This is a murder mystery worthy of the best fictional stories ever written. Why there has not been a movie made about is beyond me. All in all, it is one of the most exceptionally intriguing, entertaining, and bizarre episodes in the history of Mormonism. The climax of this story took place in Salt Lake City on October 15 and 16, 1985, when bombs killed Steven F. Christensen and Kathleen B. Sheets and seriously injured Mark W. Hofmann, but the roots of the crime goes back nearly a decade.
The bombings received national media attention immediately and were picked over and reassessed for weeks thereafter. Living in Ogden, Utah, at the time I remember receiving half a dozen calls from interested people around the country—some of whom I did not know but who obtained my telephone number from God knows where—immediately after the murders. Invariably they asked about the bombings and the victims, the possible connection each might have to controversial Mormon documents bearing on the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and the myriad fears and concerns of those in the Mormon historical community. Hofmann had discovered these documents and they had been rocking the understanding of early Mormonism since the discovery of his first in 1979.
One of the scenarios developed during the period immediately following the deaths of Christensen and Sheets on October 15 associated the bombings with high finance and the crumbling business empire of J. Gary Sheets, husband of Kathleen, and former associate of Christensen. Sheets’ business, CFS Financial Corporation, had been in a well-publicized nose-dive. His investors and creditors were clamoring for repayment and Sheets was considering bankruptcy. Christensen had left CFS a few months earlier unhappy with the direction Sheets had charted for the company. Could Sheets have planted the bombs to collect insurance money on the victims or to keep them from talking about illicit business dealings? Could disgruntled investors have placed the bombs? No one knew.
If this were true, however, the Mormon historical community need not worry. The monkey-wrench in this scenario was what appeared to be the attempted murder of Hofmann on the morning of October 16. He was not associated with CFS in any way, but he had a business relationship with Christensen revolving around the discovery and sale of Mormon historical documents. Christensen had purchased from Hofmann the so-called “Salamander Letter” of Martin Harris to W.W. Phelps, which had been unveiled in a circus-like meeting of the Mormon History Association in May 1985. After Hofmann’s bombing most of the speculation suggested that the murders were linked to that document and the study of Mormon origins.
Dated October 23, 1830, this letter narrated a strikingly different story of Book of Mormon origins than most were familiar with from the standard faith story. It suggested that Joseph Smith was intimately involved in folk magic (one aspect of which involved a white salamander who guarded the gold plates) and money-digging, and that the Book of Mormon was simply one more instance of these practices. Moreover, the messenger who delivered the plates to Joseph bore little resemblance to the benevolent being traditionally associated with the story. Instead, he was a crusty and malicious spirit who jealously guarded the treasure. The document seemed to hold the potential to destroy the underpinnings of faith for many naïve believers. No one knew at the time that this document, and all of the other important ones found by Hofmann had been forgeries. He had been manufacturing them in his basement for years.
The “Salamander Letter” appeared to be a connecting link between the victims in this scenario for the bombings. Christensen had acquired this document from Hofmann; Kathleen Sheets’ husband, who seemed to have been the real target of the bomb in this scenario, had been a business associate of Christensen. Could hyper-conservative Mormons have placed the bombs to eliminate those associated with the letter in the mistaken notion that the murder of individuals would somehow wipe out all knowledge of the document? More far-fetched but still entertained by some, could the murders have been instigated by certain unspecified Mormon officials in a weird revival of the doctrine of blood atonement for those who would dare to discredit the church’s accepted faith story?
Christensen had contracted with several well-known Mormon scholars to conduct a study of this document, and in the uncertainty of the hours after the Hofmann bombing they were understandably concerned for their safety. Several of them took short, unannounced vacations to get out of their normal surroundings for a few days and asked bomb squads to inspect their homes and offices. Some prominent collectors and a few people tangentially associated with the “Salamander Letter” and research into Mormon origins did the same. At the end of the first week after the bombings, everyone was still in a quandary and knew not how to deal with the situation.
Most Mormon historians dismissed as absurd charges made by police investigators within a few days after the bombings that Hofmann was the primary suspect in the murders and that he had cold-bloodedly murdered Christensen to cover up illegal business dealings and Sheets to make it look like the killings were CFS-related. His own injuries, they thought, coming a day after the first murders were the result of the accidental detonation of a third bomb intended for yet another victim.
Mark Hofmann was the closest thing the Mormon historical community had to a genuine celebrity. As the discoverer of several overwhelmingly important documents, including the 1844 Joseph Smith III blessing of designation, he was both nationally known and invariably well-liked. His unassuming demeanor and boyish charm made him the darling of Mormon intellectual circles. It seemed impossible that Hofmann was really a forger and con-man par excellence who committed two grisly murders to stave off financial ruin and a public unmasking of his unethical and illegal business dealings. It was much easier to believe he was another victim, albeit a luckier one, of some mad bomber who had snapped and was killing anyone associated with the “Salamander Letter.”
As it turned out, the police were right. Hofmann had brutally murdered Christensen and Sheets and had injured himself while handling a third bomb in his car. He had committed murder to mask a complex array of white-collar crimes that extended back to his student days in the late 1970s at Utah State University. These crimes included, but were not necessarily limited to, forgery, fraud, and theft by deception (a legal term for scam operations). They demonstrated a pattern of deceit and manipulation that was impressive in its size, scope, length of time, and extent of completeness. It finally led to murder.
The immediate causes of the murders revolved around a very unusual and complicated collection of documents worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the McLellin Collection. William McLellin had been one of the original Twelve Apostles of 1835 but had left the Mormon church in 1838. Evidence suggests that he collected considerable material on the development of Mormonism. The McLellin Collection was fabled as a treasure trove of important historical materials, many of them damaging to the church’s traditional view of its history.
In 1985 Hofmann claimed to have found the collection and borrowed huge sums—a $185,000 signature loan that Hugh Pinnock, a high-Mormon leader, had arranged in one instance—from several different people, each unknown to the other, for the purpose of acquiring it. In effect he sold the same collection to several different people. Hofmann did not produce the collection for any of his investors—he could not do so because it did not actually exist—and during the fall of 1985 increasing pressure was brought to bear on him to repay his creditors or to produce the collection. He staved them off for a time with some very slick tap-dancing and even secured backing for his bank loan by having Pinnock arrange for a wealthy Mormon to buy the collection from Hofmann and donate it to the church. The money obtained from this sale would not only pay back the $185,000 bank note but also provide Hofmann with a tidy profit. Pinnock, it should be remembered, did not know anything about the other claims on the McLellin Collection from other creditors.
Christensen, who had dealt with Hofmann before, volunteered to serve as a middle man for the movement of the collection from Hofmann to the church. As such he became a key player when Hofmann defaulted on the $185,000 loan and Pinnock asked him to press Hofmann for settlement of the deal in some manner. He was persistent and Hofmann found himself increasingly unable to avoid him. Maybe Christensen had learned that the entire deal was a scam and would have exposed Hofmann, we really don’t know, but he was certainly robbing him of the most crucial commodity of any con-man, time. The bombing of Christensen would buy him time since his main protagonist would be out of the way, Hofmann thought; maybe the church would drop the matter entirely. The bombing of Sheets was a diversion that would make Christensen’s murder appear CFS-related.
But the two October 15 murders did not dissuade the church from completing the transaction for the McLellin Collection. Hofmann was informed after the Christensen and Sheets murders, which most people at first thought were CFS-related, that the deal was still on track and Christensen would be replaced by Donald Schmidt, the retired LDS Church Archivist. Desperate action was required, so Hofmann built a third bomb. The victim would be another decoy, this time one associated with Mormon document dealings.
Brent Ashworth, a successful lawyer and businessman who also bought collectible documents, was the chosen target. He and Hofmann had been meeting most Wednesdays in Salt Lake City for years, October 16 was a Wednesday, and he could easily get him to accept a bomb wrapped in a package. His objective in killing Ashworth was essentially to get everyone to duck, to buy more time.
Most important, Hofmann believed that after this there would be no pressure to proceed with the McLellin deal. This time, theoretically, all of Hofmann’s objectives would have been achieved. The McLellin deal would stall, perhaps permanently. But Ashworth did not meet him in Salt Lake City on October 16 and the bomb accidentally detonated with Hofmann in the car. He was seriously injured and the police investigators at the scene quickly found tell-tale clues implicating him in the bombings.
The police pursued the leads discovered at the site of the third bomb to a logical conclusion and built a tremendously convincing circumstantial case against Hofmann. Although it took months, Hofmann was finally charged with the murders and several lesser crimes in February 1986. In the interim the police were criticized for sloppy work and premature accusations against Hofmann. Many eminent Mormon historians were defensive, explaining that Hofmann had neither the character nor the historical and technical ability to forge documents, deceive individuals, and commit murder. The police spent considerable time trying to convince them otherwise. Ultimately, they succeeded, but there were probably still many doubts until Hofmann confessed. A plea bargain resulted, with Hofmann pleading guilty to certain of the charges and promising to answer questions about his operations in return for a commitment not to seek the death penalty. His current address is the Utah State Penitentiary where he will remain the rest of his life.
As it turns out Mark Hofmann was outwardedly a believing Latter-day Saint but in reality he had become an atheist. He was motivated to his crimes by a lust for money and an opportunity to embarrass the church in which he was raised. Beginning in 1979 he had begun forging historical documents, most of them relating to Mormonism in some way, and sold them to private collectors. In all, he forged 106 documents, including all of his major finds.
The roller-coaster ride Mark Hofmann took the Mormon intellectual community on is fascinating. There is more to learn, however, about the Mark Hofmann affair. I hope someone will take it on. It has all the ingredients of a classic mystery; the likes of Mike Hammer, Perry Mason, and Elliot Ness have nothing on the cast of characters in this story. Their antithesis is as enigmatic as any ever brought to the screen by Anthony Perkins. Those involved in the drama in other capacities—the victims, the bystanders, those caught in the middle—evoke the same pathos as those in a Kafka novel or a Hitchcock film. If it were not for the tragedy of the murders of completely innocent individuals, who by all accounts were upstanding citizens and people of decency and worth, I wish I owned the movie rights. It has all the ingredients of great drama.