The Search for Papa Pilgrim: Hunt for fugitive a challenge

Pilgrim accused of sexually abusing one of his 15 children

Posted: Thursday, September 29, 2005

ANCHORAGE - With a land mass comprising one-fifth of the continental United States, there are simply many places to hide in Alaska.

And that's the vexing part for Alaska State Troopers, who are scouring the vast Alaska wilderness and its sparsely populated communities for the man known as Papa Pilgrim, the patriarch of a self-styled pioneering family who is accused of sexually abusing one of his 15 children.

But in Alaska, it can take a long time to ferret someone out of the wilderness, even if they want to be found.

So it's worse when the person is Robert Allen Hale, which is Papa Pilgrim's real name, an experienced outdoorsman who apparently doesn't want to be located.

Authorities say the wiry 64-year-old went on the lam last week after he was indicted by a state grand jury on 30 felony counts, including sexual assault, kidnapping and incest.

Troopers flew to Hale's campsite in McCarthy on Friday night to arrest him. They believe Hale heard the helicopter and fled on a four-wheeler. After troopers departed, Hale allegedly returned and drove off in a van.

Troopers collected evidence this week at the family's homestead inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Authorities claim the abuse of a daughter occurred over an eight-year span, but culminated in January when Hale locked her in a shed for several days, troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson said Wednesday.

The deeply religious family moved to Alaska from New Mexico in 1998. Four years later, Hale pooled their Alaska dividend checks to put money down for their homestead on mining property inside the national park. There, they lived a simple life, hunting, fishing and reading the Bible.

But they are best known for waging a well-published feud with the park service over access to their property near McCarthy, a mining town of about 50 people inside Wrangell-St. Elias.

The problem for authorities is Alaska's sheer size. Even if he stayed inside the park, there's 13.2 million acres to provide cover. If he went elsewhere in the state, that makes finding Hale, whose most recent photographs show him with a full white beard, even more daunting.

About 370 troopers patrol the entire state, which sprawls for more than a half-million square miles. Wilkinson didn't want to discuss specifics of the case to compromise the investigation, but said the department is using various technologies in their manhunt and troopers are following up on tips.

Alaska's mountains, ravines and forests can provide an endless supply of hiding places, and even those who want to be found routinely go missing for days before authorities find them, if at all.

A woman hiking near Juneau's Mendenhall Glacier was lost for five days in July after setting out for what she had believed would be a short stroll. Shokoufeh Attaei wandered the region's glacier fields and woods before reaching a road on her own. No one in Juneau had realized she was missing until the fourth day.

Even plane crashes can be swallowed up by mountains, water or ice. State House Democrat Nick Begich, father of Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, presumedly died in a plane crash with then-U.S. House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, D-La., in October 1972 on a flight from Anchorage to Juneau. No evidence of their plane was ever found.

If authorities have any advantage from Mother Nature, it might be the approaching winter. The cold climate and limited food supply in some areas could stymie the most determined fugitives and force them back to civilization.

Another plus is that many of Alaska's 648,000 residents are segmented into small communities where everyone is familiar with their neighbors' business and new faces attract attention.

"If a person wanted to hide out in the mountains, it would be hard to find them, but it would be difficult for them to hide out in a small town," said Eric Gonzalez, spokesman for the FBI's Anchorage office.

But that doesn't rule out the possibility of Hale blending into one of the state's few population centers.

"He could be sitting in a motel room somewhere," Wilkinson said.

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