On the morning of January 23, 1987, word began to circulate in Salt Lake City that a major development had occurred in the Mark Hofmann case. That evening, the Deseret News reported:
A grim-faced Hofmann entered the courtroom about 11a.m. Friday and with little fanfare entered guilty pleas to two counts of second-degree murder in the slayings of Steven F. Christensen and Kathleen Webb Sheets. Hofmann had been charged with first-degree murder, which carries a possible death sentence, but in the plea agreement prosecutors agreed to allow Hofmann to plead guilty to lesser charges.
He also pleaded guilty to one count of communications fraud and one count of theft by deception involving the Martin Harris letter, better known as the White Salamander Letter, and the William McLellin Collection, a set of documents Hofmann sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars but in actuality never possessed.
Tension and emotion flooded the courtroom as Hofmann stood to answer each of the judge's questions.
“Did you intentionally and knowingly cause the death of Steve Christensen?” questioned Rigtrup. “Yes,” replied Hofmann in a soft, quiet voice.
“Did you intentionally and knowing[ly] cause the death of Kathleen Sheets?” the judge intoned. “Yes,” the defendant replied.
“Do you desire to enter these guilty pleas because you are in fact guilty?” the judge asked.
“Yes,” Hofmann replied.
Hofmann made similar admissions of guilt involving the document transactions.1
Judge Rigtrup sentenced Mark Hofmann to “one prison term of 5 years to life and three other prison terms of 1 to 15 years for his role in the bombing deaths of two people and the forgeries and frauds that led to those murders.”2 The judge pointed out the “indiscriminate nature” of the murders: Mrs. Sheets was killed instead of her husband, and a woman in the Judge Building almost picked up the “booby-trapped shrapnel bomb” that killed Steven Christensen. Rigtrup then said to Hofmann: “I will recommend that you spend the rest of your natural life at the Utah State Prison.”3 After the hearing, Hofmann was handcuffed and transported to prison.
In making a plea bargain agreement, Hofmann escaped the possibility of the death penalty and was assured that the federal government would drop its charge of possession of an unregistered machine gun. In addition, New York authorities promised that they would not charge him with selling a forged copy of the Oath of a Freeman in their state.
Hofmann had kept absolutely silent concerning the crimes — up to the time the plea bargain was being decided. Jan Thompson reported on his confession of the crimes:
An interview with Mark W. Hofmann was the strangest and most fascinating experience Robert Stott has had as a criminal prosecutor. ’It was chilling to have Hofmann look me in the eye and say he killed Steve Christensen and Kathleen Sheets,' Stott said in a Deseret News interview Saturday.
As Hofmann disclosed the details of how he made and delivered the bombs, manufactured the Salamander Letter and persuaded buyers to invest in the so-called McLellin Collection, Stott compared the information with the state's evidence. Hofmann's version of his crime matched the theories and evidence of prosecutors.
“It was disconcerting to realize that this man I was sitting across from had committed these terrible crimes in such a unique fashion. He was brilliant in forging documents and in manufacturing the bombs,” Stott said.
“Hofmann enjoyed sharing the details of his fraud scheme,” Stott said. “When he talks, he doesn't act like a madman or say nasty things, so it's easy to forget that he's a violent killer and to treat him as a next-door neighbor. I had to remind myself that, foremost, Hofmann is a killer, and secondly, he is a swindler and a cheat… That's what makes him so dangerous. When he's triggered, he can be devastating… Hofmann showed little emotion during the interview.”4
As we sit back and reflect about the “Salamandergate” scandal, we just feel fortunate to be alive. Brent Ashworth, the Mormon bishop who claimed Hofmann sold him $225,100 worth of forged documents, said this of the murderer: “When I called him a liar or questioned one of the documents, he'd lose his temper. Nothing else seemed to make him mad.”5
Our organization, Utah Lighthouse Ministry (ULM) has printed a great deal of material questioning both Hofmann's documents and his honesty. Beginning as early as 1984, we suggested that the Salamander Letter might be “a forgery” and noted that if this were the case, “it needs to be exposed.”6 By August 1984, we had printed the first part of the booklet, The Money-Digging Letters, in which Hofmann's major discoveries were questioned and his document dealings condemned. One of the editors of this paper, Sandra Tanner, distributed copies of this material at the Sunstone Theological Symposium. Hofmann attended this symposium and appeared upset to learn that his integrity was being questioned. The day following the publication of this material (August 23, 1984) Mark Hofmann came to our home and had a long talk with Sandra. He seemed very distressed and hurt that we, of all people, would question his discoveries. He had expected that opposition might come from those in the Mormon Church, but he was amazed that ULM had taken a position critical of him. Hofmann seemed to be almost at the point of tears as he pled his case as to why we should trust him.
We, of course, knew that it was risky business to publicly question any forger, but we had no idea he was capable of murder. In retrospect, we were very fortunate that Hofmann arrived at our house armed only with arguments as to why we should trust his documents — rather than a pipe bomb surrounded with nails.
Both the Los Angeles Times and the Deseret News printed that we were questioning the Salamander Letter. Hofmann grew concerned about our investigation and told an associate he was planning another visit to our house to try to make us believe him. We wonder now if we would have been so bold as to call for the public to send any information to us that they had concerning Hofmann's activities if we had known that he was willing to murder to protect his document-forging operation.7 When we located him at the August 1985 Sunstone Symposium and began to ask probing questions about the Salamander Letter, he wore a sad and fearful expression — as if he were trying to say, “Please believe what I am telling you.”
At first the Mormon bishop Steven Christensen trusted Mark Hofmann, and he bought the Salamander Letter. When we published excerpts in the March 1984 issue of the Messenger and indicated the possibility of plagiarism, citing Mormonism Unveiled and Joseph Knight's account of the discovery of the Book of Mormon plates, Hofmann rejected our suggestion. He even tried to testify in federal court that we had violated his manuscript rights by printing excerpts from the Letter. Although we were all in the courtroom waiting for Christensen to step to the witness stand, the judge made it clear that such testimony was irrelevant to the case at hand and Christensen was not allowed the opportunity of testifying against us.8
Christensen continued to believe Mark Hofmann and his stories concerning the discovery of important Mormon documents for more than a year. Although he eventually came to the conclusion that Hofmann was a “crook,” it was too late. When Christensen threatened to expose him, Hofmann retaliated by killing him. It's a strange twist of fate that the man who tried to defend the Salamander Letter and testify against us in court was the one who later tried to blow the whistle on Hofmann and ended up losing his life. It may very well be that the thing that saved our lives was simply that few people believed what we were publishing.
Hofmann apparently felt that Christensen, who was a Mormon bishop with a great deal of influence, could destroy his Mormon document empire, and therefore he found it necessary to eliminate him. In any case, we feel grateful to God that we are alive and wish to thank those who have been praying for our safety. While we have always thought there was a possibility of being assassinated by someone opposed to our work, we never even considered that a well-mannered man like Hofmann would turn out to be a cold-blooded killer who would stop at nothing to shut the mouths of his opponents.
Though most people thought Hofmann was a devout Mormon, evidence coming forth now suggests that although he was a returned missionary who was married in the temple and active in the church, he was not a believer. This is what his close friend Shannon Flynn told us: “Hofmann was an atheist. He did not believe in God — If there is no God, a person obviously can't believe there is a Christ or Christianity — no life after death.” Flynn said he knows a lot of atheists who don't go out and kill people, but this should give people a clue as to why Hofmann did the things he did. “Some people wouldn't do anything wrong because they think God would punish them. He obviously didn't worry about the punishment,” he said. “While I don't think that is an excuse for what he did, I think psychologists who talk with him will see he is working from an entirely different frame of reference than most of us.”9
Hofmann's associate Brent Metcalfe has also confirmed Hofmann's atheistic views, and a family member even wrote: “I think he is an athiest [sic].” His church activities appear to have been used as a cover for his phony document business. It has been noted that Hofmann was able to fool almost everyone with his dual life. Even his best friends now feel that they were used to further his selfish desire for wealth and fame. Hofmann was once honored by Mormon and non-Mormon historians but is now considered a villain — perhaps one of the greatest con men of the 20th century.
On February 11, 1987, the New York Times published an article by Robert Lindsey on the subject:
According to criminal investigators here and court documents, the 32-year-old Hofmann fooled not only senior members of the Mormon hierarchy but also scores of document collectors around the country and virtually all of the nation's top forgery experts.
“Mark Hofmann was unquestionably the most skilled forger this country has ever seen,” said Charles Hamilton, a New York document dealer who is widely regarded as the nation's preeminent detector of forged documents. Mr. Hamilton said Mr. Hofmann “perpetrated by far the largest monetary frauds through forgery that this country has ever had — He fooled me — he fooled everybody.”
Investigators have said that Mr. Hofmann was as successful in selling forged documents in New York as he was in Utah. They say he may have collected more than $2 million selling rare documents purportedly written or signed by such literary and historical figures as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Jack London and Jim Bridger.
After examining the White Salamander Letter, experts working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation said they could find no evidence that it was forged, a conclusion also made by Kenneth W. Rendell, a Newton, Mass. document dealer who is often ranked with Mr. Hamilton among the nation's leading detectors of forged documents.
Concluding his assessment of Mr. Hofmann, Mr. Hamilton said: “In a way, two murders are pedestrian crimes. But to fool me, to fool Ken Rendell, to fool the whole world, requires not only forgery, but a packaging of himself. He packaged himself as a bespectacled, sweet, unobtrusive, hard working, highly intelligent scholar dedicated to the uncovering of history. Now we know he's more than he appeared to be.”10