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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 FEBRUARY, 1986, Hofmann was charged with the murders of Steven Christensen and Kathy Sheets, and with 28 counts of fraud. Two months later, at a lengthy preliminary hearing, the state presented its case against the collector. Eyewitnesses placed Hofmann in the building where Christensen had died; bomb parts bought by "Mike Hansen" were shown, in fact, to have been bought by Mark Hofmann; he was tied to forgery after forgery. The defense offered no witnesses.

As the date for Hofmann's trial approached, his defense attorneys began to discuss a possible plea bargain; a guilty plea would allow him to avoid a possible death penalty. But a last, odd twist appeared. Hofmann's father, a native Utahan and lifelong Mormon, told his son that he should reconsider the plea bargain.

The father's argument was founded on the Mormon tenet known as blood atonement, which holds that some crimes can only be repaid with the blood of the sinner. Hofmann's father was worried that his son, in gaining a reduction in sentence, might condemn himself to eternal torture.

Things came to a standstill. Then a deputy county attorney discovered that the Mormon Church had renounced blood atonement in the 1960s. A citation of the new policy was photocopied and passed to the elder Hofmann through the defense attorneys. The plea bargain went forward.

In January of this year, Hofmann walked into a Salt Lake County courtroom and pleaded guilty to the second-degree murders of Christensen and Sheets. He admitted that the Salamander Letter was a forgery and that the attempted sale of the McLellin Collection was a deception. The judge sentenced Hofmann to four concurrent terms of five years to life in the state penitentiary and said he would recommend that Hofmann spend the rest of his life behind bars.

As part of his plea bargain, Hofmann agreed to an unusual arrangement with the prosecutors. He promised to answer all questions surrounding the events of the past five years. Chief among those questions are the target of the third bomb and the strategy behind the McLellin Collection. The debriefing has been greeted with some skepticism, the potential honesty of the answers doubted. The process is ongoing and prosecutors say the debriefing material will be released soon.

SINCE THE ORIGINAL disclosures about the church's involvement with Mark Hofmann, Mormon officials have had little to say about the affair. They have declined all interviews and made no public statements except for their testimony at the preliminary hearing. Hugh Pinnock, the church elder who arranged the $185,000 bank loan to Hofmann, repaid the loan himself. The public relations extravaganzas surrounding faith-promoting documents have disappeared.

In the past few months the church has installed a tighter security system in its archives and placed new restrictions on their use. To gain access to the archives, scholars must now sign forms saying they will submit their manuscripts to the church for review before publication.

Yet the re-examination of Joseph Smith and the origins of the church continues in Utah universities, even though the Hofmann documents that inspired the effort have been repudiated. One scholar will soon publish a book describing the American folklore and rites of magic that accompanied the church's early days. Michael Quinn, the author, says the book was begun because of questions raised by the Salamander Letter. However, he says, the Salamander Letter was simply the catalyst, not the foundation of the book.

Many of those closely involved in the Hofmann affair believe the reshaping of Mormon history was Hofmann's true purpose, whether consciously formulated or not. They note that the controversial documents placed Hofmann in a position of high visibility and great risk; forging rare but innocuous documents would have been safer and more lucrative. Yet Hofmann repeatedly produced forgeries that touched the most sensitive parts of the church's past. And there are indications that Hofmann had no intention of stopping; in Hofmann's house detectives found evidence that the 116 Lost Pages of the Book of Mormon were being prepared.

Thus far, there is little evidence that the turmoil has produced an erosion of Mormon faith. But some scholars believe the impact cannot be measured in the short-term.

"You're going to see new books come along, and slowly they will change the perception of Joseph Smith," says A. J. Simmonds, the archivist at Utah State University. "I think you are going to see a liberalization, a Methodization of the Mormon church, and the faith itself will change. Mark Hofmann did not produce that change, of course. The Hofmann events served as a trigger for other forces that were out there already, waiting."

At police headquarters, the room that once was stacked high with Hofmann documents has been cleared out. There are few mementos of the months when no one went home. But after Hofmann was imprisoned, some of the investigators received letters from Bill Flynn. Each letter was written on antiquated paper and scratched in the handwriting of a century ago. Each expressed high gratitude for the investigator's splendid work in capturing the wily Mark Hofmann.

The letters were signed, "Joseph Smith." The signatures looked very real; it would have taken an expert to tell the difference.

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