Each night, the patriarch had taken a bath prepared for him by his children, who were allowed to bathe every thrid or fourth night, in their father's dirty water.
Each night, the patriarch had taken a bath prepared for him by his children, who were allowed to bathe every thrid or fourth night, in their father's dirty water.
Each night, the patriarch had taken a bath prepared for him by his children, who were allowed to bathe every thrid or fourth night, in their father's dirty water. (Jason Holley)
Mark Kirby

Papa Pilgrim’s Progress: The Dark Tale of an Alaskan Frontiersman

Out on the far edge of the Alaska frontier, a man can hide his sins. Robert Allen Hale—a.k.a. Papa Pilgrim—bought a homestead outside the remote town of McCarthy where he imprisoned his family and conned the world with tales of a simpler life. But for the 15 children living the nightmare, the only choice was escape.

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Neil Darish was up on the roof shoveling a heavy snow off his McCarthy Lodge when he saw the two well-worn pickups coming down the road. It was a frigid January afternoon in 2002, a time of year when even a single unfamiliar vehicle is a strange sight in McCarthy; almost nobody visits in wintertime, when the 60-mile dirt route to town becomes a continuous, treacherous sheet of ice and the sun rises above the Wrangell Mountains for only a few hours each day.

But there they were: two trucks, drifting slowly up the road. As the vehicles drew closer, Darish noticed people riding in the open beds, huddled against the 20-below-zero air. ‘Who the hell rides in the back of a pickup in the dead of the Alaskan winter?’ he thought as the trucks pulled to a stop in front of the lodge and one of the hunched figures, a young man, sprang out.

“Papa! Papa!” Darish heard him shout. “This is what we thought Fairbanks was gonna be like!”

Robert Allen Hale papa pilgrim
Hale family band practice at Hillbilly Heaven (Christian Heeb/Redux)

The others poured out after him: ten or so young men and women, ranging from their teens to late twenties, all clad in rough flannel shirts or flowing homespun dresses, many wearing buckskin holsters carrying Bibles.

They called the one driving the first truck Papa. He was older, but his weathered brow made it difficult to tell exactly how old; he seemed tired and world-weary, and had piercing blue eyes, a long white beard, and long white hair spilling from beneath a wide-brimmed hat. When Darish climbed down from the roof to invite the strangers into his lodge’s dining room, the man introduced himself as Pilgrim. He said that he and his children had come to McCarthy looking for a new home.

The potential addition of so many new residents was big news for a town of 50 that doesn’t often get big news. A seven-hour drive east from Anchorage, McCarthy lies smack in the middle of America's largest wilderness area, 13-million-acre Wrangell St. Elias National Park. It’s the kind of place where the homeschool curriculum still includes trapping and tanning, and where opinions on a subject like religion are shaped by the kind of gratitude toward a creator that one feels after recently miraculously escaping from the jaws of a grizzly bear. At the beginning of the 20th century, the area was home to nearly a thousand people and one of the largest copper operations in the world, the McCarthy-Kennecott mine. But after the mine’s Depression-era closure, the town languished until 1980, when the creation of Wrangell St. Elias transformed McCarthy into a minor tourist destination. Today it’s about as far away from civilization as one can get by road in North America.

“Everyone was always so in love with what they thought we represented,” said Joshua Hale, “they never bothered to find out about all the horrible things really going on.”

Papa Pilgrim explained that, after a few decades of living off the land and by the Lord in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, his family had come to Alaska to re-create their pious frontier life. They’d lived in Fairbanks and Homer, he said, only to find both too overrun with the sins and vices of ordinary America. But remote and empty McCarthy—now, this was the spot they’d been looking for. Why, they liked it so much that Pilgrim's wife, Country Rose, and the rest of their children would certainly join them.

As a gesture of goodwill, Pilgrim sent his children back out to the trucks for their instruments—fiddles, guitars, a mandolin—and soon the sounds of an impromptu bluegrass concert filled the mountain air. Darish made a few phone calls, and about a dozen McCarthyites showed up on snowmobiles to meet the new arrivals. The whole display was a little odd, but those kids sure could play.

Most of the residents in attendance that night were taken with the beautiful family, their musical talents, and their reverent, godly manner. No one seemed to notice that the kids didn’t make eye contact with strangers or that they spoke only when their father asked them to. No one had any inkling that Papa Pilgrim wasn't exactly who he said he was or that he was even remotely capable of the heinous deeds his family would later accuse him of. Almost no one, that is.

“It was a fun night,” remembers Darish, “but my partner Doug well, he thought all along, from that very first night, that Papa Pilgrim seemed like an obvious con man.”

Elishaba with her husband, Mathew Speckels
Elishaba with her husband, Mathew Speckels (Courtesy of Matthew Speckels)

Alaska has always been a famous last redoubt for seekers, dreamers, hustlers, and ne’er-do-wells, and the man who appeared in McCarthy as Pilgrim certainly deserved his place among them. Born Robert Allan Hale to an affluent and well-connected Fort Worth, Texas, family in 1941, he arrived in Alaska trailing a lifelong reputation as a mystical and adaptable Svengali who had followed an improbable tour through American political and celebrity culture. His bizarre rap sheet of alleged misdeeds included the murder of his first wife, the daughter of former Texas governor John Connally; a conspiracy to blackmail President John F. Kennedy; and the rumored abduction of a woman he held captive on a New Mexico ranch belonging to the actor Jack Nicholson.

papa pilgrim Robert Allen Hale

It was places like McCarthy—places where the rules of the civilized world gave way to the freedoms of wilderness—that Hale had always sought. He’d frequented San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the late sixties and had run in the same Los Angeles circles as Charles Manson and his Family; he’d taught transcendental meditation on an Oregon commune and had embarked on a vision quest in South America. He thrived wherever people were seeking answers and willing to listen to the ones he offered. Friends, neighbors, and family remember Hale as a master manipulator, possessed of a mesmerizing charisma.

“Bob could’ve done anything with my life if he wanted to,” says Priscilla Wilbourn, who followed Hale’s meditation teachings in the early seventies and clearly remains transfixed by his charm. “I swear, once I did see him levitate!”

Given this history, it’s hard to believe that Hale didn’t know exactly what he was doing that first night in McCarthy when he paraded his children into Darish’s lodge: He wanted the gathered residents to trust him, to assume that his huge family’s effect on the tiny community would be benign. It had worked. By the end of the evening, Darish and his neighbors had politely encouraged Hale to buy property in the area.

Each night, the patriarch had taken a bath prepared for him by his children, who were allowed to bathe every third or fourth night, in their father’s dirty water.

A few months later, he did just that, returning to McCarthy with Country Rose and their 15 children, aged from just a few months to nearly 30, with biblical names like Jerusalem, Psalms, Lamb, and Hosanna. They bought an old mine 14 miles outside of town, up the abandoned McCarthy Green Butte Road, and christened it Hillbilly Heaven. The sale price for 420 acres and a few weather-worn cabins was $450,000, and Hale made a $30,000 down payment with cash obtained from the Alaska Permanent Fund. (The fund pays dividends to all Alaska residents with proceeds from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline; some years, it amounts to more than $2,000 per person, children included.) Because the McCarthy Green Butte Road was impassable by truck, Hale arranged for horses and bush pilots to shuttle in his family and deliver supplies.

At first, the abundance of Alaska welcomed the Hales. They had 20 years’ practice subsistence living in New Mexico, but here they had fish and game to supplement their chickens, sheep, and goats. The middle children helped Country Rose care for the youngest, while the older sons and daughters attended to chores: chopping wood, tending the garden, maintaining pieces of machinery—tractors, a bulldozer that had come with the property. To earn cash to help pay the mortgage, the eldest sons Joseph, 25, Joshua, 22, and David, 20, began offering McCarthy’s summertime tourists guided horseback rides up to their property. The Hales also donated their time and energy to community projects, helping rebuild a church shed that had burned in a small fire and constructing a tourist-information kiosk.

In the fall of 2002, when the family ran short on money to pay for delivering supplies, Hale used the bulldozer to clear the old road to town. The route crossed through Wrangell St. Elias National Park, and when rangers discovered Hale’s work the following spring, after the snow­melt, they began surveying damage in preparation for a lawsuit. Rumors began swirling in the Alaska press that the Hales were armed and unpredictable and that things might go the way of Ruby Ridge. So Hale invited a television crew from an Anchorage station, to let Alaskans see the family’s God-fearing lifestyle for themselves.

What the cameras, and the newspaper reporters that followed them, found at Hillbilly Heaven was a time capsule from America’s romanticized frontier days. The TV segment, which aired in June 2003, opened with a panning shot of the Wrangell Mountains as Hale’s voice, sweet and high, intoned the chorus of a traditional bluegrass song: “In dreams of yesterday I wandered back to my little cabin door…” The homestead had a telephone and a generator, but modern amenities ended there. The family never watched television or listened to the radio, and they read only two books: the Holy Bible and John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress. When the children bathed in the washtub, they did so with their undergarments on, for, as Hale boasted, none of his children had ever seen a naked human body. Not even their own.

Hale came across as wise and serene, speaking in a gentle, distant voice, while Joseph and Joshua inspected Park Service survey stakes. Hale told reporters that none of his children had ever left home to marry. His eldest daughter, Elishaba, 28, explained why. “Nowadays, everybody’s trying everybody else on like a new pair of blue jeans,” she said. “And that’s not the way we do it. My favorite thing in life is to work and serve my brothers and sisters. I don’t know how I could be any happier. I ain’t looking for anything else.”

Soon, the story of the backwoods “Pilgrims” spread to national and international outlets—The Washington Post, The Economist, the BBC, and CNN. And while reporters uncovered mysterious details about Hale's past, the patriarch seemed to revel in the attention. In the fall of 2003, a group in McCarthy organized a “Berlin airlift”: Volunteer bush pilots flew in supplies donated by concerned citizens from across the nation.

“It’s just beautiful,” Hale remarked to one AP reporter, describing the airlift. “[People have] poured out their hearts.”

McCarthy-Green Butte Road leaves McCarthy at Neil Darish’s lodge, traveling through an evergreen forest before breaking into a clearing and descending to the gravelly banks of McCarthy Creek. From there, you have a view up the valley to the imposing 6,000-foot peaks that line the valley’s sides: Green Butte and Porphyry Mountain and Bonanza. Hillbilly Heaven lies about 12 miles farther up the road a day's hike, more than an hour by horseback, or, if you’re riding a snowmobile, as I was during the winter of 2006, about 40 minutes.

Visiting Hillbilly Heaven was something I’d planned on ever since 2003, when, during a trip to Alaska, I’d heard about the Hales on the local radio and found myself taken in by the story of their simple life. I’d begun obsessively following the local news coverage of their standoff with the Park Service, and when I got home to New York, I purchased a copy of their bluegrass album, Put My Name Down, from a website created by land-use advocates. On another site hosted by the family’s supporters in McCarthy, I scrolled through photos of their pioneer existence dinner at the homestead, band practice, even a ladies’ bighorn-sheep-hunting excursion.

Over the next two years, as the fight with the Park Service began crawling through state and eventually federal courts, I twice postponed visits to Hillbilly Heaven. And by the time I did make it, the popular Swiss Family Robinson image of the Hales had been revealed as a charade. In October 2005, Alaska state troopers arrested Robert Hale on 30 counts of physical and sexual assault, coercion, and incest.

Hale’s arrest left me wondering how his children—seemingly brainwashed their entire lives—had managed to break their father’s spell. That fall, I made the first of five visits to Alaska to piece together what had really gone on at Hillbilly Heaven. Over three years, I tracked down individuals who knew Hale at earlier stages of his life: relatives and in-laws from Texas, fellow hippies from the Oregon commune, neighbors from the family’s time in New Mexico. At first, Hale’s wife and children refused to talk to the media, a stand that softened as the case worked its way through the courts. I would eventually meet and become familiar with the Hales, especially Joseph, the eldest son, who offered to serve as the family’s spokesman at their father’s sentencing hearing in Anchorage in 2007. At that hearing, I explained to Joshua Hale how I’d initially been captivated by his family’s seemingly idyllic life.

“That's what everyone says,” he responded. “Everyone was always so in love with what they thought we represented—the wilderness family, the communion with nature—that they never bothered to find out about all the horrible things really going on.”

When I made that January 2006 trip to Hillbilly Heaven, Country Rose and the children were living near Anchorage with another large Christian family, but John Adams, a longtime McCarthy resident and friend of the Hales, offered to show me their vacant homestead. We’d be joined by Kurt Stenehjem, an Anchorage real estate broker who’d crashed his Cessna during the 2003 airlift and ended up spending eight days as a guest of the Hales.

We set out from Adams’s house by snowmobile in near-total blackness, speeding through McCarthy and onto McCarthy-Green Butte Road. The road closely follows the course of the creek, and we crossed the frozen water 13 times, stopping at a few points along the way. After several hours, we arrived at a small rise set back from the banks, where there was a cluster of wooden structures: Hillbilly Heaven. It was around noon, but the sun was barely higher than the surrounding peaks; the long winter in those cramped cabins must’ve been nearly unbearable sub-zero temperatures, almost no direct light, miles and miles of waist-deep snow to the nearest neighbor in one direction, hundreds of square miles of forbidding rock and ice in the other.

As we parked our machines, Stenehjem described his stay with Hale and the family. Each night, the patriarch had taken a bath prepared for him by his children, who hauled water to fill the tub and chopped wood to stoke the fire. The children were allowed to bathe every third or fourth night, in their father’s dirty water. At mealtime, Hale was always served first by the sturdy and headstrong Elishaba and was the only one to eat fresh vegetables. Because of the standoff with the Park Service, the mood at Hillbilly Heaven had been tense. One evening, Hale gathered the family in prayer. “Lord,” he said, “if they come at us with guns, we pray that they would have a bullet for each one of us.”

But what struck him most was the control Hale had over his children. “Pilgrim didn't want me to have my computer screen facing into the room for fear that they would become enraptured,” he said as we approached the main cabin. “He told them to ignore me, no eye contact.”

Elishaba and Jerusalem hid in the woods for two days, wrapping themselves in sleeping bags while their father patrolled the trails.

On the eighth night of Stenehjem’s stay, Hale got a gleam in his eyes. He wanted his children to play music and dance about. He told his visitor stories about his wild days in San Francisco. “Papa let his hair down. I could see the old hippie,” recalled Stenehjem. The next morning, Hale demanded that Stenehjem leave. “He seemed threatened, as if I’d seen a part of him he didn’t want me to.” As Stenehjem waited for one of the airlift planes to retrieve him, he asked Hale why the sudden change of heart. “You and I have seen a lot in this world,” Hale responded curtly, “but my children haven’t. They're pure. I don’t want them violated or corrupted.”

Once we’d made our way back to town, I found that many McCar­thyites who had strongly supported the family were reevaluating their impressions. “All those bumps and bruises? I just figured that they were a part of the family’s hardy frontier life,” said Neil Darish. “I feel like an idiot for not noticing sooner.”

Rick and Bonnie Kenyon, co-pastors of the McCarthy-Kennicott Community Chuch, had at first been close with the Hale children, who would occasionally stop by the Kenyons’ log cabin for tea without their father’s supervision. But in the fall of 2004, Kenyon found himself in a disagreement with Hale over some of the family’s business practices. “It was typical for him to avoid arguments by just leaving,” Ken­yon told me, “but that time, he raised his voice and became irrational before storming off. When next we saw the younger children, they averted their eyes. The older children would call us evil to our faces.” At one point, Joseph told Kenyon to rot in hell, though he later apologized.

“Bob had convinced the kids that God doesn’t love everyone,” said Kenyon, “and he was God’s mouthpiece on who deserved love.”

To his wife and children, Hale was a violent and unpredictable monster, a tyrant who delighted in sadistic manifestations of his own power. And while the remoteness of the family’s homesteads in New Mexico and Alaska gave his perverse inclinations room to fester, there were signs all along that something was wrong with him.

Hale’s own father was I.B. Hale, a larger-than-life figure who, after a prolific college-football career, turned down an offer to play for the Washington Redskins and later joined the FBI. In the early 1940s he moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where he raised his twin sons, Robert and William, and became a fixture on the local country-club scene. I.B. Hale was a dominating man, and his sons grew up with something to prove. From his earliest years, Robert was known for his explosive temper, his capable fists, and his willingness to slug it out with anyone. “The only way to win a fight against Bobby,” William told a college acquaintance, “was to grab a heavy object and hit him until he blacked out. If you didn’t knock him out quickly, it was best to run.”

At 17, Hale ran away with his high school sweetheart, 16-year-old Kathleen Connally, the daughter of local attorney John Connally, who would later become governor of Texas and ride with John F. Kennedy through Dallas the day the president was shot. (The governor suffered serious injuries in the shooting.) The couple eloped to Tallahassee, Florida, where Connally found out that she was pregnant. Soon, they began fighting. On the night of Monday, April 27, 1959, one argument became so heated that Connally spent the night with their apartment building’s landlady. The following morning, she went to the local police station, where, according to Palmer Newton, who was on the Tallahassee police force at the time, she asked to be sent home to Texas. But before the officers could do anything, she returned to the apartment. She was found dead there a few hours later, the back of her head blown off by a 20-gauge shotgun.

To this day, it’s not clear what happened. The morning after Connally’s death, Hale told a coroner’s jury that he’d come home to discover his wife lying on the sofa with a loaded shotgun, threatening to kill herself. He’d pleaded with her to put the gun down, but she refused, and when he lunged for the weapon it went off. The death was eventually ruled an accident, despite conflicting evidence including the fact that, according to Newton, the gun was absent any of Connally’s fingerprints.

After Connally’s death, Hale went home to Fort Worth, where he got his GED and attended Texas Christian University for a short time. He then made his way to Los Angeles, where he was spotted by the FBI breaking into the apartment of one of President Kennedy’s mistresses, Judith Campbell Exner. No one has ever confirmed exactly what Hale was doing in Exner’s apartment, but, as reported by Seymour Hersh in his 1997 book The Dark Side of Camelot, there’s reason to suspect blackmail: Around that same time, the federal government awarded I.B. Hale’s new employer, General Dynamics, one of the largest military contract in U.S. history. (In an angry letter he sent to me earlier this year, Hale issued a rambling denial of both the break-in and any wrongdoing in Kathleen Connally’s death. He’s given similar blanket denials to reporters investigating many aspects of his life presented here.)

After L.A. came Houston, where Hale worked as a gigolo for society ladies, and then Lake Tahoe, where he spent a winter as a ski bum and served three months in jail for marijuana possession. By the mid-sixties he’d wandered back to California, where he went by the name Bob Sunstar and traveled in the same circles as Charles Manson. By the end of the decade, he’d had four children in Texas, Oregon, and California by three different women.

It was while resting near a waterfall in the San Bernardino Mountains that Hale met 16-year-old Kurina Rose Bresler, who would become Country Rose. Bresler was the runaway daughter of Hollywood actress Betty Freeman; according to Freeman, Hale, then 33, spirited her daughter away. “He trapped her with sex and drugs,” she would tell an Anchorage Daily News reporter in 2003.

Bresler and Hale had their firstborn, Butterfly Sunstar now Eli­shaba in 1975. And approximately every two years for the next 30, Bresler would bear Hale another child, all far from medical care. For more than two decades, the family raised sheep and goats and grew vegetables on a small parcel of a northern New Mexico ranch owned by Jack Nicholson, an arrangement worked out by Freeman with the actor’s business manager.

Around the time Elishaba turned 18, he started forcing her to satisfy his sexual desires.

Throughout his wanderings, Hale had dabbled with New Age tracts such as The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, but it wasn’t until 1979, while living on Nicholson’s ranch, that he converted his family to his home-brewed Christianity. He took the name Preacher Bob and then Pilgrim and, over time, became adept at spreading his version of the Lord’s word. In the early nineties, he convinced his twin brother, William, a successful Fort Worth veterinarian, to give up his material possessions and come to New Mexico. William's wife, Patsy, remembers coming home from work before he left to discover that her clothing was missing. “Bob convinced Billy that my wardrobe was the work of the devil,” she says. “He said they burned it.”

The New Mexico ranch was so remote, and Hale’s rules about leaving so strict, that Country Rose and the children would sometimes go six months without interacting with anyone outside the family. Absent anything resembling normal social mores, strange things happened: The older sons would later recount an episode in which several of them, confused teenagers forced to share a single bed, experimented sexually with one another. Hale’s commandments were to be followed at all times, and when someone disobeyed, he would administer a “correction.” Such punishments could be unbelievably barbaric. When Hale found out about his sons’ deviance, he lashed them over a whipping barrel. Country Rose, 17 years Hale’s junior and deeply afraid of him, suffered terribly. Once, after Hale dragged her outside by her hair to administer a beating, he nailed clumps of her hair to a post as a warning. Around the time Elishaba turned 18, he started forcing her to satisfy his sexual desires.

As the years went on, neighbors began building homes closer and closer to the ranch and started taking a concerned interest in the backwoods family, especially after law-enforcement officers came looking for a woman Hale had allegedly brainwashed and convinced to run away from her husband, along with their daughter. In the late 1990s, the neighbors notified Hale that they were drafting a letter to Nicholson asking that the family be evicted from the ranch.

Alaska beckoned. It was there, Hale imagined, that he would create a holy, untainted community populated by him and his children. And from the outside, that was just what it seemed.

Ironically, Hale found it even more difficult to keep his family secluded in the Last Frontier. In part, this was because the elements were so much harsher; he needed more assistance from outsiders to keep his clan warm, healthy, and fed. But his biggest problem was money. In purchasing Hillbilly Heaven, Hale had saddled himself with substantial debt. So, beginning in 2003, he allowed Joseph, Joshua, David, and Moses to work for a hunting guide several hours north of McCarthy.

Free from their father’s control, his oldest sons began violating his prohibition against attending church with other families. At one service, they met Jim Buckingham, a born-again former U.S. Army officer from Palmer, Alaska, who introduced them to his nine children. Friendships quickly developed, and in the summer of 2004 the Hale family went to Palmer to meet the Buckinghams. The gathering, in general, was positive. But during a later, smaller gathering, Buckingham noticed bruises on Elishaba and grew suspicious. He confronted Hale about them, but Hale denied that anything was going on. Buckingham then began speaking openly, in front of Joseph and Joshua, about the right relationship between a father and his children, and not long after, Hale forbade his family from talking with the Buckinghams again, claiming they weren’t truly saved.

“That was always the way it worked,” Joseph told me. “Just when we’d start getting close to another family, my dad would find something wrong with their doctrine and prevent us from seeing them again.”

Meanwhile, McCarthy was slowly falling out of love with the Hales. At the beginning of the 2004 summer tourist season, Hale stationed some of his youngest children at a popular footbridge, where, dressed in ragged outfits, they sold tickets for a shuttle between McCarthy and the Kennecott mine, a service already provided by other area families. Before long, there was growing sentiment that the Hales were everywhere stealing business, grazing their horses next to the airport’s gravel runway. Worst of all, the family had set up a squatter’s camp down the street from the McCarthy Lodge to sell their tourist services, and their livestock and detritus were spilling out into the public right of way.

By September, the town was fed up. On a Saturday afternoon, Stevens Harper, a park ranger whose driveway had been partially blocked by the family’s operation, arrived with a bulldozer to remove the camp, and two dozen residents gathered to support him. Hale backed down, and later that fall, he acquired a parcel at the end of the McCarthy Road, near John Adams’s house. He erected a few small structures, but the camp lacked plumbing, electricity, and a phone, so the family frequently turned to Adams to borrow tools or make a phone call to Hillbilly Heaven.

Winter’s short daylight hours came to McCarthy, making one hazy day bleed into the next. Things were quiet until the morning of January 10, 2005, when Joseph and Joshua showed up at Adams’s door looking concerned. They said that their father was not feeling well and that they were going to head out to Hillbilly Heaven.

After they left, Adams walked over to the shed to see if everything was all right. It was silent as he approached, and when he knocked on the door, Hale invited him in. The drab, unfurnished space was dimly lit and cluttered with supplies. Elishaba was standing in one corner with her arms crossed. Hale was in the other, leaning on his cane, glowering. Adams asked if everything was all right; both muttered yes. Adams was suspicious, but didn’t feel it was his place to intervene, so he returned home.

Elishaba would later describe that what was happening was a “correction” brought about by her questioning if it was right for Hale to have sexual relations with his own daughter in an Anchorage courtroom: “You punched me with those trained fists,” she said, addressing Hale. “You nailed and wired the door shut so I could not get out… If I cried out, you would tear me to pieces, those were your words.”

After two days of severe physical and sexual abuse, Hale escorted Elishaba back to Hillbilly Heaven, where he made her wear a ski mask to hide her wounds. By now, Jim Buckingham’s example had begun to sink in among Elishaba’s older brothers. When Elishaba showed them her bruises, they confronted Hale in front of the family, demanding that he admit to his sinful behavior, repent, and vow never to touch their sister again. Hale went berserk. He punched Joshua in the face, breaking his nose and knocking him out cold.

Not long after, Joseph, Joshua, and three of their younger brothers slipped away in the night, escaping to the town of Glennallen, where they took shelter with the Hoffmans, a family they’d met while guiding. Elishaba and the others remained trapped partially by fear, but mostly by a conviction that betraying their father would cost them their souls.

Hale became even more violent after his sons left, and Elishaba feared that he might soon take her life. So on a frosty morning in late March 2005, after Hale left the homestead early with two of his youngest sons to gather supplies in town, she decided to make her break.

As soon as Hale departed, she hurriedly gathered food, sleeping bags, and two white sheets—one for her and one for Jerusalem, at 16 Hale’s second-oldest daughter—that the sisters could use to camouflage themselves in the snow. Elishaba talked with Joseph by phone, and the two made a hasty plan to meet in McCarthy, where they could then all return to Glennallen. But getting to McCarthy meant that Elishaba and Jerusalem would have to make it down the McCarthy Green Butte Road before their father began his return. They would have a few hours, but there was no way of knowing exactly how many. And once in town, they would have to hide until their brothers arrived.

Elishaba and Jerusalem said goodbye to Country Rose and their remaining brothers and sisters, then loaded a snowmobile. But when they turned the ignition, nothing happened—Hale had removed the spark plug. Jerusalem ran to the toolshed and scrounged up a spare, and after a little banging around inside the engine housing, they made it about a half-mile down the road to a snowy meadow. Then the engine belt snapped. Jerusalem plodded back up the trail with the spark plug to fetch another machine, while Elishaba hunched over the engine, desperately trying to repair the belt with bailing wire and a pair of pliers.

“It was like a dream where you run for your life and nothing’s working,” she later told reporter Tom Kizzia, of the Anchorage Daily News, in the only interview she’s given on her escape. “Where you try to run and can’t run.”

Elishaba knew her father could be starting up the road any minute, and even if she gave up and returned to the homestead, he’d notice the snowmobile in the meadow and realize she’d tried to get away. There was no turning back. Finally, after a few agonizing minutes, Jeru­salem returned on a second snowmobile, and the sisters set off again for McCarthy.

Meanwhile, in town, Hale and John Adams had spent the morning loading sleds. When they finished, Hale hitched a sled to his snowmobile and set out for the homestead with his two sons riding along. Adams, who agreed to shuttle out another load, told Hale that he had an errand to run but would catch up. Some 20 minutes later, when Adams made the turn onto McCarthy Green Butte Road, he was surprised to see two female riders speed past him in the opposite direction.

Adams caught up with Hale at the edge of the homestead, where he was debating with his sons about whether any snowmobiles were missing. Hale seemed agitated and soon mounted his own snowmobile and headed back to McCarthy alone. Adams followed a few minutes later.

“I could tell that something had gotten to him,” recalls Adams. “He’s usually careful on a snowmobile, but as I followed his tracks, I could see that he was going as fast as he could.” A few times, Hale’s course veered off the trail. Footprints revealed that on several occasions, Hale had marshaled the strength to push his 500-pound machine out of deep snow.

Hale just after his arrest on October 5, 2005.
Hale just after his arrest on October 5, 2005 (Greg Dart/AP)

When Adams arrived back in McCarthy, Hale was at his in-town camp. Hale mentioned something about Elishaba and Jerusalem going missing, and Adams realized the women he’d seen must have been the sisters. He’d later learn that they had pulled off the road, into the forest between Hillbilly Heaven and McCarthy, where they’d waited, concealed, until Hale passed.

Still, the escape plan was falling apart. By the time Joseph and Joshua made it to McCarthy, Hale was there, too. There’d been some confusion on the phone about the hastily arranged meeting place, and the girls, not trusting anyone to provide shelter, decided to hide in the woods outside town. Joseph and Joshua knew their sisters were somewhere nearby, but none of the children wanted another violent confrontation with their father, so the brothers returned to Glennallen to await word from them. Elishaba and Jerusalem remained in the woods for two days, wrapping themselves in the sleeping bags and white sheets while their father patrolled nearby roads and trails.

On the third day, once the sound of their father’s snowmobile engine had stopped reverberating through the forest, the girls went to Adams’s house and called their brothers in Glennallen; Joseph and Joshua picked them up that night. Six months later, after much coaching by Jim Buckingham and a few more acts of violence inflicted by Hale on the younger children, the siblings went to the police.

Hale was arrested outside Anchorage on October 6. The next day, when the arraigning judge asked Hale to state his profession, he said simply, “I am a father.”

Joseph Hale, now 31, lives outside Palmer, Alaska, with his wife, Lolly, Jim Buckingham’s second-eldest daughter, and their two young sons. Their post-and-beam home lies high up on Lazy Mountain and looks out over a rolling pasture that tumbles down to the Matanuska River, a braided glacial outflow that unfurls along a road that travels a hundred miles to Glennallen and farther still to McCarthy.

Like his other siblings, Joseph doesn’t go back to McCarthy much; the family homestead has been sold, and the children’s lives are firmly planted in the Palmer area, where the wilderness is a bit closer to the rest of the world. His mother and younger brothers and sisters live not far off, with the Buckinghams. Joshua and his wife, Sharia, also a Buckingham daughter, and Elishaba and her husband, Matthew Speckels, are just up the road.

Hale in superior court in Palmer, Alaska
Hale in superior court in Palmer, Alaska (Al Grillo/AP)

In November 2007, I sat in an Anchorage courtroom for Hale’s sentencing hearing, watching as Country Rose and the children catalogued his abuse and deceit. For the adult children, there was self-recrimination as well born of a painful frustration that they had not intervened earlier. “I want to ask forgiveness that I ever let the things go on that went on in our house,” Joshua cried from the witness stand. “I don't know what possessed me, in all my life, to deal with it and let it happen. I beat my chest and weep that this family undertook… There is so much to undo, there is so much that can’t be undone.” The entire Hale family sobbed along with him.

The family continues to embrace a virtuous and simple life. They go to a local church and pay their bills by working in the trades they learned while living off the grid: construction, carpentry, caring for livestock. They read the Bible and support one another in their various projects. But the children face a long recovery and many enduring challenges. They were all poorly schooled. Joshua, Joseph, and Elishaba share a strong sense of having had half their lives stolen from them. And they all have a lingering wariness about the outside world.

One chilly day this past March, I drove out from Anchorage to have dinner with Joseph and Lolly. When I arrived, Joseph welcomed me with a beaming grin and the shake of a hand nearly twice as thick as my own. “C’mon in,” he said. Remembering Alaskan custom in mud season, I pulled off my shoes at the door.

Lolly had made a pot roast with carrots and potatoes, and we sat in their sparse kitchen and talked as we ate. All of the Hales remain very religious, so most of the conversation concerned my own salvation: Had I felt Jesus in my life? Did I have a girlfriend? If so, when would I marry? When Joseph spoke about his own upbringing, he did so through a haze of doubt and bewilderment as if he was still sorting out which parts had really happened. “I’ll never be able to understand why my father did the things he did,” he said. Both Joseph and Lolly were incredibly gracious, responding to my inquiries long after I could sense they were ready for bed.

“The strangest thing about it,” Lee Ann Kreig, a close friend of the family, told me later, “is that for all the evil in Bob, his kids certainly came out all right.”

Hale was sentenced to 14 years in prison, and in May he died of complications from diabetes. Soon after, I emailed Joseph to express my condolences.

“It has been both sad and liberating,” he responded. “But more liberating. God has been good to us.”

From Outside Magazine, Dec 2008 Lead Photo: Jason Holley

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