THE WHITE SALAMANDER MURDERS : Mark Hoffman’s Discoveries Had Shaken the Mormon Church. : Then a Bomb Went Off. And Then Another.
In Part I, the Mormon Church had been unsettled by the purported discovery of a series of 19th-Century documents. Produced by a young collector named Mark Hofmann, they appeared to question official church history. In 1984, Hofmann had revealed the Salamander Letter, which gave a new, startling account of Prophet Joseph Smith’s discovery of the gold plates. As Hofmann was promising to release yet another set of papers known as the McLellin Collection, three pipe bombs exploded in Salt Lake City. Two people were killed and Hofmann found himself in the hospital. And the McLellin Collection, if it had ever existed, had vanished.
THE MORMON TOWER in Salt Lake City commands the downtown skyline. From the top floors it is possible to see the spot where a pipe bomb blew Mark Hofmann out of his car on a warm afternoon in October, 1985. Looking the other direction it is possible to see the building where a similar bomb had killed Steven Christensen the previous day.
In the hours following the bombings, church leaders within the Mormon tower were forced to confront an unpleasant truth: They had been engaged in secret negotiations with both men just prior to the bombings. Money had changed hands; controversial church documents were to be transferred to the church archives. Now, two people were dead; another was in the hospital. And the documents, if they ever existed, had disappeared.
From the church headquarters, Elder Dallin Oaks contacted the police. Oaks is a member of the Council of the Twelve, the second highest ruling body in the church, and a former president of Brigham Young University. Oaks told them what he knew: that Christensen and Hofmann had been scheduled to deliver a set of historical papers known as the McLellin Collection on the day the bombs began to go off; that the church had arranged a $185,000 bank loan to Hofmann to purchase the collection; that the loan had not been repaid. Everything else was a mystery.
Outside the church offices, Salt Lake City was unnerved. Normally this is not a city of mean streets; there is a prevailing sense of trust among Mormons, even on the sidewalks. The bombings changed that, at least temporarily. Several documents dealers left town, fearing for their lives. The area’s bomb squads received hundreds of calls about suspicious packages, so many calls that several of the squads’ sniffer dogs succumbed to exhaustion. A parcel delivery man was chased and beaten when he left a package wrapped in brown paper on a porch.
The Salt Lake City Police Department conducts its business in a concrete monolith just five blocks from the headquarters of the Mormon Church. Yet a great distance separated the two. Within the department there was none of the church’s brooding apprehension, only a tense anticipation. The bombings were the most sensational crimes in recent memory; investigators from the FBI were flooding in. The department’s detective bureau, which keeps a pet tarantula named Tina Turner in a terrarium on the reception desk, treated its mascot to an extra live cricket that day. This was a big one, maybe the best they would ever see.
Two detectives were placed in charge. Ken Farnsworth is tall, athletic, affable; his partner, Jim Bell, is quiet, driven. Within 24 hours they found themselves embroiled in a debate with other law enforcement agencies that would continue for months.
The friction started when Bell returned from a hospital interview with Hofmann. Bell had never heard of the McLellin Collection, had never heard of the growing crisis over Mormondom’s historical origins. He had simply wanted to talk to Hofmann. As a victim.
Hofmann, in fact, was in remarkably good condition for a man who had just had a pipe bomb explode in his face. A kneecap was blown off, an eardrum was ruptured, and numerous small shrapnel wounds were inflicted. But he was conscious and willing to talk. He told Bell the bomb had gone off as he was heading to a meeting. He had opened the door of his Toyota sports car and a package fell from the seat to the floorboard. When he reached for it, the package exploded.
But the Hofmann account turned out to be less than accurate. Back at the scene Bell was told by the bomb squad that the package could not have fallen to the floor. Analysis of the car’s remains showed that the bomb had exploded on the front seat. The evidence also indicated that Hofmann must have been inside the car when the bomb went off, not climbing in.
A small discrepancy. But for Bell and the other city detectives, it was intriguing. Why would Hofmann lie about a detail like that? When the detectives learned about the missing McLellin Collection, they were more interested still. They had salvaged a charred sheet of ancient papyrus from the car; it appeared to have Egyptian hieroglyphics written on it. Was this part of the rumored collection? And in the car trunk the detectives found a section of galvanized pipe, very much like the pipe used in the bombs. At some point that afternoon, Hofmann ceased to be a victim in the detectives’ minds, and became a suspect.
But the detectives’ suspicions about Hofmann were met with disbelief by some investigators at the county attorney’s office and the FBI. Many believed the city’s detectives were foolishly mistaken. The real perpetrators, they were convinced, would be found elsewhere.
The main competing theory held that the killers were disgruntled investors. Hundreds of persons had lost money in the financially troubled firm managed by Steven Christensen and his partner, Gary Sheets. Supporters of this theory noted that two people died from bombings on the first day: Christensen and Gary Sheets’ wife, Kathy. On the day of the bombings, Gary Sheets held up a computer list of all investors in his firm and told investigators, here are your suspects.
And then there was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was hard to imagine a church elder building pipe bombs, but Mormonism has always inspired some fanatics among its followers. Hofmann’s historical revelations had produced turmoil and threatened to shake the church’s understanding of its origins. Could an enraged follower have gone after Christensen and Hofmann in a misguided attempt to protect the church?
The debate over these theories threatened, at times, to turn the law enforcement agencies into divided camps. Several weeks into the case, the city detectives assembled in the Salt Lake County attorney’s office to make a case against Hofmann. By this time there was more evidence: an eyewitness who would swear he saw Hofmann carrying a package into the office building where Christensen died; the discovery of a high school letter jacket in Hofmann’s house that had been described by the eyewitness. It was all circumstantial, of course, and the county attorney refused to press charges on the evidence presented. At one point in the presentation a federal prosecutor stood up and said, “You’ve got the wrong man,” and walked out of the room.
One evening shortly after that meeting, detective Bell wanted to think the case over. He wandered down to the department’s indoor firing range, which had become a temporary evidence room. It was a spooky scene. The fire department, in hosing down Hofmann’s car, had soaked every piece of paper inside. Now hundreds of documents and pieces of documents hung from clips, drying in the air. A hell of a lot of documents for one man, Bell thought. But then, Hofmann was a documents dealer; why shouldn’t he have a lot of documents?
Bell had to face it; they didn’t have the goods on Hofmann. There was an essential ingredient missing: The motive to commit murder. Why would a respected documents dealer want to kill his colleagues? Bell and the other detectives didn’t know. And until they did, there was no case.
OFFICIALLY, NO ONE ASKED George Throckmorton about any of this. Throckmorton worked for the Utah attorney general’s office as its documents expert. He wondered why the police seemed willing to accept the Hofmann documents at face value. Throckmorton is a devoted Mormon and was more than casually interested in the Salamander Letter. Every time he read that it had been “proven genuine,” he was amused. Throckmorton knew there was no such thing as proof of a document’s authenticity.
In the world of document examination, there are many tests. Each is designed to detect a specific type of forgery. Infrared light, for example, can reveal that different inks have been used on a document; a forger often adds a rare signature, say, to a document to make it more valuable. If he uses an ink that is different from the original, infrared will catch him. But passing the infrared test does not mean a document is genuine. It only means that a single ink was used. And so it goes with document examination: Testing can prove forgery, but it cannot prove authenticity.
Since Throckmorton was the only qualified documents examiner in Utah, he expected a call from the county attorney’s office or the Salt Lake police about the Hofmann case. It never came. Instead, he was contacted by a professor of church history at Brigham Young University. Dean Jessee was worried, a little; he was the man who had certified the handwriting on many of Hofmann’s documents. Jessee suggested that he bring Throckmorton a copy of the Salamander Letter and the reports from the technical examination, just to check over.
The reports revealed what Throckmorton expected. The letter had not been dated; the experts had merely tested the two major components of the letter, the paper and the ink. The Salamander Letter had been written on 100% rag paper; the ink was an iron gallotannic composition. Both were materials used in the 19th Century. But that was all that the tests established. Hofmann could have written the Salamander Letter on a sheet of old paper with a formulation of iron gallotannic ink.
Throckmorton was suspicious. He visited the county attorney’s office; he told them about the vulnerability of document testing, about old paper and old ink and how it didn’t prove much. How there could still be forgery, how it could all add up to a motive for murder.
The county attorney’s office was skeptical. After all, the Hofmann documents had been certified by a dozen experts from all over the country. Recently, the FBI had examined the Salamander Letter at its lab in Washington. It had come back clean. The investigators paused; they looked at Throckmorton. They still needed a motive, and they didn’t have one.
What do you need to start, they asked.
A partner, Throckmorton said.
“I’m a Mormon,” he explained. “No one would believe me, no matter what I found. We need a second expert. A non-Mormon expert.”
That evening Throckmorton called William Flynn, an old friend and a document examiner for the state of Arizona. “What’s your religion?” Throckmorton asked. Flynn said he was a non-practicing Catholic.
Perfect, thought Throckmorton. A Catholic who doesn’t even go to church.
WITHIN DAYS the two men had set up a small document laboratory, complete with microscopes and testing machines, inside the church’s archives. Next to their makeshift laboratory was one of the most guarded sanctums of the Mormon Church, the archival vault. It was the central repository of the church’s past: The original manuscript of the Book of Mormon was kept there; the letters of Prophet Joseph Smith were kept there. And most of the Hofmann documents were kept there.
Negotiations with the church over access to the archives had been delicate, and the final arrangements were instructive: To begin work each morning, Throckmorton and Flynn had to pass through two outer doors before reaching the vault itself. Church officials had the only key to the first door; Flynn and Throckmorton the only key to the second. The vault’s steel door could be opened with a combination known only to the church. Inside the vault, the Hofmann documents were kept in a locked briefcase, handcuffed to a pipe; those keys belonged to Flynn and Throckmorton. It was not exactly an arrangement built on trust.
The testing began with only seven documents. Throckmorton was studying the script of a Hofmann letter with a microscope when, almost casually, he remarked that the ink on the document was cracked. The cracking was invisible to the naked eye, but under the microscope it could be seen clearly; an unusual, alligator pattern in the letters.
Flynn took a look through the microscope. “I wonder what that means?”
On the table in front of them was a pile of Hofmann documents and another pile of general historical papers. Throckmorton suggested a game.
“Hand me a document and don’t tell me which pile it comes from,” he said to Flynn. “I’ll tell you if it’s a Hofmann or not.”
Flynn handed him a paper; Throckmorton checked under the microscope and said, “Hofmann.” He was right. With the next sheet: “Non-Hofmann.” Right again. With the third: “Hofmann.”
Wrong, Flynn said. It had come from the other pile. Throckmorton tried again, guessed Hofmann again, and was wrong again. He looked at Flynn and shrugged. “So much for theory No. 1,” he said.
As the men packed up that day, Throckmorton was still intrigued. He asked the archives director for a favor. Would he check to see who had donated or sold all the non-Hofmann documents on the table to the church?
The report came back the next day: several of the sheets in the non-Hofmann pile were Hofmanns after all. Flynn and Throckmorton tried the test again; Throckmorton was right every time.
Then something remarkable happened. The men were examining a promissory note from the church’s early days. It was a standard item, not worth much, except that Joseph Smith had signed the note on the back. That signature increased its value 10 times. The men peered at the front side through the microscope. No cracking. They peered at the signature on the back. It was cracked.
They sent the promissory note to the archivist with a request to check on the source. It was a Hofmann. Flynn and Throckmorton smiled at each other and thought the same thing: Hofmann had forged the signature of Joseph Smith on the back of a genuine promissory note to increase its value. They had found a kind of Rosetta Stone.
MARK HOFMANN left the hospital in early November. He was confined to a wheelchair from the knee injury, but the doctors predicted he would walk again soon. Hofmann said nothing publicly and declined to speak with reporters.
He had been identified as the police department’s chief suspect, but no murder charges had been filed. Many of Hofmann’s clients and associates refused to believe he was the killer. His attorneys began to challenge the county attorneys to either file charges or admit they were wrong.
Some friends said they fully expected Hofmann to produce the McLellin Collection now that he was home from the hospital. He might have to wait for the appropriate legal opportunity, they said, but he would produce it. One of those was Lyn Jacobs, a theological historian who had helped Hofmann arrange the sale of the Salamander Letter. When asked about the McLellin Collection in an interview, Jacobs said, “I have no reason to doubt the collection exists as Mark has described it.”
Warming to the subject, Jacobs continued, “Mark Hofmann is not a forger. I don’t think he even knows how. I have never heard a negative statement concerning Mark’s integrity from any archivist or professional. If he were a forger, how could he have gone so long without a single slip?”
IT WAS DURING THIS TIME that Gerry D’Elia would wake up with nightmares. D’Elia was a deputy county attorney; for two months he had been on the case. At night he would dream about Mark Hofmann, dream about the murders and then wake up suddenly, unable to sleep again. On those nights he hated the Mormons, hated their documents. He would stare into the darkness and swear he was leaving Utah.
D’Elia didn’t leave. He went to the office instead. As often as not, there would be others there, and still others in the police department across the way. The bombing case had become a collective obsession; no one ever seemed to go home. Detectives would work for 20 hours straight and curl up to sleep under a table. Once Police Chief E. L. Willoughby walked into his office and found a half-dozen detectives snoozing on the floor. The chief offered to move out so the detectives could use his room as a dorm.
For D’Elia and many others, the obsession stemmed from wounded pride. “No one believed we were sharp; they thought we were just the local boys about to screw up a big case,” he says. “Mainly, they believed we were wrong about Hofmann. So we wanted to be right.”
All D’Elia’s instincts told him Hofmann was the man. The other leads had turned into blind alleys; the other suspects had faded.
But, by early December, D’Elia still needed to establish a connection between Hofmann and the pipe bombs; there wasn’t enough evidence yet to convince a jury. Explosives experts had learned that the bombs had been filled with black powder and triggered by mercury switches. Several weeks earlier an investigator had walked into the police department and dropped the switches and connectors on a desk. Here are the bomb parts, he said; they were bought at Radio Shack. That was fine, D’Elia thought. But how could they prove that Hofmann bought those same parts at a Radio Shack?
They quickly discovered that Radio Shack uses an elaborate receipt system. Every customer, whether cash or charge, is asked to fill out a form that includes his name and address. D’Elia figured that Hofmann used an alias. During a search of Hofmann’s house the detectives had found an envelope that contained the name “Mike Hansen.” In the wild hope that Hofmann had used the same name at Radio Shack, the investigators began sifting through receipts.
There were tens of thousands of receipts. There were Radio Shacks all over the Salt Lake valley. Nothing was computerized; every receipt was a separate piece of paper. One by one, they started. Detectives would finish lunch early and run over to the closest Radio Shack to whip through a couple thousand receipts. A squad of rookies at the police department was assigned to full-time Radio Shack duty. It was like counting the corn kernels in a grain silo.
Days passed; the search turned up nothing. Then one Saturday a rookie volunteered to re-scan several boxes of receipts; one of the detectives had a hunch about this batch. And there it was: a Mike Hansen receipt. For mercury switches.
The receipt did not prove Mike Hansen was Mark Hofmann. It did not prove that the mercury switches were put into a bomb. But a corner had been turned.
AT THE CHURCH archives, the discovery of the cracked ink had left Flynn and Throckmorton first excited, and then puzzled. Instinct told them that the cracking was a sign of forgery, but they weren’t certain. What if it was a coincidence? Somehow they had to discover how the cracking got there, and what it meant.
Flynn had a theory, and he returned to Arizona to test it. If Hofmann was a forger, he must have aged his documents artificially. That would have required exposing the documents to certain chemicals. And Flynn guessed that the chemicals also cracked the ink. Exactly which techniques Hofmann would have used, Flynn couldn’t guess.
Flynn was 40; he had pursued forgers for half his life. He loved the hunt. At times he has even felt affection for the best forgers because they made the hunt better. And never had there been anything like this; nothing so tricky, nothing where the stakes were so high. Flynn realized that if he and Throckmorton returned a finding of forgery, they would be implying that the other examiners had been played for fools. In the beginning, Flynn had hesitated to take the case, knowing the problems that might follow. But he hadn’t hesitated long.
Back in Arizona, Flynn realized he had entered unexplored territory. Other experts knew very little about artificial aging. Finally he pulled a volume from his bookshelf that only a documents examiner would own and love: “Forty Centuries of Ink.” Inside he found references to 19th-Century frauds and some clues about the art of making new documents appear old. It seemed that all techniques of artificial aging involved the rapid oxidation of ink, in this case the iron gallotannic ink widely used a century ago.
Flynn knew that many chemicals would oxidize the iron component in this ink, and he figured Hofmann would have used a product that was easily available. So he tried household ammonia; it worked. Then he tried sodium hydroxide; it worked even better. The fumes from sodium hydroxide turned the black ink to a dark, red, old-looking color within minutes. The iron in the ink was converting to rust, just as it would convert naturally over a period of decades. The aging that resulted from the chemicals was not so much artificial as it was vastly accelerated.
Then came the real test. Flynn slipped one of his newly aged sheets under the microscope to check for the characteristic cracking; he pulled the letters into focus. The surface he saw was completely smooth. The cracking wasn’t there. Flynn waited, hoping the cracking would take time to develop. He looked again; it still wasn’t there.
Flynn was unsettled; he had been so sure. He called Throckmorton in Salt Lake and the two men discussed what might have gone wrong. They decided the likeliest culprit was the formulation of ink. Maybe Hofmann’s ink was different from theirs.
They needed a break, and they got it. Flynn recalled that a book had been seized at Hofmann’s house during a search; it was “Great Forgers and Famous Fakes,” by Charles Hamilton, a New York documents expert. Flynn got a copy in Phoenix and thumbed through the pages. In the back of the volume was the page he had been hoping to find: a formula for 19th-Century iron gallotannic ink. The formula contained several ingredients that Flynn had not used in his composition, but one in particular jumped off the page. Gum arabic.
Flynn called around town; no one had any. Finally he called his brother, a chemist who works for the Food and Drug Administration in Washington. The brother said gum arabic is a thickener, a food additive. He would ship some to Phoenix.
A week later Flynn sat at his desk and tried to duplicate the techniques Hofmann might have used. He mixed the gum arabic with a new batch of iron gallotannic ink in a glass bottle. He dipped a steel pen into the ink bottle and scratched a sentence across a sheet of century-old paper. The sentence was aged for half an hour with the highest-quality sodium hydroxide. Finally Flynn slipped the sheet under the microscope and focused. The letters were smooth at first, but then began to break in an odd, alligator pattern. They were cracking.
Flynn later figured it out. Gum arabic undergoes a radical change when it is exposed to an alkaline substance such as sodium hydroxide. That change causes the gum to transform from a thin fluid to a material that is thick and brittle. Something that would crack as it dried.
Flynn realized, with some irony, that Hofmann’s craftsmanship had betrayed him. He had not made just any iron gallotannic ink; he had mixed a composition that was as close as possible to the ink used in the 19th Century. If Hofmann had ignored the gum arabic, the cracking would never have appeared.
Throckmorton and Flynn found other signs as they studied the Hofmann documents: Under ultraviolet light some documents showed a telltale feathering effect, a running of the ink that suggested that the sheets had been hung to dry. Other tests indicated that more than one ink had been used on some papers.
But after the cracking, they were sure. Flynn and Throckmorton had found a master forger; so good that a half dozen of the best experts in the country had been fooled. They had also found a motive for murder.
IN SALT LAKE, THE PILE of Hofmann documents kept growing at police headquarters. Ken Farnsworth, the detective in charge of the document investigation, had begun with one set of documents--the Egyptian papyri that were supposedly part of the McLellin Collection. By the time the two documents examiners discovered the forgeries, Farnsworth and the other investigators had collected a small universe of documents from Hofmann’s clients. There were Mormon letters, old Bibles, hymn books, Mormon currency, 19th-Century contracts, Books of Mormon in English, Books of Mormon in foreign languages, frontier emigrant guides and ecclesiastical blessings.
Nor was the collection limited to Mormon history. The Oath of a Freeman, which Hofmann had offered to the Library of Congress for $1.5 million, remained in New York with Hofmann’s agents. Other Hofmann clients produced a second copy of the oath, along with promissory notes signed by frontier scout Jim Bridger, a letter by Betsy Ross, a photograph of Al Capone with his signature, an autographed copy of Jack London’s “Call of the Wild.” In the 10 months before the bombings, the detectives calculated that Hofmann consummated deals worth $944,000.
One by one, Flynn and Throckmorton tested the documents. They had a standard now. They looked for the cracking; they looked for the feathering effect around words. Over a two-month period the men examined more than 600 documents, both Hofmanns and non-Hofmanns.
They tested the Anthon Transcript that Hofmann had brought to the archivist at Utah State University with the pages stuck together. It was a forgery.
They tested the Lucy Mack Smith letter, the earliest known Mormon document, which Hofmann had sold to Brent Ashworth, thereby making Ashworth a famous Mormon. It was a forgery.
They tested the Joseph Smith letter discussing the Prophet’s money-digging activities. It was a forgery.
And then they tested the Salamander Letter. It was a forgery.
Every important document that Hofmann had ever produced, the faith-promoting documents and the church-threatening documents, they were all forgeries.
The only remaining question involved the first Oath of a Freeman. Hofmann’s New York agents successfully resisted a subpoena ordering them to deliver the oath for examination. The mystery of the second oath was solved, however. It had been printed from an engraved plate that Hofmann had ordered from a plate-making company. In Hofmann’s basement detectives found a photographic negative that had been used to produce the engraved plate. Most likely, the second oath was printed in Hofmann’s basement.
The McLellin Collection remained a phantom. A Salt Lake Tribune reporter located the Texas family that owned many of William McLellin’s papers. The reporter was allowed to read the collection; it contained none of the items described by Hofmann. The family patriarch said he had no intention of selling the collection and had never discussed its sale to Mark Hofmann. He had never heard of Mark Hofmann.
FARNSWORTH CAME TO appreciate some of the ironies in the case. He now understood, for example, that most of Hofmann’s forgeries were not single events. The environment for a forgery was often prepared in advance, sometimes years in advance. When the handwriting of the Salamander Letter was being examined, authenticators compared it to one of the few examples of writing by the author, Martin Harris. The sample had come from the Mormon church archives. What the authenticators did not know was the source of the sample. It also had come from Mark Hofmann, who had traded the sample to the church years previously. The authenticators, without their knowledge, were certifying a Mark Hofmann forgery by comparing it to another Mark Hofmann forgery.
In Farnsworth’s mind, the incredible number of forgeries answered many questions. It explained the terrible pressures squeezing Hofmann in the final weeks before the bombings. The collector had simply let the fraud get away from him; he had promised documents--the McLellin Collection, mainly--that he could not fake or forge. The desperate dealings in the last weeks were an attempt to avoid a final accounting that would uncover the deception. The man who pressed him the hardest, Steven Christensen, was the first to die. Farnsworth believed that the killing of Kathy Sheets was a desperate and cold-blooded attempt to divert the investigation.
Still, there were unanswered questions. Why did Hofmann promise anyone a huge set of papers such as the McLellin Collection, a collection too large to be forged without enormous effort? And who was the intended victim of the bomb that exploded in Hofmann’s car? Farnsworth was not sure. Perhaps it exploded by accident as Hofmann set the triggering device. Or perhaps it was intended to destroy Hofmann’s car after Hofmann walked away. There were many speculations; only Hofmann knew the answers.
IN FEBRUARY, 1986, Hofmann was charged with the murders of Steven Christensen and Kathy Sheets, and with 28 counts of fraud. Two months later, at a lengthy preliminary hearing, the state presented its case against the collector. Eyewitnesses placed Hofmann in the building where Christensen had died; bomb parts bought by “Mike Hansen” were shown, in fact, to have been bought by Mark Hofmann; he was tied to forgery after forgery. The defense offered no witnesses.
As the date for Hofmann’s trial approached, his defense attorneys began to discuss a possible plea bargain; a guilty plea would allow him to avoid a possible death penalty. But a last, odd twist appeared. Hofmann’s father, a native Utahan and lifelong Mormon, told his son that he should reconsider the plea bargain.
The father’s argument was founded on the Mormon tenet known as blood atonement, which holds that some crimes can only be repaid with the blood of the sinner. Hofmann’s father was worried that his son, in gaining a reduction in sentence, might condemn himself to eternal torture.
Things came to a standstill. Then a deputy county attorney discovered that the Mormon Church had renounced blood atonement in the 1960s. A citation of the new policy was photocopied and passed to the elder Hofmann through the defense attorneys. The plea bargain went forward.
In January of this year, Hofmann walked into a Salt Lake County courtroom and pleaded guilty to the second-degree murders of Christensen and Sheets. He admitted that the Salamander Letter was a forgery and that the attempted sale of the McLellin Collection was a deception. The judge sentenced Hofmann to four concurrent terms of five years to life in the state penitentiary and said he would recommend that Hofmann spend the rest of his life behind bars.
As part of his plea bargain, Hofmann agreed to an unusual arrangement with the prosecutors. He promised to answer all questions surrounding the events of the past five years. Chief among those questions are the target of the third bomb and the strategy behind the McLellin Collection. The debriefing has been greeted with some skepticism, the potential honesty of the answers doubted. The process is ongoing and prosecutors say the debriefing material will be released soon.
SINCE THE ORIGINAL disclosures about the church’s involvement with Mark Hofmann, Mormon officials have had little to say about the affair. They have declined all interviews and made no public statements except for their testimony at the preliminary hearing. Hugh Pinnock, the church elder who arranged the $185,000 bank loan to Hofmann, repaid the loan himself. The public relations extravaganzas surrounding faith-promoting documents have disappeared.
In the past few months the church has installed a tighter security system in its archives and placed new restrictions on their use. To gain access to the archives, scholars must now sign forms saying they will submit their manuscripts to the church for review before publication.
Yet the re-examination of Joseph Smith and the origins of the church continues in Utah universities, even though the Hofmann documents that inspired the effort have been repudiated. One scholar will soon publish a book describing the American folklore and rites of magic that accompanied the church’s early days. Michael Quinn, the author, says the book was begun because of questions raised by the Salamander Letter. However, he says, the Salamander Letter was simply the catalyst, not the foundation of the book.
Many of those closely involved in the Hofmann affair believe the reshaping of Mormon history was Hofmann’s true purpose, whether consciously formulated or not. They note that the controversial documents placed Hofmann in a position of high visibility and great risk; forging rare but innocuous documents would have been safer and more lucrative. Yet Hofmann repeatedly produced forgeries that touched the most sensitive parts of the church’s past. And there are indications that Hofmann had no intention of stopping; in Hofmann’s house detectives found evidence that the 116 Lost Pages of the Book of Mormon were being prepared.
Thus far, there is little evidence that the turmoil has produced an erosion of Mormon faith. But some scholars believe the impact cannot be measured in the short-term.
“You’re going to see new books come along, and slowly they will change the perception of Joseph Smith,” says A. J. Simmonds, the archivist at Utah State University. “I think you are going to see a liberalization, a Methodization of the Mormon church, and the faith itself will change. Mark Hofmann did not produce that change, of course. The Hofmann events served as a trigger for other forces that were out there already, waiting.”
At police headquarters, the room that once was stacked high with Hofmann documents has been cleared out. There are few mementos of the months when no one went home. But after Hofmann was imprisoned, some of the investigators received letters from Bill Flynn. Each letter was written on antiquated paper and scratched in the handwriting of a century ago. Each expressed high gratitude for the investigator’s splendid work in capturing the wily Mark Hofmann.
The letters were signed, “Joseph Smith.” The signatures looked very real; it would have taken an expert to tell the difference.