Article Thumbnail

How a Master Forger Turned to Murder and Rocked the Mormon Community

The directors of Netflix’s documentary series ‘Murder Among the Mormons’ discuss the unknowability of Mark Hofmann, the allure of crafting fake documents and how a mild-mannered conman could become a killer

It’s hard for Mark Hofmann to be far from Jared Hess’ thoughts. Granted, the Napoleon Dynamite auteur has been working on a documentary series on the notorious but little-known murderer with his friend (and nonfiction filmmaker) Tyler Measom for several years. But for Hess, there’s also a close physical proximity to Hofmann that he can’t escape. 

“I live, no joke, just a couple of blocks from where Mark Hofmann produced forgeries, where he constructed bombs. It’s all right here,” Hess says over Zoom from Salt Lake City. “It’s so in-your-face.” The directors’ three-part Netflix series, Murder Among the Mormons, has only been out for a few days when I speak to Hess and Measom, who also resides in Salt Lake City, and so far Hess reports that lookie-loos aren’t slowing down their cars as they drive by Hofmann’s old house to get a peek. “They probably will now that they know what it looks like after seeing it in the film,” says Hess. “It’s such an obvious spot in a very nice, lovely little neighborhood. I’m sure he’ll get much more recognition now.”

The story of Hofmann — who turned 66 in December — is largely forgotten outside of Salt Lake City, and even there, according to the filmmakers, it’s been mostly swept under the rug. So here are the details: Starting in the early 1980s, Hofmann made a name for himself as a young man with an incredible ability to track down rare documents. His speciality were materials that pertained to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is headquartered in the Utah town. Hofmann was raised Mormon, and his first discoveries were of lost papers left behind by Joseph Smith, the Church’s 19th-century founder, including the Anthon Transcript, which seemingly verified the legitimacy of the faith’s sacred text, the Book of Mormon. 

But Hofmann later shocked the community when he produced the so-called Salamander Letter, which appeared to have been written in the 1830s and contradicted a foundational Mormon story: Rather than an angel leading Smith to the gold plates that would become the Book of Mormon, this document claimed it was a salamander. Hofmann’s finding not only rewrote one of Mormonism’s most mythic tales, it made Smith’s epochal journey seem a little less awe-inspiring. (Seriously, a lizard showed Smith the way?) The Salamander Letter put the Mormon leadership into crisis mode, forcing them to respond to this revelation. In April 1985, Gordon B. Hinckley, who was head of the Church at the time, declared, “[A]t this point we accept the judgment of the examiner that there is no indication that it is a forgery. This does not preclude the possibility that it may have been forged at a time when the Church had many enemies.” 

Murder Among the Mormons establishes this background so that we understand the gravity of what happened on October 15, 1985: Two separate bombs exploded in Salt Lake City, killing Steven Christensen and Kathy Sheets. The deaths weren’t random considering that both Christensen and Sheets’ husband Gary were involved in document collecting — and when a later bomb went off in Hofmann’s car, with Hofmann severely injured, it seemed that someone was targeting those involved in procuring antiquities. But once investigators started digging, they realized that it was Hofmann who had masterminded these attacks — and that, for years, he had constructed elaborate forgeries that fooled everyone. Drowning in debt, despite the princely sums his forgeries fetched from the Church and others, this outwardly mild-mannered husband and father had impulsively decided that murder was his only way out. 

Hess and Measom spoke to many who knew Hofmann — they also reached out to Hofmann, who’s in prison and declined interview requests — including his wife Dorie, but what’s interesting about Murder Among the Mormons is that its central figure remains beyond the realm of comprehension. The meticulousness of Hofmann’s forgeries is just as fascinating as his inexplicable decision to make those bombs. The series is something of a personal project for the two men, both of whom were raised Mormon and grew up in the area. But despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Measom (An Honest Liar) sought to keep the documentary from becoming too bleak. “Crime-drama sometimes can be difficult to watch,” he says. “Three hours of murder and death and gore and psychopaths could really be a tough watch. Jared and I always want to instill some quirkiness, and I think people are appreciative of that.”

Indeed, Murder Among the Mormons has some colorful characters — especially Hofmann’s fellow collectors of precious rarities — but the series is chiefly powered by its inquisitive, inherently inconclusive exploration of a forger whose life took a dark turn, resulting in tragedy for others. What drove this man? I asked the filmmakers about that — as well as why the Mormon Church was so susceptible to Hofmann’s scams and whether he was trying to kill himself with that third bomb. 

[Note: This interview contains spoilers.]

So, for years, Hofmann is this incredible forger. Then, all of a sudden, he makes this leap to committing murder. In your research, did you deduce where that came from? It’s such an extreme to go to after just manufacturing fake documents. 

Measom: Mark was a phenomenal forger, and I think he had an untouchable feeling about himself during that period. He’d gotten away with so much — he had convinced so many people that what he was doing was genuine — that I think he felt that he was infallible. Why did he turn to murder? He was obviously desperate — he was in debt to people to the tune of millions. He was making promises that his forging hand couldn’t keep up with. The clock was ticking, and these things that he had promised were due. If he had only said, “You know what, everyone, I’m a forger,” he probably would have gone to jail for a number of years and come out and worked for the FBI, like Frank Abagnale. But for some reason, he felt the need to plant bombs and kill innocent people for the pure purpose — as far as we know — of buying some time.

Hess: It’s funny: Mark, in many aspects with his forgeries, was playing the long game. He would establish somebody’s handwriting that had never been seen before just so he could authenticate something he was going to do in the future. So in that respect, he was really smart and thinking ahead. But then he was incredibly shortsighted in other aspects of his life — especially his finances. It seemed like the decision to murder people, it felt very spontaneous. In some of his interviews, depending on how well you trust him, he said that he thought about it once in advance, but that’s when things were really starting to hit the fan for him financially. I don’t think he really thought through what was going to come after [the bombings] — he was just incredibly impulsive.

One of the bombs created by Mark Hofmann

Forgers have this undeniable allure — it’s such an evocative calling. It’s like a conman, but more than that. 

Measom: The one thing that Mark also did in addition to forging — and this was the cloak that he wore — was that he was a document discoverer. He was Indiana Jones. He would search through people’s attics and he’d go look at [postal] covers: They were pre-stamped, people would send letters, and on the outside they have the address and the postmark. People would collect those, but only for the postmark — nobody read the letters. Well, Mark read the letters. That’s how he “found,” for example, the Salamander Letter. I think, innately, all of us want to be able to find the Declaration of Independence in an old picture frame, or to uncover documents from another time. So Mark, first and foremost, filled that passion that all of us have. 

As far as his forging, he was remarkable. He was the best forger, at least until he got caught. When he was 14 years old, as we show in the film, he manipulated the mint mark on a coin, and he sent it into the U.S. Treasury — and it was certified as genuine. Not only did it make the coin tenfold its value than he paid for it, but a 14-year-old kid fooled the U.S. Treasury. I mean that’s not telling your parents you didn’t have your hand in the cookie jar — he fooled the best! The power that must have given him — the endorphin rush he must have had knowing that he fooled these people in suits in Washington D.C. I think that set him on a path to continue to not only create these documents, but also to present himself as an amazing discoverer of them. But also, it filled that hole that he obviously had — [he saw the] power that he had to rewrite history, where he could create something from the hand of another individual who has passed on many years prior.

Hess: We interviewed over 30 people for the film — some of them spent their lives collecting a lot of Mark Hofmann’s materials, even stuff clear back from when he was a kid. One of these experts in Mark Hofmann showed us this old notebook — I think it was a chemistry notebook of Hofmann’s from middle school — and on the inside of it, there was this creepy sketch of Jesus. And it had this question: “Why was Jesus crucified and not hung?” Who thinks about this dark stuff when they’re in middle school? 

We’re not experts on psychology, but just the accumulation of stories of Mark’s childhood — his adolescence, his time serving as a Mormon missionary — start to paint this picture of somebody who lived in an oppressive religious environment. He was a closeted atheist at a very young age, and he began to develop his own ethics and his own way of life. But to this day, it’s like, “Who is Mark Hofmann?”

You were both raised Mormon, and I know, Tyler, that you’ve said you’re no longer Mormon. Jared, how about you?

Hess: I consider myself a Mormon, but definitely have my own set of beliefs about life. 

So, what were your discussions like in terms of how to handle Mormonism in the documentary? Because you show the aspects that are pretty wild, including the origin story of the faith.

Measom: Whenever you make a documentary, you have to set up the audience with the context and the setting in which your characters live or lived. I like to give just enough — you don’t want to overwhelm the audience, but you also don’t want to not give them enough. So you want to dole out that information. The Mormon faith, there’s the theology, the history, the background, the setting in Salt Lake, what kind of people believe what they believe — it was very difficult for us to establish [all that] and lay it out. 

We had two editors, great guys — Matt Prekop, Greg O’Toole, brilliant editors. And they came in cold. In fact, when they were hired, we said, “Why don’t you read a book about [Mormonism]?” And they said, “No, we don’t want to know anything. We just want to base it on the footage itself.” So Jared and I would come in, and we’re like, “Oh my God, you have to tell this story!” And they would say, “Nobody cares, it’s way too inside baseball.” I think it really allowed us to focus and give just the context. Also, as one of our editors said, “What’s the difference between a talking lizard and an otherworldly angel?” As far as he was concerned, they’re both pretty far out there. 

In the series, it’s mentioned that Hofmann may have done these forgeries, like the Salamander Letter, to sow doubt among believers. Did you feel like he was trying to get back at his parents for raising him Mormon? Was this an act of rebellion?

Hess: At the root of all of it, he just loved messing with people. At a very young age, he got addicted to the feeling he had when he deceived people and manipulated what they thought was real. Obviously, he got cocky about it once he produced the Anthon Transcript in 1980, which shot him to the top of the charts as it related to the Mormon historical-document world. Then he continued to produce stuff that went undetected that people believed was genuine and real. He loved the power he felt. The fact that he was able to keep that a secret for so long and never bragged to anybody about it, it’s just unfathomable. He didn’t believe in any of it, so why not just bring [the Church] down on some level or destroy people’s faith? 

Measom: Imagine being a 22-, 23-year-old college kid. Quiet, shy, bookworm-ish, nerdy, and on a whim, you create a document in your kitchen, which he literally did. He used household items, ink that he bought from a hobby shop and paper that he stole from a library down the street. He creates this document, puts it in a bindable and shows it to one of his college professor-type individuals — three days later, he’s in the inner sanctum, the hierarchy of the Mormon Church with these holy leaders, and he’s showing them this document. They’re looking at it with magnifying glasses, and it verifies the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. And there he is — this shy, little nerdy kid — knowing that he faked it. I couldn’t even imagine what that must feel like to know that you duped these individuals.

Is Hofmann unique in the forging world? I’m curious if these individuals have any similar traits.

Hess: He’s kind of an anomaly. The interesting thing about this story is it wasn’t just one or two crimes that happened. The moment he put himself on the map with the Anthon Transcript and gained the respect and trust of the entire community, he had a six-year run. Everything that came through his hands was a forgery. Everything.

Measom: We did look at some [other] forgers, but Mark was in a league of his own. He would create the ink that would fit the times, chemically. He would use old paper from that era and burn it, mix it with beeswax and distilled water. He would find a pen — a nib — from that period. He would emulate the handwriting style of numerous people, from Emily Dickinson to George Washington to Joseph Smith. Also the verbiage, the lexicon of a time — he would research the postage and make sure that the postage weight was the exact weight for sending it from one place to another. He had aging techniques — he put [letters] in ovens, he used dirt. One time, he put documents in between bags of wheat in the basement and let worms go through it. He’d fold [the paper] the right way. He just had the most unbelievable style in order to create these documents. And coupled with that was this ability to sell them — the ability to just have this “Look what I found” attitude, and pass it off as genuine. A remarkable character — genius in many ways, criminally.

Obviously, what he did was wrong. But you can’t help but admire the ingenuity, the discipline, he put into his forging. 

Measom: [His forgery of] “Oath of a Freeman” is a remarkable piece of work. There’s only a couple of things that gave that away and had he not been [found out], that would have sold as a genuine document. But then on the flip side, he also did silly things. Like, there was an instance of a Betsy Ross letter — he found an old letter from the 1700s and it was signed “Betsy.” So what did he do? He added a “Ross” to the end of it. [laughs] He would write these long letters — these amazing documents — but at the same time, he’d find an old letter, put “Ross” on it and sell it for $10,000. Or he’d make Mormon currency — really simple printing — and he’d turn around and sell those for $4,000 to $5,000 each. Almost literally an ATM in his workshop in his basement.

Mark Hofmann’s car

The final episode of the series hinges on the question of whether Hofmann was trying to kill himself with that bomb in his car. We’ll never know for sure, but what do you think?

Hess: Again, I don’t think he was thinking too far ahead. He had a bomb, he was undecided. There was a list on a cryptic piece of paper that had some initials on it, and he made appointments to meet with a number of people that day. One of them was Brent Ashworth, who decided not to go [have lunch with Hofmann] — his wife said, “Hey, just forget about this, just stay home, let’s get pizza and watch a movie.” Did Hofmann intend to kill himself? Or just blow up his car with all these documents in it that were an incomplete McLellin collection to make it look like they all got burned? Or did he just intend to injure himself? He’s the only person that knows. And he’s said different things about it in many different interviews.

Measom: We may never know, but I don’t think he intended to kill himself. I don’t think he had the guts to do that. He said he’d rather kill himself than have the forgeries be found out and have that on his family. I think, personally, he wanted to stuff the trunk full of documents, which might be the McLellin collection, have the bomb go off in the car, and then he could say, “I was targeted. I’m getting out of town. I’m going to leave for a while.” It would buy him some time to clear up some of his debts, or at least get out of town. 

Oddly enough, the street in which he parked is slanted. We shot on location [for the reenactments] — we took the car to the exact spot where it happened. What Mark would do is he had a lever that would tip the package [with the bomb], and when the package tipped, it would go off. He had the wires sticking out and when he joined them together, that’s when it became live. I think what might have happened is that he had [the package] in there, in the car, not knowing that [the street was slanted], and it joined the two wires together and it blew up. 

I think that it was probably meant for Brent Ashworth. When Brent didn’t show up [for the meeting], he said, “Okay, this is my next move.” But who knows?

Because the Mormon church isn’t as old as other religions, did that make it more susceptible to someone like Hofmann, who could challenge their history through a single forged document? 

Hess: They’ve been a very obsessive record-keeping people. You can look at sermons that were given by certain Church leaders almost 200 years ago — they documented everything, and the history is integral to the faith itself. It’s like people’s faith is based on the experiences of early Mormons — in the stories and the things that they went through, and the spiritual experiences that they had. So the Church has always kept its documents and it’s very well-organized, and they acquire new things as they surface.

Mark knew that and knew how to exploit it. And that tradition within the faith also lived among the membership — people want to gather their own family history. So he’d go to his local church, local congregation, and say [to someone], “What was the name of your great-great-great-grandfather? Oh, that’s interesting. You know what? I just came across a letter written by Brigham Young to your great-great-great-grandfather.” [The person would say,] “You’re kidding me! We would love to have that in the family.” [And Mark would say,] “Oh, I could get it for you for a couple of hundred bucks.” So he’d go home that night, take First Presidency letterhead that he had stolen from the Church archives, and he’d crank out this bogus letter for this member and then make a quick couple hundred bucks.

The people that you spoke with — his colleagues and others — were they ashamed of being fooled? 

Measom: These guys were dunked on by Michael Jordan — Michael’s the best. If it was one incident, they might be embarrassed. If they were really shoddy forgeries, that might be something. But they all were fooled. Dorie, his wife, is interesting because she says, “He fooled others on and off — he fooled me every day for years.” 

I don’t think they were really embarrassed about it or ashamed about it. But there was still a great deal of pain that was evident. It’s still [felt] in Utah — there’s still the fingers of Mark Hofmann’s forging hands in this city. There are issues with documents — the Mormon Church is very careful about their history. Document experts are much more careful about what they buy. 

The series talks about the fact that these killings aren’t discussed much in Salt Lake. Does the city acknowledge these murders in any public way?

Hess: Kathy Sheets, there’s a little park next to a church, right outside of her home, and there’s actually a memorial to her there. I don’t think there’s anything like that for Steve downtown. But it’s tough — it’s one of those things where these incredible members of the community were just thoughtlessly murdered. But the reputation of the Church at large, to some degree, it feels like the community wants to protect that [more] than they [want] to remember the people who were killed, which sucks.

The film ends with a series of Hofmann’s mug shots over a span of years since he’s been in prison. Incarceration would take a toll on anyone, but you see how he’s changed, been beaten down, over time. What was the thought process behind ending Murder Among the Mormons that way?

Measom: One of the things that we wanted to do throughout the film was [strike] that balance between kind of revering him as a forger and also despising him as a cold, callous murderer and deceiver. We end the film with a little bit of a lilt on Mark’s genius, in some aspects, but then show him in prison — the way he has changed, the way he is almost like a chameleon and adapted and become a different human being over time. It shows the ever-changing nature of a man like Mark Hofmann. We just wanted to remind people that this dude is still sitting in a jail cell, and he’s been there for a long time. And he will be there for a long time.

Do Not Sell My Personal Information