Papa Pilgrim arrested after two week manhunt

Robert Hale, the McCarthy-area patriarch known as Papa Pilgrim, was taken into custody in Eagle River around 1 p.m. Wednesday after a manhunt of nearly two weeks, Alaska State Troopers said. He was wanted on charges of raping and assaulting one of his daughters.

An Alaska Railroad special agent spotted Hale, 64 and once the leader of a 17-member family living on an old mining site near McCarthy, driving on a road that dead-ends at railroad property. The agent recognized him and arrested him.

Special agent John Waychoff said Hale, who was driving the blue camper van in which he fled the McCarthy area, was cooperative. He apparently had made no attempt to alter his appearance. He still wore his long white beard and was accompanied in his vehicle by a dog.

His arrest 225 air miles from his remote homestead in the Wrangell Mountains came a day after troopers -- who had been searching for him since he was indicted last month on 30 charges involving sexual assault, incest and kidnapping -- said they had backed off their search.

Residents in the McCarthy area reached by telephone after the arrest said they were pleased to hear Hale was in jail.

Alone in his Ford pickup, Waychoff said he was conducting a routine check of the railroad property near the North Eagle River exit of the Glenn Highway. The property lies at the end of Eklutna Park Drive, past the Powder Ridge subdivision. Done with his check, Waychoff was leaving the property when he saw the blue Dodge van driving toward him.

Waychoff, who had been moose hunting for the past two weeks and only Wednesday morning was handed a flier with Hale's description and photograph, said he motioned for him to stop. Hale tried to turn around quickly, the agent said, but Waychoff blocked his path with his pickup.


Waychoff ordered Hale out of his vehicle. Hale complied with all the instructions, Waychoff said. He didn't make him do everything he would routinely do during a felony arrest, though, "because he looked feeble," he said.

Hale was unarmed and had most of his beard tucked into a scarf, Waychoff said. "He looked exactly like his photograph," he said.

Hale acknowledged he was wanted by police and Waychoff handcuffed him.

"He seemed to me like he was conceding. He was ready to be done with it," Waychoff said.

Anchorage Police Department patrolman James Conley, who arrived at the scene minutes later, said: "(Hale's) head was down. He looked like he was tired. He had a defeated posture."

The blue van looked like Hale had been living in it, Waychoff said. It was littered with cardboard food containers, he said. Conley said a Bible lay near the driver's seat. Also in the van was a miniature pinscher.

Animal control later took the dog, a spokesperson said.

Waychoff said Hale didn't say much to him, just told him he was cold and asked him to close his jacket after he was handcuffed.

Hale, sitting on the tailgate of the pickup, rocked back and forth while they waited for troopers to arrive and take him into custody about 2 p.m., Conley said.

Conley said Hale told the officers that he had just taken insulin for his diabetes and that he was hungry. He was allowed to eat a snack bar.

As Hale was taken away, Waychoff said, Hale turned and thanked him for being polite.

Waychoff had never heard of Papa Pilgrim before Wednesday morning when he returned from vacation and his boss handed him the flier with Hale's picture, he said. "In jest, I said, 'OK, I'll go catch this guy today.'?" Waychoff had the flier on his dashboard when he arrested Hale.

Hale, the father of 15 children, lived on remote land inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, where he had engaged in a high-profile dispute with the National Park Service over access to their land. He portrayed his family as tight-knit, simple and godly. They lived according to strict rules that Hale drew from his reading of the Bible.

The family broke apart last winter after troopers say Hale locked a daughter in a shack and raped her repeatedly. Troopers were contacted over Labor Day and began an investigation.

Some family members moved to Palmer, while others stayed in the McCarthy area.

In McCarthy, residents said they were happy to hear about the capture -- because it might help bring closure to the family and because neighbors were nervous having him loose.

"I think (neighbors) will be pretty relieved," said Rick Kenyon, a local pastor and publisher of the Wrangell-St. Elias News. "There was a bit of nervousness here, not knowing where he was."


Hale's family had no comment on his capture Wednesday but will release a statement soon, said Jim Buckingham, the Palmer resident who took in the children. Some of the older children have been staying with the Buckinghams.

On Sept. 22, a Palmer grand jury indicted Hale on 30 felony counts, including 10 counts of sexual assault, one count of kidnapping, eight counts of incest, eight counts of coercion, and three counts of assault that cover the seven years the family had been in Alaska. With the indictment still a secret, troopers flew to McCarthy on Sept. 23 to arrest Hale, but he had slipped away. The next morning, his 1990 Dodge Ram camper van was missing.

Wednesday night, Hale was at the Mat-Su Pre-Trial Facility in Palmer and is scheduled to appear in court today. His bail was set at $50,000.

By Tom Kizzia

Anchorage Daily News

Tom Kizzia

Homer writer Tom Kizzia was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He is author of the books "Pilgrim's Wilderness" and "The Wake of the Unseen Object." His latest book is "Cold Mountain Path," published in 2021. Reach him at