Linda Sillitoe -�Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders

Linda Sillitoe -�Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders

This is an excellent book about Mark Hofmann. I consumed this book in one weekend. It is not necessarily pro or anti Mormon, but it is a very interesting true story about the man who tried to become something of a 20th century version of Joseph Smith in order to destroy the church that Joseph Smith created.

The following review was provided by Roger Launius

The most read book in Mormon intellectual circles this year will undoubtedly be Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders. Its breadth of information, its far-reaching conclusions, and its important lessons will be the topic of discussion in Mormon orange juice, as opposed to cocktail, parties from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., for some time. Its portraits of people involved in Mormon history and Mormon document dealing between 1980 and the present will excite, delight, and at times infuriate readers. All in all, it is an exceptionally capable, intriguing, entertaining, and significant study of one of the most bizarre episodes in Mormon history. If you have anything more than a passing interest in Mormon history, if you hold membership in either of the two organizations most associated with Mormon historical studies, if you have ever met or heard of Mark Hofmann or anything about the boom in Mormon document dealing this book is a must read. With all due respect to the historians whose fine works are reviewed in these pages, if you buy only one book on Mormon history or historical studies this year, it should be Salamander.

It seems safe to say that every reasonably well-read person interested in Mormonism is aware of the basic facts of the Salt Lake City bombings on 15 and 16 October 1985 which killed Steven F. Christensen and Kathleen B. Sheets and seriously injured Mark W. Hofmann. The bombings received national media attention immediately and were picked over and reassessed for weeks thereafter. Living in Ogden, Utah, at the time I remember receiving half a dozen calls from interested people around the country–some of whom I did not know but who obtained my telephone number from God knows where–immediately after the murders. Invariably they asked about the bombings and the victims, the possible connection each might have to controversial Mormon documents bearing on the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and the myriad fears and concerns of those in the Mormon historical community.

Unfortunately, I had little more information about the crimes than that in the media except to express my anxiety about the field of Mormon historical studies. While it had always been exciting and challenging, and could at times be vicious, this was the first instance where it had become potentially life- threatening. No one knew the motives and circumstances behind the murders at that date and rumors were rampant.

One of the scenarios developed during the period immediately following the deaths of Christensen and Sheets on 15 October, associated the bombings with high finance and the crumbling business empire of J. Gary Sheets, husband of Kathleen, and former associate of Christensen. Sheets’ business, CFS Financial Corporation, was in a well-publicized nose-dive. His investors and creditors were clamoring for repayment and Sheets was considering bankruptcy. Christensen had left CFS a few months earlier unhappy with the direction Sheets had charted for the company. Could Sheets have planted the bombs to collect insurance money on the victims or to keep them from talking about illicit business dealings? Could disgruntled investors have placed the bombs? No one knew.

If this were true, however, the Mormon historical community need not worry. The monkey-wrench in this scenario was what appeared to be the attempted murder of Hofmann on the morning of 16 October. He was not associated with CFS in any way, but he had a business relationship with Christensen revolving around the discovery and sale of Mormon historical documents. Christensen had purchased from Hofmann the so-called “Salamander Letter” of Martin Harris to W.W. Phelps, which had been unveiled in a circus-like meeting of the Mormon History Association in May 1985. After Hofmann’s bombing most of the speculation suggested that the murders were linked to that document and the study of Mormon origins.

Dated 23 October 1830, this letter narrated a strikingly different story of Book of Mormon origins than most were familiar with from the standard faith story. It suggested that Joseph Smith was intimately involved in folk magic (one aspect of which involved a white salamander who guarded the gold plates) and money-digging, and that the Book of Mormon was simply one more instance of these practices. Moreover, the messenger who delivered the plates to Joseph bore little resemblance to the benevolent being traditionally associated with the story. Instead, he was a crusty and malicious spirit who jealously guarded the treasure. The document seemed to hold the potential to destroy the underpinnings of faith for many naive believers.

The “Salamander Letter” appeared to be a connecting link between the victims in this scenario for the bombings. Christensen had acquired this document from Hofmann; Kathleen Sheets’ husband, who seemed to have been the real target of the bomb in this scenario, had been a business associate of Christensen. Could hyper-conservative Mormons have placed the bombs to eliminate those associated with the letter in the mistaken notion that the murder of individuals would somehow wipe out all knowledge of the document? More far-fetched but still entertained by some, could the murders have been instigated by certain unspecified Mormon officials in a weird revival of the doctrine of blood atonement for those who would dare to discredit the church’s accepted faith story?

Christensen had contracted with several well-known Mormon scholars to conduct a study of this document, and in the uncertainty of the hours after the Hofmann bombing they were understandably concerned for their safety. Several of them took short, unannounced vacations to get out of their normal surroundings for a few days and asked bomb squads to inspect their homes and offices. Some prominent collectors and a few people tangentially associated with the “Salamander Letter” and research into Mormon origins did the same. At the end of the first week after the bombings, everyone was still in a quandary and knew not how to deal with the situation.

Most Mormon historians dismissed as absurd charges made by police investigators within a few days after the bombings that Hofmann was the primary suspect in the murders and that he had cold-bloodedly murdered Christensen to cover up illegal business dealings and Sheets to make it look like the killings were CFS-related. His own injuries, they thought, coming a day after the first murders were the result of the accidental detonation of a third bomb intended for yet another victim. Mark Hofmann was the closest thing the Mormon historical community had to a genuine celebrity. As the discoverer of several overwhelmingly important documents, including the 1844 Joseph Smith III blessing of designation, he was both nationally known and invariably well-liked. His unassuming demeanor and boyish charm made him the darling of Mormon intellectual circles. It seemed impossible that Hofmann was really a forger and con-man par excellence who committed two grisly murders to stave off financial ruin and a public unmasking of his unethical and illegal business dealings. It was much easier to believe he was another victim, albeit a luckier one, of some mad bomber who had snapped and was killing anyone associated with the “Salamander Letter.”

As it turned out, the police were right. Authors Sillitoe and Roberts describe how Hofmann had brutally murdered Christensen and Sheets and had injured himself while handling a third bomb in his car. He had committed murder to mask a complex array of white-collar crimes that extended back to his student days in the late 1970s at Utah State University. These crimes included, but were not necessarily limited to, forgery, fraud, and theft by deception (a legal term for scam operations). They demonstrated a pattern of deceit and manipulation that was impressive in its size, scope, length of time, and extent of completeness. It finally led to murder.

The immediate causes of the murders, according to the authors, revolved around a very unusual and complicated collection of documents worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the McLellin Collection. William McLellin had been one of the original Twelve Apostles of 1835 but had left the church in 1838. Evidence suggests that he collected considerable material on the development of Mormonism. The McLellin Collection was fabled as a treasure trove of important historical materials, many of them damaging to the church’s traditional view of history.

In 1985 Hofmann claimed to have found the collection and borrowed huge sums–a $185,000 signature loan that Hugh Pinnock, a high-Mormon leader, had arranged in one instance–from several different people, each unknown to the other, for the purpose of acquiring it. In effect he sold the same collection to several different people. Hofmann did not produce the collection for any of his investors–he could not do so because it did not actually exist–and during the fall of 1985 increasing pressure was brought to bear on him to repay his creditors or to produce the collection. He staved them off for a time with some very slick tap-dancing and even secured backing for his bank loan by having Pinnock arrange for a wealthy Mormon to buy the collection from Hofmann and donate it to the church. The money obtained from this sale would not only pay back the $185,000 bank note but also provide Hofmann with a tidy profit. Pinnock, it should be remembered, did not know anything about the other claims on the McLellin Collection from other creditors.

Christensen, who had dealt with Hofmann before, volunteered to serve as a middle man for the movement of the collection from Hofmann to the church. As such he became a key player when Hofmann defaulted on the $185,000 loan and Pinnock asked him to press Hofmann for settlement of the deal in some manner. He was persistent and Hofmann found himself increasingly unable to avoid his probes. Maybe Christensen had learned that the entire deal was a scam and would have exposed Hofmann, the authors do not say, but he was certainly robbing him of the most crucial commodity of any con-man, time. The bombing of Christensen would buy him time since his main protagonist would be out the way, Hofmann thought; maybe the church would drop the matter entirely. The bombing of Sheets was a diversion that would make Christensen’s murder appear CFS-related.

The authors suggest that the 15 October murders did not dissuade the church from completing the transaction for the McLellin collection. In one of the most satisfying sections in the entire book they describe how Hofmann was informed after the Christensen and Sheets murders, which most people at first thought were CFS-related, that the deal was still on track and Christensen would be replaced by Donald Schmidt, the retired LDS Church Archivist. Desperate action was required, so Hofmann built a third bomb. The victim would be another decoy, this time one associated with Mormon document dealings.

Brent Ashworth, a successful lawyer and businessman who also bought collectible documents, was the ideal target. He and Hofmann had been meeting most Wednesdays in Salt Lake City for years, 16 October was a Wednesday, and he could easily get him to accept a bomb wrapped in a package similar to the first two. The bomb would be waiting in Hofmann’s car. After their meeting, wrote Sillitoe and Roberts: “Ashworth would probably have driven Hofmann back to his car, just as he had done several times before. Had Hofmann unlocked the passenger door and suggested that Ashworth pick up the box on the front seat or grab it from the back seat while he got more materials from the trunk, Ashworth would have suspected nothing. Then, when Ashworth detonated the third pipe bomb in two days, a shaken Hofmann would need only to telephone Pinnock or [Apostle Dallin] Oaks or [President Gordan B.] Hinckley and explain that a bomb left in his car had killed Brent Ashworth. This time everybody would duck.”

There would be no pressure to proceed with the McLellin deal. This time, theoretically, all of Hofmann’s objectives would have been achieved. The McLellin deal would stall, perhaps permanently. The first “Oath of a Freeman” would still be for sale in New York [from which he anticipated receiving a million dollars]. Hofmann would buy time, and time would solve everything (p. 524). But Ashworth did not meet him in Salt Lake City on 16 October and the bomb accidentally detonated. Hofmann was seriously injured and the police investigators at the scene quickly found tell-tale clues implicating him in the bombings.

The police pursued the leads discovered at the site of the third bomb to a logical conclusion and built a tremendously convincing circumstantial case against Hofmann. Although it took months, Hofmann was finally charged with the murders and several lesser crimes in February 1986. In the interim the police were criticized for sloppy work and premature accusations against Hofmann. Many eminent Mormon historians were defensive, explaining that Hofmann had neither the character nor the historical and technical ability to forge documents, deceive individuals, and commit murder. The police spent considerable time trying to convince them otherwise. Ultimately, they succeeded, but there were probably still many doubts until Hofmann confessed. The evidence presented in the preliminary hearings thoroughly convinced Judge Paul Grant. According to the authors, “At the beginning of the preliminary hearing, Grant had thought perhaps Hofmann was innocent. But by the end, he thought him clearly guilty, a pathological liar with no conscience and no remorse” (p. 454). A plea bargain resulted, with Hofmann pleading guilty to certain of the charges and promising to answer questions about his operations in return for a commitment not to seek the death penalty. His current address is the Utah State Penitentiary where he will remain the rest of his life.

The authors of Salamander perform an admirable service by sketching in most of the details of the bombings, the document dealings, and the character of Mark Hofmann. They describe a young man who was outwardedly a believing Latter-day Saint but who had adopted an atheistic position. He was motivated to his crimes by a lust for money and an opportunity to embarrass his church. Always gracefully and with a touch of pathos, the authors narrate the complex events leading up to the murders, the peculiar circumstances of the murder investigations, the discovery of the evidence incriminating Hofmann, and the legal fireworks surrounding the case. They never forget to involve people at the center of their narrative and their sketches of several key investigators and members of the victims families are outstanding. A forensic analysis by George J. Throckmorton, the technician who discovered the secret of the Hofmann forgeries, rounds out the volume and conclusively proves the illegitimate origins of 106 documents coming from the dealer, including all of his major finds.

As in the case with all books, this one has certain deficiencies. Historians will deplore the complete lack of references and the reliance of the authors on interviews, sometimes with unspecified individuals. That is not an uncommon complaint, the fine work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men could be criticized on similar grounds. Like that earlier work in investigative journalism, Salamander may not have been able to have been written without confidential interviews, but I would like to know the sources. The authors also use pseudonyms for two individuals in the book to protect their privacy. While the reasons for this decision were undoubtedly weighed carefully and probably made perfect sense in our litigant society, I deplore this aspect of contemporary nonfiction writing.

These relatively minor criticisms aside, the book still leaves many unanswered questions about the murders and Hofmann’s dealings. The authors probably do not have the answers to such questions as the following: How could Hofmann have duped so many people so thoroughly for so long? According to this study not even his closest associates–his parents, his wife, Lyn Jacobs, Shannon Flynn–knew anything of his forgery. Or did they? Equally intriguing, why was the Mormon historical community so unwilling to accept the facts of the case and only reluctantly acknowledged that Hofmann was a murderer and that his documents were fakes? I suspect it has something to do with an unwillingness to admit that Hofmann had tricked them. In both instances, however, there are enticing but unexplored psychological questions. Why, also, were those who raised questions about the documents, particularly anti-Mormon Jerald Tanner when he pointedly challenged the “Salamander Letter’s” authenticity before the bombings, shouted down so vehemently by historians? Why also was Jerald Tanner’s contribution to determining the “Salamander Letter’s” forgery completely glossed over in this study? What, also, was the the full extent of the Mormon church’s involvement in the various document dealings and the course of Hofmann’s legal maneuverings after arrest? These questions await further consideration.

This book is an important first attempt to understand the roller-coaster ride Mark Hofmann took the Mormon intellectual community on, and it is most welcome. It does not exhaust the subject by any stretch of the imagination, however. Additional work will build on this base. As a narrative work it is outstanding. It has all the ingredients of a classic mystery; the likes of Mike Hammer, Perry Mason, and Elliot Ness have nothing on the cast of heroes in this story. Their antithesis is as enigmatic as any ever brought to the screen by Anthony Perkins. Those involved in the drama in other capacities–the victims, the bystanders, those caught in the middle–evoke the same pathos as those in a Kafka novel or a Hitchcock film. If it were not for the tragedy of the murders of completely innocent individuals, who by all accounts were upstanding citizens and people of decency and worth, I wish I owned the movie rights to the story. It has all the ingredients of great drama.

Roger D. Launius

Published in John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 8 (1988): 79-82.

Linda Sillitoe is a graduate of the University of Utah. As a Deseret News staff reporter, news features editor for Utah Holiday magazine, and a New York Times correspondent, she garnered several awards from the Utah chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Press, and other news and community organizations. Her non-fiction includes Banking on the Hemingways: Three Generations of Banking in Utah and Idaho, Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders, Friendly Fire: The ACLU in Utah, and Welcoming the World: A History of Salt Lake County. Her fiction includes Crazy for Living: Poems, Secrets Keep: A Novel, Sideways to the Sun, and Windows on the Sea and Other Stories. She is a contributor to Bright Angels and Familiars: Contemporary Mormon Stories, Greening Wheat: Fifteen Mormon Short Stories, Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems, and The Wilderness of Faith: Essays on Contemporary Mormon Thought. She has taught classes in journalism and writing on several college campuses; co-produced a PBS-affiliated documentary, “Navajo and American”; and has been published in Exponent II, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunstone magazine, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Mesa, Arizona.

Allen Dale Roberts is an award-winning architect (Cooper-Roberts Architects) specializing in historical restoration. He is the co-author of Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders, co-founder of Sunstone magazine, co-editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and is a contributing author to Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience: A Mormon/Humanist Dialogue. He has been published in the Utah Historical Quarterly and elsewhere and is the recipient of a Best Article Award from the Mormon History Association. He is a board member of the Utah Endowment for the Humanities and is the Utah Advisor for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

George J. Throckmorton, an expert in document authentication, was the first to expose Mark Hofmann’s forgeries. His analysis is included as an appendix to Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders. A member of the SLCPD, he serves on the board of directors of the Southwest Association of Forensic Document Examiners and is a member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Another book on the subject is The Mormon Murders : A True Story of Greed, Forgery, Deceit, and Death. I understand that this book has a very anti-Mormon flavor to it. I haven’t read it yet.

Several site visitors have also recommended A Gathering of Saints which deals with the same story. I haven’t read this one yet either.

A final book on the subject (which I understand is not entirely accurate and written from an LDS apologist point of view) is Victims : The Lds Church and the Mark Hofmann Case.

More on this book and the subject