machines that remained. He wanted to keep Elishaba trapped there, with her mother and nine younger siblings, at the cabin in the far reaches of the snowy Wrangells, the place he called Hillbilly Heaven.
The sisters were wilderness-hardened and strong and ready for what they had to do. Jerusalem, 16, went to search a tool shed. Elishaba kept loading, warm snow pants beneath her long prairie dress: rice, tools, sleeping bags. Two white sheets.
Their voices rang eerily in the mountain morning. Papa put them on silence days ago, so they hatched the escape plan in secret whispers. But now he was gone, and they no longer worried the youngest children might report violations of Papa's law.
Robert Hale's world was beginning to crumble.
WRATH AND HELLFIRE
Elishaba, 29, had suffered beatings and forced sex by her father for years. Her brothers finally found out, and days earlier the five oldest Hale boys had fled. They sneaked away in the middle of the night, pushing their snowmachines down the trail to start them out of earshot.
In the isolated and tightly controlled world of the family known as the Pilgrims, the boys' departure was an unthinkable breach. Now Elishaba was ready to go as well.
She knew she would face the wrath of Papa. She was convinced if she went to authorities, they would send her back to her father.
And she had an even greater fear. The most precious thing in the world was her eternal salvation. And she knew, in the depth of her heart, that if she went out to the world in a spirit of rebelliousness, she was damned. It was a lesson woven into the fiber of her being by a lifetime of Papa's instruction.
At first Elishaba purposed to stay as a hermit in the wilderness, closer to salvation. It was the third month of the year 2005 -- the Pilgrims did not use the pagan-based names of months -- and the days were getting longer. Her plan was to head for a cabin she knew on the Nizina River, with enough supplies to last six months. Jerusalem insisted on coming along.
That morning Mama Rose reached her oldest son, Joseph, who urged Elishaba to come to Glennallen instead. Let us take care of you, he said.
So the plan changed. But the hours were passing. It was 14 miles down the steep-walled valley of McCarthy Creek, and there was only one trail.
Jerusalem found a spark plug. The sisters said goodbye to their mother and took off. A half-mile down the trail, the engine belt broke and they stopped in a broad white meadow. Jerusalem pulled out the plug and ran back toward the cabin. She filled the gas tank of the second snowmachine, inserted the plug, and did not see the pinhole leak in the fuel line.
On the trail Elishaba waited, trying to fix the broken belt with wire and pliers. She gave up and looked at the waist-deep snow. It was too deep to run through and too far to the forest. She listened in the mountain vastness for the sound of her father returning.
She was petrified.
"It was like a dream where you run for your life and nothing's working," she said. "Where you try to run and you can't run."
The hidden tale of Papa Pilgrim emerged in court last week, as a state judge sentenced 66-year-old Robert Hale to 14 years in prison for rape, incest and coercion.
The judge said Hale's wife and 15 children were all victims of the beatings, isolation and psychological torture that reached their worst on the homestead in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. But the legal victim in the case was Butterfly Sunstar, born in the hippie years before Hale became a born-again Christian and switched to biblical names. Her family calls her Elishaba.
From the witness stand Monday she described her years of torment, sparing few details about a savage three-day imprisonment in a wannigan shack in McCarthy in January 2005.
When the court proceeding was over, when she had looked her father in the eye and told him what she thought, she decided it was now all right to tell her story openly -- to finish telling it, and then to move on.
And so last week, with her family and her sister Jerusalem gathered close, Elishaba described the nine months between the attack in the wanigan and her father's arrest -- the time of the awakening, and the escape from Hillbilly Heaven.
ONE SPECIAL DAUGHTER
Elishaba's return to the homestead that January after the attack in McCarthy shocked her family. Her face was bruised and swollen "like a black-and-blue basketball," Jerusalem said. Her father made excuses, had her wear a ski mask. But the older brothers started talking among themselves. A Christmas visit with the Buckinghams, a large and prayerful Christian family in Palmer, had kindled something. They got Elishaba to talk. Then they confronted their father.
Joshua, 25, called Papa deceitful. Pilgrim broke Joshua's nose. The boys could never dishonor their father by striking back. They left the homestead.
Papa kept arguing to those who remained that he was right, insisting the Bible said a father may have one special daughter. And every night he made Elishaba come to him.
"Now, looking back, I can see I was not sure how much longer I would live," Elishaba said to her father in court last week. "If I cried out, you would tear me to pieces. Those were your words of what you would do to me."
Her father's words played in Elishaba's mind as she sat in the snowy meadow, waiting for Jerusalem. At last her sister arrived on a working snowmachine and they reloaded and raced off, Elishaba driving, Jerusalem in back, weeping.
"I cried for the reality that it had come to this. That we were not the family that we claimed to be, that I had to make that separation," Jerusalem said. "It was a hard thing in our hearts, whether we were doing this for the Lord's sake or being rebellious."
The day was overcast and warming, but the trail was in good shape. As they climbed a steep slope away from the creek, their snowmachine died. They were out of gas -- the hole in the fuel line. The silence closed in. They listened for the sound of an approaching engine.
"We were afraid he would kill us if he found us," Elishaba said.
But only steps away from where they ran out of gas waited the family's last snowmachine. Papa left it there when he was cutting logs, on top of the hill, beyond walking distance from home. They smiled.
"We felt the Lord was with us at that point," Elishaba said.
They found a place by the riverbank where they could pull off the main trail and their track might not be seen by someone coming in the other direction. They drove into the snowy woods and pulled out the two white sheets and covered themselves.
Fifteen minutes later, they heard a snowmachine coming. They watched their father race by, heading for home.
The rest of the way to McCarthy, Elishaba drove fast and both girls prayed out loud.
Something went wrong in McCarthy, which shrivels in winter to a ghost town. They couldn't find their brothers. They knew their father would come looking for them as soon as he got home.
The sisters crossed the Kennicott River and took shelter under a big tree where they could watch the McCarthy Road. They waited under the tree for five days and nights, with temperatures at 20 below, no tent and afraid to make a fire, eating cheese and raisins, listening to the whine of their father's snowmachine as he searched the town.
The boys finally found them. Their brothers went back to get 15-year-old Hosannah from the homestead and then drove all three girls to the Buckinghams in Palmer.
It wasn't over yet.
The Hale children agreed they should never tell anyone about the beatings from Papa. That would mean foster homes, the family scattered to the four winds.
Slowly, through the summer, the Buckingham parents won Elishaba's trust. Here was a devout family of 11 that lived several steps removed from the commercial culture of the Valley, but not in hostility to the world.
Martha and Jim Buckingham were concerned by hints of abuse she let out -- they had their suspicions when the Pilgrims all visited over Christmas -- but they could not put the picture together. They were worried about the seven small children still on the homestead.
The turning point came in August, when 18-year-old Israel returned to McCarthy to pick up horses for hunting camp. Papa found him in town and threatened him. Israel said he'd call the troopers if his father hit him. Papa kicked at the horse Israel was shoeing, they struggled, Israel pushed him to the ground. Papa got up and punched Israel twice in the face.
Israel ran through the town to the church, where he locked the doors and called Jim Buckingham, who told him to call the troopers. A state trooper drove out from Glennallen. Israel told him about the fight with his father.
Then he told him everything else he knew.
Even that didn't end it. Israel's knowledge of his father's misdeeds was vague. Prosecutors weren't sure what to make of the growing stack of complaints about Robert Hale.
But at the Buckingham home in Palmer, the time had come for Elishaba. She watched how Jim Buckingham, a retired Army officer, stepped in to protect Israel. She thought of her own little brothers and sisters still back at the homestead, and something clicked.
Elishaba went to the Buckinghams and told them about the wanigan.
"I was sick to my stomach," Jim Buckingham said. "This was way over the line of where I thought it was. At that point, the dam broke."
Buckingham was on the phone right away to the state troopers. Investigators began taking long statements from the older children.
Richard Payne, a Palmer assistant district attorney, made sure Hale was not at the homesite, then flew in a trooper helicopter over the mountains to Hillbilly Heaven.
While the children played in the helicopter, Payne sat in the cabin and Mama Rose told him everything. The prosecutor said he felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck.
OUT OF THE WILD
Two years later, the dreams still come to Elishaba, the ones where she tries to run and can't get away.
They came again last week, as she prepared to speak the truth in court about the things her father had done. She cried out and awoke, tears streaming.
This time the arms that reached out to her were the comforting arms of her husband.
Elishaba and Matthew Speckels were married in May. He sat with her in court when she spoke. She calls him her protector. She said he has gently rebuilt the trust in her heart, and she is the happiest she's ever been.
Her two oldest brothers have married Buckingham daughters, and they have babies. Everyone lives on Lazy Mountain within a few miles of the Buckinghams, whose hand-built log home is now bursting with two dozen people. The youngest Hales, sleeping in bunks and dressed in secondhand clothes, are learning to read and write and look a stranger in the eye.
It's way more than the Buckinghams ever bargained for, but they say it's clearly God's plan.
The Lord has been merciful and good to her, Elishaba said. And so has the world. Indeed, to her surprise, the world turned out to be very much on her side.
The words that play in her mind now are those of Superior Court Judge Donald Hopwood. He listened to the children's stories and said he believed them. He listened to her father's claim of innocence and called it a lie.
"The judge saw right through to the truth of it all. When I think of it," said Elishaba Speckels, feathering her palm at neck level, "I get tears up to here."
By Tom Kizzia
Anchorage Daily News
Alaska Dispatch Publishing