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THE WHITE SALAMANDER MURDERS : Mark Hoffman's Discoveries Had Shaken the Mormon Church. : Then a Bomb Went Off. And Then Another.

Second of Two Parts

April 05, 1987|ROBERT A. JONES | Robert A. Jones is a Times staff writer.

In Part I, the Mormon Church had been unsettled by the purported discovery of a series of 19th-Century documents. Produced by a young collector named Mark Hofmann, they appeared to question official church history. In 1984, Hofmann had revealed the Salamander Letter, which gave a new, startling account of Prophet Joseph Smith's discovery of the gold plates. As Hofmann was promising to release yet another set of papers known as the McLellin Collection, three pipe bombs exploded in Salt Lake City. Two people were killed and Hofmann found himself in the hospital. And the McLellin Collection, if it had ever existed, had vanished.

THE MORMON TOWER in Salt Lake City commands the downtown skyline. From the top floors it is possible to see the spot where a pipe bomb blew Mark Hofmann out of his car on a warm afternoon in October, 1985. Looking the other direction it is possible to see the building where a similar bomb had killed Steven Christensen the previous day.

In the hours following the bombings, church leaders within the Mormon tower were forced to confront an unpleasant truth: They had been engaged in secret negotiations with both men just prior to the bombings. Money had changed hands; controversial church documents were to be transferred to the church archives. Now, two people were dead; another was in the hospital. And the documents, if they ever existed, had disappeared.

From the church headquarters, Elder Dallin Oaks contacted the police. Oaks is a member of the Council of the Twelve, the second highest ruling body in the church, and a former president of Brigham Young University. Oaks told them what he knew: that Christensen and Hofmann had been scheduled to deliver a set of historical papers known as the McLellin Collection on the day the bombs began to go off; that the church had arranged a $185,000 bank loan to Hofmann to purchase the collection; that the loan had not been repaid. Everything else was a mystery.

Outside the church offices, Salt Lake City was unnerved. Normally this is not a city of mean streets; there is a prevailing sense of trust among Mormons, even on the sidewalks. The bombings changed that, at least temporarily. Several documents dealers left town, fearing for their lives. The area's bomb squads received hundreds of calls about suspicious packages, so many calls that several of the squads' sniffer dogs succumbed to exhaustion. A parcel delivery man was chased and beaten when he left a package wrapped in brown paper on a porch.

The Salt Lake City Police Department conducts its business in a concrete monolith just five blocks from the headquarters of the Mormon Church. Yet a great distance separated the two. Within the department there was none of the church's brooding apprehension, only a tense anticipation. The bombings were the most sensational crimes in recent memory; investigators from the FBI were flooding in. The department's detective bureau, which keeps a pet tarantula named Tina Turner in a terrarium on the reception desk, treated its mascot to an extra live cricket that day. This was a big one, maybe the best they would ever see.

Two detectives were placed in charge. Ken Farnsworth is tall, athletic, affable; his partner, Jim Bell, is quiet, driven. Within 24 hours they found themselves embroiled in a debate with other law enforcement agencies that would continue for months.

The friction started when Bell returned from a hospital interview with Hofmann. Bell had never heard of the McLellin Collection, had never heard of the growing crisis over Mormondom's historical origins. He had simply wanted to talk to Hofmann. As a victim.

Hofmann, in fact, was in remarkably good condition for a man who had just had a pipe bomb explode in his face. A kneecap was blown off, an eardrum was ruptured, and numerous small shrapnel wounds were inflicted. But he was conscious and willing to talk. He told Bell the bomb had gone off as he was heading to a meeting. He had opened the door of his Toyota sports car and a package fell from the seat to the floorboard. When he reached for it, the package exploded.

But the Hofmann account turned out to be less than accurate. Back at the scene Bell was told by the bomb squad that the package could not have fallen to the floor. Analysis of the car's remains showed that the bomb had exploded on the front seat. The evidence also indicated that Hofmann must have been inside the car when the bomb went off, not climbing in.

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