ANCHORAGE — Tom Kizzia knew the saga of Papa Pilgrim inside and out.
As the former statewide reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, Kizzia covered the story of Robert Hale, aka Papa Pilgrim. He knew about Hale’s long battle with federal officials over access to his home in a national park and Hale’s frontier, “Little House on the Prairie” lifestyle with his wife and 15 children, living off the land and teaching the Bible.
But there was more to Hale’s story, a much darker side, which Kizzia details with a deft touch in his new book, “Pilgrim’s Wilderness, A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier” (Crown Publishers).
Kizzia first envisioned a book partially about the Pilgrim family, weaving in history of the mining town of McCarthy, where Kizzia owns a cabin, and touching on the transition of the area around McCarthy and the battles that ensued after Wrangell-St. Elias National Park was formed around it 1980.
“Finally, I had to embrace the idea this is a story of this guy’s journey to hell and how his kids escaped and didn’t go down the drain with him,” Kizzia said shortly before giving a reading of the book in August at the main Anchorage library.
Hale was originally from Texas and was once married to the daughter of former Gov. John Connally. The young woman died suspiciously and Hale said he began his quest as a “pilgrim” afterward. That’s not the only famous name associated with Hale. The book also touches on a brief, strange encounter with Judith Campbell, who was reportedly connected both to the Chicago mob and President John F. Kennedy, and an even stranger chance meeting with Charles Manson.
He moved to New Mexico and then to Alaska in 1988 with his wife and children.
The family settled on private land within the national park, where they had run-ins with the National Park Service over access to their property.
Family members used a bulldozer without permission to clear an abandoned mining road to get to their land within the 13.2 million-acre park.
National land rights advocates including the Pacific Legal Foundation rallied to the family’s cause and helped pay its legal bills.
But the family’s secrets unraveled after Hale’s daughter went to Alaska State Troopers with a horrifying story of being brutalized in January 2005 in a building Hale owned away from the family’s homestead.
Hale, who maintained his innocence despite his court plea, claimed he was administering a “correction” to his daughter and that it consisted only of discussing her offense.
His daughter said he pummeled her into submission, locked her inside the building and repeatedly sexually assaulted her.
Other family members including his wife and sons testified that Hale punished them by beating them with a riding crop, denying them food and making them sleep outside in the cold.
They said Hale refused to teach the children to read and kept them from other people to make sure they wouldn’t question his authority.
Hale was sentenced to 14 years in prison in November 2007 after pleading no contest to charges of rape, assault and incest. He died in jail six months later.
In researching the book, Kizzia said he learned what it was like for the Hale children living in their father’s household.
Initially, the family didn’t want to talk to him, saying “this is not a book that could be in a good Christian household,” he said. “Some of them were embarrassed by the story and wanted it to go away.”
But eventually, some of the older children and Hale’s wife, Rose, “found out it felt right to talk to me about what happened,” said Kizzia, who lives in Homer.
“As I found my way into their story to find out what it was like in that family, that kind of took over my imagination, too, as it took over the book.”