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Victims’ Families, Historians, Take Stock After Hofmann Pleas In Bombings

January 24, 1987

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ A document dealer’s guilty plea to reduced charges in two bomb slayings leaves six years worth of papers assumed to be part of Mormon Church history either declared forgeries or placed in a questionable light.

Prosecutors said Mark Hofmann, 32, killed to prevent exposure of the bogus papers he sold to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others.

Hoffman pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of second-degree murder and two of theft by deception in a plea bargain that allowed him to escape a possible death penalty.

Judge Kenneth A. Rigtrup, while obliged to given Hofmann the statutory five years to life term, promised he would recommend he spend the rest of his days behind bars.

Hofmann agreed to brief prosecutors on his involvement in the slayings and the 28 related charges of fraud, theft by deception and bomb-making he faced before the plea bargain agreement.

One of the theft by deception charges dealt with what had been considered Hofmann’s most controversial find, the so-called ″White Salamander″ letter. The second count stemmed from a $130,000 loan he obtained to buy the so-called ″McLellin Collection,″ which prosecutors believe never existed.

It was that now-discredited letter that rocked Mormon historians and theologians. In it, early Mormon convert Martin Harris purportedly said Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith claimed to have been visited by an ″old spirit″ that transformed itself into a white salamander.

It quoted Smith as saying it was the salamander that had led him to the gold plates that he said he translated into the Book of Mormon, not an angel, as the church maintains.

Before the bombings, Hofmann had virtually set the agenda for Mormon scholars beginning with his first find six years ago of the ″Anthon Transcript,″ a single sheet of paper containing faded characters allegedly copied from the gold plates.

Ron Bitton, associate editor of Sunstone, an independent Mormon magazine, said the Hofmann documents revelations will weaken revisionist history that examines Mormonism from an analytical point of view.

″Because revisionist church history has depended on revelations included in documents that now appear to be forged, it has to some extent been weakened,″ said Bitton. ″By no means will the new history go away.″

Sandra Tanner, an evangelical Mormon critic who was one of the first to question Hofmann’s document dealings, said Hofmann affected church history because his documents created a climate in which Mormon historians felt obligated to take a second look at church history.

″Most history books written in the last five years contain some references to Hofmann’s documents. This now has thrown confusion into the realm of church history,″ she said.

″We were all fooled expertly,″ said Lyn Jacobs, a Hofmann friend and document collector now living in Ithaca, N.Y. ″I am bitter because I thought Mark was my friend. Now, I wonder if he was cultivating a friendship to use me. He obviously did use me at certain times - as an unwitting front to pass his ‘White Salamander’ letter.″

Hoffman admitted he set the pipe bombs that killed Steven Christensen, 32, and Kathleen Sheets, 50, on Oct. 15, 1985.

Christensen purchased the Salamander letter from Hofmann for $40,000 and donated it to the church, which paid $57,100 for seven documents and traded historical items for 40 other Hofmann finds.

Mrs. Sheets was the wife of a former business asssociate of Christensen.

Hofmann wrote a letter of regret to his victims’ families, which was circulated among them after he was taken to Utah State Prison on Friday.

Some, like Sheets’ sister Joan Gorton, felt Hofmann only was sorry he got caught. ″I think he’s incapable of being sorry. I think he wrote the letter to appease his parents,″ she said.