1985 was a rough and crazy year for both Salt Lake City and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City was rocked by multiple bombings — with headlines exclaiming the normally quiet, parochial community was like Beirut, Lebanon.
The violent killings were soon linked to a scandal involving explosive religious documents and fear swept the mountain vista as folks wondered who the perpetrator was and if more bombs were in the offing. This fantastical saga of the Salamander Murders is covered at length in a newly-released Netflix mini-series consisting of three episodes entitled Murder Among the Mormons.
Tuesday, October 15, 1985 started off like a lovely fall day in Salt Lake City, with temperatures set to reach 62 degrees. Death, however, was on the horizon. Around 8:15 a.m., a booby-trapped pipe bomb filled with nails exploded on the sixth floor of downtown Salt Lake City’s Judge Building.
Financial consultant and Centerville resident Steven F. Christensen, 30, was killed in the blast. Around 11:21 a.m., 50-year old Kathleen “Kathy” Sheets picked up a package in front of her home on Naniloa Drive in Holladay. The package subsequently exploded and Sheets was killed. Sheets was the wife of J. Gary Sheets, a partner with Christensen in the financial planning firm Coordinated Financial Services (CFS). Christensen had left CFS’s board of directors about three months prior to the bombings. The next day, a documents dealer named Mark Hofmann was severely injured when a third bomb went off in his car.
At the time of the bombings, Hofmann and Christensen were involved in a business involving the McLellin collection, a supposed extensive group of documents penned by William E. McLellin, an early LDS apostle who eventually broke with the Church. Hofmann implied that the McLellin collection would provide damaging revelations about the Church.
The plot soon thickened and Hofmann was exposed as a master forger and counterfeiter, as well as a closeted apostate. He was arrested in January 1986 and charged on four indictments which totaled twenty-seven counts, including first-degree murder, delivering a bomb, constructing or possessing a bomb, theft by deception, and communication fraud. A fifth indictment, containing an additional five counts of theft by deception, was later added. Hofmann eventually pleaded guilty and was dented to five years to life in prison. In 1988, after a parole board hearing, it was decided Hofmann would serve his “natural life in prison.”
Hofmann forged hundreds of documents and is especially known for his forgeries related to the Latter-day Saint movement — he sold forty-eight fake documents to the Church. One of the most notable is the Salamander letter. Supposedly written by Martin Harris to W. W. Phelps (both were early converts to the Church), the letter presented a version of the recovery of the gold plates that sharply contrasted with the Church’s version.
The forgery implied that Smith had been practicing “money digging” through magical practices, and the most incredible revelation was the replacement of the Angel Moroni who Smith said had appeared to him with a white salamander. In 1984, Hofmann sold the letter to Christensen for $40,000; Christensen subsequently donated it to the Church.
As a Latter-day Saint teenager growing up in Salt Lake City who also had a budding interest in history (and soon to be true-crime), I was utterly fascinated by the Hofmann case and devoured all the books written on the subject — Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders by Linda Sillitoe and Allen D. Roberts is, in my opinion, the best and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for more information on the case.
There were a couple aspects of the case I wish they had spent more time on. It would have been nice to dive deeper into Christensen and Sheets’ association with CFS and why that was thought of as a possible motive for the bombings. A 1985 audit showed CFS and affiliated companies were $5 million in debt.
According to a 1989 article from the Deseret News, investors from four states were bilked out of nearly $2.5 million. Sheets was later charged with 34 counts of mail fraud, interstate transportation of money obtained by fraud, securities fraud, and embezzling from pension plans. After six days of deliberation, a federal jury found him not guilty on all charges.
Another thing not mentioned is the story behind the $185,000 non-collateral loan given to Alvin “Al” Rust in order to pay Hofmann for the McLellin collection. Elder Hugh W. Pinnock, a general authority of the Church and member of the First Quorum of the Seventy from 1977 until his death in 2000, used his influence as a board member of the First Interstate Bank to arrange the loan. In a statement, Pinnock acknowledged that he had briefly met with Hofmann on the day of the murders. After Hofmann was arrested, Pinnock paid back the loan himself.
Aside from those issues, Murder Among the Mormons is nothing short of magnificent. The interviews with Hofmann’s associates — Shannon Flynn, Brent Metcalfe, Brent Ashworth, and Rust — brought a great deal of insight to the production. I was especially impressed with Flynn and Metcalfe. Both were so compelling in their delivery — authentic seems like the most appropriate word to describe it — and evoked a cornucopia of emotions.
I so appreciated all the classic news footage and photos/video recordings of mid-1980s Salt Lake City. In addition to being a nostalgia trip of sorts, it really added depth to the story and increased understanding of both Utah and Mormon culture.
The BBC Studios production, directed by Jared Hess (director and writer of Napoleon Dynamite fame) and Tyler Measom (director and producer of the Warren Jeffs documentary Sons of Perdition) is far less exploitive and over the top than Netflix’s recently-released Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer. This production stuck to the facts, employed top-notch journalism, and the result was a spellbinding entry in the realm of documentary filmmaking.
I give Murder Among the Mormons five out of five stars.