clock menu more-arrow no yes
Attorney Ron Yengich, left, and Mark Hofmann attend a in preliminary trial in April 1986.
Attorney Ron Yengich, left, and Mark Hofmann attend a preliminary trial in April 1986.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

Filed under:

Who is Mark Hofmann and what did he do?

The subject of a new Netflix documentary ‘Murder Among the Mormons’ is one of Utah’s most infamous criminals

One of Utah’s most infamous criminals kissed his children while they slept in their bedrooms the night before he donned a letterman’s jacket and carried a package into the Judge Building in downtown Salt Lake City and took the elevator to the sixth floor.

Mark Hoffman told himself what he was about to do was for their good.

The first bomb exploded a few minutes after 8 a.m. on Oct. 15, 1985, killing Steve Christensen when he reached down to pick up a package in front of his office in the Judge Building. The second bomb exploded about 90 minutes later, killing Holladay housewife Kathy Sheets when she picked up a package in front of her home.

At first it seemed that someone was targeting employees of the beleaguered CFS Financial Corp., because Sheets’ husband, Gary, was CFS’s president, and Christensen was formerly one of the company’s vice presidents. But when a third bomb exploded the next day, suddenly the motive seemed less clear.

The third victim, injured but still alive, was Mark Hofmann, a man unknown to most Salt Lakers but a minor celebrity among Latter-day Saint historians and collectors.

“I told myself that my survival and that of my family was the most important thing. That my victims might die that day in a car accident or from a heart attack anyway. I thought about the Nazi Holocaust, the earthquake in Mexico, and other disasters,” Hofmann wrote in a 1988 letter to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole.

“I remember on the night before the first two bombings going into my children’s bed rooms (sic) and kissing them while they slept telling myself that my plot was for their best good. That night I also ‘chickened out’ of the suicide attempt and made the final selection who my victims would be.”

The four-page, handwritten letter titled, “A Summary of My Crimes,” provides a chilling glimpse into what led Hofmann to fake hundreds of historical documents and kill two people with homemade bombs.

His forgeries and murders that threw Salt Lake City into chaos for two days in October 1985 are the subject of a three-part true crime documentary titled “Murder Among the Mormons” airing on Netflix starting Wednesday.

Many of Hofmann’s forgeries focused on the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which he was a member but had stopped believing as a teenager.

Forged documents related to the church include letters by church founder Joseph Smith, his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, David Whitmer and others. He forged a blessing Joseph Smith purportedly gave to his son Joseph Smith III designating him as his father’s successor. He also forged an 1830 letter from Martin Harris — known as the Salamander Letter — which described Joseph Smith being involved in folk magic.

The church acquired several documents from Hofmann.

By then he had already appeared in Time magazine as the young document dealer who had discovered a long-lost document of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Anthon Transcript, on which LDS Church founder Joseph Smith had copied Egyptian characters from the gold plates that were later translated into the Book of Mormon. Three years later, Time had written about a more bizarre Hofmann find — a letter written by Smith’s close friend Martin Harris. The letter recounted how the church prophet had encountered a white salamander — that transformed itself into a spirit — guarding the gold plates. This second letter, known informally as “the Salamander Letter,” had called into question the origins of the church, because no mention of anything that fantastical had ever appeared in church writings.

On its website, the church recently added an entry titled “Hofmann Forgeries” in its section on church history topics. It recites Hofmann’s story and the adverse impact his forgeries have had on the church.

“False assumptions inspired by Hofmann documents or citations that eventually lead back to his fabricated evidence still distort some depictions of Latter-day Saint history,” according to the church.

“Since the 1980s the church has published extensively on its early history, helping to foster a greater understanding of some of the obscure historical episodes that Hofmann exploited in his forgeries to shed a negative light on the church.”

Hofmann, 66, has revealed little about himself in the more than three decades since he started serving a life sentence at the Utah State Prison in 1987.

But in the letter, he traces his interest in deception back to his childhood.

“As far back as I can remember I have liked to impress people through my deceptions,” he wrote. “Fooling people gave me a sense of power and superiority.”

Hofmann wrote that some of his earliest memories are of doing card tricks and magic. He started collecting coins when he was 12 and soon figured out ways to fool other collectors by altering coins to make them appear more desirable. By age 14, he developed a forgery technique he believed was undetectable.

“I exuded in impressing other collectors and dealers with my rare coins,” he wrote. “Money was not the object.”

By age 24, his interest had shifted from U.S. coins to old Mormon money, which along with his coin collection he sold a year later and decided to forge for a living.

“Money,” he wrote, “then became the object.”

From 1980 to October 1985, forgeries were almost his exclusive source of income, Hofmann wrote. He estimated that he forged hundreds of documents with at least 86 signatures.

Hofmann also piled up more than $1 million dollars in debt. He promised investors high returns on their investments in rare documents but took their money to repay earlier investors. He obtained loans from local businessmen using real, rare books from his personal collection as collateral.

Meantime, a deal with the Library of Congress to buy his rarest “find” — the early 17th century “Oath of a Freeman” — for $1.5 million didn’t pan out.

“In October 1985 it seemed like everything started to collapse around me,” Hofmann wrote in the letter.

The two murders Mark Hofmann committed that bright October day were cold-blooded, clumsy attempts to divert attention from his life’s work — hundreds of forgeries and lies that tampered with Latter-day Saint and American history. For years, it turned out, Hofmann had been producing phony signatures and documents and photos and coins, successfully convincing handwriting experts and forgery detection machines that all of it was authentic.

The reach of his forgeries — from Emily Dickinson to Mark Twain, George Washington to Joseph Smith — and the cunning with which he tricked a nation’s document collectors continue to intrigue authors and investigators.

The bomb that killed Christensen was to take the pressure off two fraud schemes he had involved Christensen in, he wrote. The second bomb intended for Gary Sheets that his wife, Kathleen Sheets, picked up instead was a “pure diversion.”

It was long believed that the third explosion was an accident. But in the letter, Hofmann wrote that he intended to kill himself. The most important thing to him was to keep from being exposed as a fraud in front of his family and friends.

“I felt like I would rather take human life or even my own life rather than to be exposed,” Hofmann wrote.

Immediately after the third bombing, Hofmann became a suspect in the Oct. 15 pipe bomb murders. But the case was so complicated the district attorney’s office, for the first time ever, had to use a computer to keep track of the information. Investigators also began constructing a timeline, posting pieces of information on the blank walls of a “war room.” At first they couldn’t figure out how the stuff on one wall related to stuff on another wall, remembers prosecutor Bob Stott. Eventually, though, they zeroed in on the apparent motive: a tangled web of lies and debts, forgeries and frauds, that had made Hofmann feel backed into a corner, stalling for time.

“As I look back on the decisions made during this time of panic, I can see many forms of rationalization. For example, for the first time in my life I took an interest in reading the obituaries. I believe that I was trying to convince myself of the worthlessness of life and of life’s unfairness,” Hofmann wrote.

News accounts reported the night of the murders that an eyewitness had a good look at the person who delivered the Christensen bomb, including a description of the letter jacket Hofmann wore. Police also released a composite drawing of the man.

“I felt like that was the end,” Hofmann wrote.

Hofmann took his family to stay with his parents that night, telling them it was for their safety because a business associate of his had been killed. “But actually it was because I knew from the news reports that I was a suspect and anticipated the police knocking on the door at any minute,” he wrote.

Hofmann drove to Logan early the next morning to buy parts for a third bomb.

“I had decided the night before after seeing the news that the ‘jig was up’ and that the only way to keep my family from the certain knowledge of my guilt (this time not only of fraud but murder) would be to kill myself,” he wrote.

In the end, of course, Hofmann did get caught — because of the murders, but also because of his mistakes. What the examiners noticed first, after putting his documents under ultraviolet light, was a “blue hazing effect” and ink that ran in one direction. Under the microscope they noticed that the ink was cracked. But to prove forgery they had to be able to duplicate these subtle mistakes.

The blue haze, it turned out, came from blue household ammonia; ammonia increases oxygen levels, and oxygen speeds up the aging process. Hofmann would also age his papers by putting them in a fish tank, along with a little toy train transformer. When he turned on the transformer it would create ozone. And “ffffft,” Shannon Flynn said, “that thing just aged 100 years in 10 minutes.” Hofmann also aged his documents by ironing them and letting weevils munch on them.

The hardest mystery to crack was the ink. Finally, after consulting with Ph.D. chemists and trying formula after formula, (Salt Lake City forensic examiner George) Throckmorton was at a toy store one day buying a present. And there, in the science aisle, was a chemistry set. “Green copperas,” said the front of the box — one of the inks listed in an old book police had taken from Hofmann’s basement. The discovery helped solve the case.

A controversial plea bargain kept Hofmann off death row. He was sentenced to a five-years-to-life prison term, but after a lengthy interview in 1988 — the year he wrote the letter — the parole board told him he’ll never get out of prison.

Hofmann, for a while, shared a cell with another infamous Utah killer, Dan Lafferty, a religious zealot convicted of murdering his sister-in-law and her infant daughter in 1984.

In late 2015, the prison moved Hofmann out of maximum security in Draper to the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison.

Hofmann concluded the letter writing, “This is only a simplified summary of some of my crimes and feelings. Obviously, alot (sic) more was involved.”

Editor’s note: Excerpts in italics were taken from former Deseret News reporter Elaine Jarvik’s 2005 story “Tales of Hofmann: Forgeries, deceit continue to intrigue 20 years later.”

Utah

Why these 2 Utah GOP congressmen are embracing worldwide climate change issues

Utah

Which way is President Joe Biden’s approval rating headed in Utah? New poll has answers

Utah

‘Why did my kid have to leave?’ Mother of Black student mad about having to switch schools after racial harassment

View all stories in Utah