Tried to Kill Self, Mormon Artifacts Dealer Says
A dealer in Mormon artifacts who confessed to the pipe bomb murders of two people and the forgery of dozens of Mormon documents has contended that a third bomb was intended to kill himself.
Mark Hofmann, in a lengthy confession made public Friday, said he planted the first two bombs in October, 1985, to prevent the forgeries from being disclosed. The pipe bombs, disguised as packages, killed Steven Christensen, a 30-year-old Mormon bishop and documents enthusiast, and Kathleen Sheets, 50, wife of Christensen’s Salt Lake City business partner.
In remorse over the two murders, Hofmann claims that he assembled a third bomb and set it off inside his car as he sat in the front seat. The bomb blew the documents dealer out of the car, inflicting serious injuries.
The suicide claim was contained in a 544-page transcript of interviews that prosecutors conducted with Hofmann since last January as part of a plea bargain. Hofmann pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of theft by deception. In the arrangement Hofmann agreed to answer all questions about the crimes “truthfully and completely.”
After his guilty plea, Hofmann was sentenced to a five-year-to-life term by Judge Kenneth Rigtrup who said he would recommend to the board that Hofmann spend the rest of his life in jail.
In the interviews with prosecutors, Hofmann was asked if one of his intentions was to rewrite the history of the Mormon church. Hofmann first replied that he would not “go so far as to say I wanted to change Mormon history.” Then, apparently changing his mind, he added, “Let me take that back. Maybe I did.”
Hofmann’s most controversial forgery was the so-called White Salamander Letter, in which he has church founder Joseph Smith Jr., being instructed by a magic salamander rather than the angel of God that is described in the official church version.
In his confession, Hofmann said he was also the unnamed source in a June 13, 1985, story in the Los Angeles Times discussing the possible existence of an early history of the church written by Smith disciple Oliver Cowdery. Such a history had been rumored to contain several controversial sections contradicting official Mormon doctrine. In the story, the unnamed source claimed to have seen the history volume in a vault inside the church’s main office building. The source claimed that the church had prevented the volume from being released to the public.
During the interviews with prosecutors, Hofmann said he had lied to the Times reporter and, in fact, had never seen such a history and had no evidence that it ever existed.
The Times has not previously disclosed the source of the Cowdery history story, citing the reporter’s promise of confidentiality. However, Hofmann’s admission that he was the source releases the Times from that pledge, Noel Greenwood, deputy managing editor, said Friday.
“In deciding to publish Hofmann’s account of the Cowdery history, The Times relied on Hofmann’s reputation--well-established in the highest circles of the Mormon church--as an authority on early Mormon documents. That reputation was unchallenged at the time of the interview,” Greenwood said.
“Obviously, like many others who had dealings with Hofmann, we were seriously misled. In retrospect, it’s clear we erred in publishing it without verifying Hofmann’s story with another source.”
In the interviews Hofmann says he decided on pipe bombs as the murder weapons because he did not want to be present when the victims died. “He didn’t think he could pull the trigger on someone if he faced them, but he could do it if he didn’t have to be around,” the prosecutors wrote in a summary of the transcripts.
The bomb left outside Kathy Sheets’ home was intended to lead police astray, suggesting that both murders were connected to a foundering tax shelter business operated by Christensen and Sheet’s husband, Gary Sheets.
“He said it didn’t matter to him if the Sheets bomb went off or not because its purpose was to establish a diversion,” the summary said. “He realized, of course, that a bomb left at the residence could kill or severely injure someone, but it didn’t really matter to him.”
At the time of the murders, Hofmann was trying to sell a nonexistent set of documents known as the McClellin collection to several investors, including high officials of the Mormon church. Christensen, a former partner of Hofmann’s in several document deals, had been retained by the investors to authenticate the set when Hofmann produced it.
“He said he wasn’t rational at the time but decided that Steve Christensen would have to be killed so that the McClellin transaction would not take place,” the prosecutors said.
On Friday, several prosecutors expressed skepticism about some of the Hofmann contentions, especially his claim of a suicide attempt. They noted that Hofmann is scheduled to appear before the Utah parole board next January to seek a parole date and the appearance of remorse would further his interests before the board.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Bud Willoughby said he believed Hofmann had not fulfilled his promise to answer all questions “truthfully and completely.”
“He has not performed, and it will rest on his shoulders” at the parole board hearing, Willoughby said.