10 Years After Mormon Bombings, Forger's Crimes Retain Mystery

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Brent Ashworth keeps the forgeries he bought from Mark Hofmann in a carefully labeled safe-deposit box.

It's not that they're particularly valuable. Ashworth retains them as a painful reminder of the oldest of commercial maxims: Buyer beware.

In the decade since Hofmann punctuated a lifetime of forgery and deceit with three pipe bombs that left two people dead and himself maimed, the depths of his deception remain largely unplumbed, despite four books on his life and crimes.

Most experts believe some of Hofmann's forgeries of historical documents and artifacts continue to circulate, either undetected or through willful ignorance by dealers and galleries.

But Ashworth, a Provo attorney, never had that choice. Virtually everything he bought from Hofmann was fake, from the supposed precious last written words of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith to promissory notes bearing the "X" of famous mountain man Jim Bridger.

"I was taken. I was stupid. I fell right into it. I was a pawn. But I was one of many," said Ashworth, the single biggest loser--clipped for upward of $400,000.

Before greed set in, Hofmann's secret contempt for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints initially motivated his forgeries. He was a member who despised the religion and considered its leaders dupes.

Among his first "faith-promoting" forgeries was the "Anthon Manuscript," which he said he found folded in an old Bible. The brittle, yellowed document seemed to contain ancient characters copied by Joseph Smith, who said he translated the Book of Mormon from gold plates written in "reformed Egyptian" given to him by an angel. Nobody noticed that Hofmann had used Elmer's glue to attach the document.

As the years passed, the tenor of Hofmann's documents changed: His "finds" began to cast Smith and other early leaders in the unflattering light of charlatans and folk magicians.

After a labyrinthine investigation, Hofmann eventually pleaded guilty to multiple counts of theft by deception and two counts of murder--for the Oct. 15, 1985, deaths of Steven Christensen, a young Mormon bishop and collector who was onto Hofmann's forgeries, and Kathy Sheets, the wife of Christensen's former business partner.

Both were killed when they picked up brown-paper-wrapped boxes left at their houses. The following day, Hofmann was critically injured when a third pipe bomb exploded inside his car.

Hofmann, 40, has refused repeated requests for interviews at the prison where the Utah Board of Pardons has told him he will spend the rest of his life.

Part of his agreement with prosecutors was that he would recount his crimes. He was sketchy about the killings, however, and his attorneys would not let him discuss forgeries for which he hadn't been charged.

He told prosecutors he "forged hundreds of items with at least 86 different signatures," including those of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and abolitionist John Brown. Among the more esoteric was that of Button Gwynette, a Revolutionary War patriot whose signature is worth a fortune. Just two are known to exist, and one is on the Declaration of Independence.

But after a 1988 suicide attempt, prison investigators found in Hofmann's mattress a list of 129 signatures and documents that he had not mentioned during extensive interviews with prosecutors the year before.

"Without question, there are more--perhaps many more--Hofmann documents out there," said George Throckmorton, a forensic documents examiner who solved the mystery of Hofmann's forgeries. He knows. He's seen some.

Charles Hamilton, the eminent New York collector and handwriting expert, agrees. His book, "Great Fakes and Famous Forgers," was used by Hofmann to fool the experts--including its author.

"Mostly, they are documents and letters that weren't gathered at the time and whose owners don't want to admit owning or having them authenticated," he said.

Hamilton, handwriting expert Kenneth Rendell and others consider Hofmann among the top four or five forgers in U.S. history--if not for technical skill, then for audacity. He rarely took credit for his finds, but instead would use friends and associates to sell the documents, or sometimes plant a forgery for others to find.

New York book dealer Jennifer Larson has documented at least four sales of Hofmann forgeries since his guilty plea and notes that "large portions of the trade in antiquarian documents operates in secrecy. . . . It is the very aspect of the trade that allowed a forger like Hofmann to succeed."

Unverified signatures of literary or cultural icons continue to trade for thousands of dollars "without a blush," Larson said, and "in an atmosphere of absolute uncertainty."

The experts all agree Hofmann's forgeries were spotty. Some, such as the Oath of a Freeman--billed as the oldest printed document in America--were technical marvels. Others, such as some of his early Mormon forgeries, were sloppy.

But what set Hofmann apart, said Throckmorton, was his versatility. Where most forgers might specialize in one or two signatures, Hofmann mastered many. For prosecutors, he once freehanded a signature of George Washington that was indistinguishable from the real thing.

And Hofmann mixed his mediums, sometimes combining fake signatures with forged printed materials. He also forged antique currency and coins.

Technical skills aside, what strikes Hamilton, Larson and the rest was Hofmann's ability to look people in the eye and lie and ultimately to commit murder to cover his tracks.

"His ability to deceive people, his audacity, his lack of principles and his ability to push peoples' buttons," Larson said, "make him the greatest."

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