Robert Hale denies sexual assault

Robert Hale, the patriarch of the big McCarthy-area homesteading family known as the Pilgrims, pleaded no contest in court Tuesday to consolidated counts of rape, incest and coercion involving one of his daughters.

"I want to make it clear that I never in any kind of way sexually assaulted anyone," said Hale, 65, as he entered a plea formally conceding guilt for having done just that. Hale would receive a 14-year prison sentence under the agreement.

With his trial scheduled to begin in January, the man who called himself Papa Pilgrim agreed last week to accept the deal. In Palmer court on Tuesday, he told Superior Court Judge Donald Hopwood that doctors found blood clots in his leg on Christmas Day and gave him only months to live.

He said his main concern now is for his family, 15 children and their mother, currently living with another homesteading family in Palmer. They no longer go by the name Pilgrim.

The case will not be closed until sentencing, which was set for April 30 in Glennallen.

Family members filled two full rows of seats in the viewing gallery of the Palmer courtroom and sat quietly through the proceedings. They left as soon as court adjourned.

Hale's public defender, Lee de Grazia, said she was not yet able to confirm the grim prognosis cited by her client Tuesday in court. She said he did, in fact, go to the hospital Monday, and has received repeated treatment for clots and infection.

"His health is precarious," she said. A terminal diagnosis could affect her next legal moves in the sentencing process, she said.

Since 2003, Hale has been engaged in a high-profile dispute with the National Park Service over access to his home on a former mining camp in the heart of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

He was indicted in October 2005 on 30 counts of rape, incest, coercion, kidnapping and assault after family members went to Alaska State Troopers. He evaded law enforcement for two weeks, then was arrested in Eagle River.

Investigators said his crimes were committed between 1998 and 2005 and brought to light by a particularly violent episode in a shed away from the family homestead in January 2005.

As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors will combine all 10 charges of rape, and eight each of incest and coercion, into a single charge from each category, for a total of three counts. The state will dismiss the three assault and one kidnapping charges.

Such an agreement means that Hale accepts responsibility for the conduct in all the consolidated charges, said assistant district attorney Richard Payne.

Payne said in court that when he first took on the case he refused to make a plea agreement with Hale. Outside of court, he cited the heinousness of the crime as his stumbling block.

"What happened is awful," Payne said. "It's horrible. More so than any case I've dealt with."

But he finally decided to make a deal to protect the victim from having to go through the public trial, he said.

By Tom Kizzia

Anchorage Daily News