At Sunstone: Principals in the infamous Mark Hofmann forgery and murder case reflect on the lingering effects
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Nineteen-year old Gretchen Sheets McNees was sitting in a University of Utah classroom, when a plainclothes policeman called her out. Something was wrong at home, he said.
On the drive to the police station, she hoped it was a traffic ticket but feared worse. The truth was beyond imagining. Her mother, Kathleen Sheets, had been brutally murdered with a pipe bomb.
"When my dad told me, it was like all my bones had been ripped out of me," McNees said Thursday. "I crumpled to the ground."
McNees made her emotion-packed remarks as part of a panel discussion, "Twenty-Year Reflections on the Mark Hofmann Bombings," held at the annual Sunstone Symposium, an independent gathering of Mormon intellectuals.
The three-day meeting that began Wednesday night at the Sheraton Centre in Salt Lake City attracted hundreds of participants, some of whom had firsthand experiences with Hofmann, who is serving life sentences for murdering Sheets and Salt Lake City businessman Steven Christensen in October 1985.
Her mother's death on that fateful morning 20 years ago continues to echo throughout McNees' life.
She was not allowed to grieve at the time, she said, because of extensive media coverage and public insensitivity. On Halloween that year, someone came dressed up as a "white salamander," an image from one of Hofmann's most infamous forgeries.
McNees felt her mother's loss when she was pregnant with her first child and had no one to ask mother-to-be questions. She senses it now when looking at her two kids, realizing they will never know their grandmother, who loved children so much she stocked her pantry with finger food and baby clothes.
The death also changed the course of McNees' life. She is now a detective investigating sex crimes for the Salt Lake City Police Department.
Doralee Olds, Hofmann's ex-wife, told the packed audience of the memories she didn't have time to explore: being at Hofmann's side in the hospital and seeing all her possessions dragged out of their house. Learning that her husband had deeded away their house. Her feelings of abandonment when both sides of the family supported her husband.
Those will all be in a book Olds is writing, she said.
What she wanted to talk about on this occasion was what she called "waking up."
She's been asked repeatedly how she could not have known that her husband was a fraud, that he was lying to everyone, even her.
"When I look back, there were a lot of places where things were a mess, but he'd always have a great answer," Olds said. "I was unable or unwilling to see."
Hofmann played on people's fears or desires, she said. Mormons who bought his documents for exorbitant amounts were afraid the church's official history wasn't true, and anti-Mormons worried that it might be.
Olds often wonders if she could have prevented the murders by paying more attention to clues to his behavior but has concluded, "I needed to stay asleep to be safe. I might have ended up like Lori Hacking."
Hacking was murdered by her husband, Mark Hacking, after she discovered he was lying about graduating from college and being accepted to medical school.
"There will always be schemers," she said. "We need to be awake and aware. We need to read Mormon stories with an open mind, not thinking that all church leaders were perfect."
Olds is a life coach at the Academy for Life Management, using massage, hypnosis and other holistic methods to help people get through emotional crises.
She remains strong in her LDS faith and has not been in contact with her husband since she divorced him in 1988.
Other panelists discussed the impact of Hofmann's murders and forgery on their LDS faith and the historic documents market.
One was Brent Metcalfe, an LDS researcher who introduced Hofmann to businessman Steven Christensen. After Hofmann killed Christensen, Metcalfe lost his Mormon faith.
If the LDS prophet and leaders who dealt with Hofmann were truly talking to God, they could have saved two innocent lives and exposed forgeries, an emotional Metcalfe told the Sunstone crowd. "God died for me that day and I've seen no reason to resuscitate him ever since."
Curt Bench was also a close friend of Hofmann and Christensen. Bench worked in the rare books and document wing of church-owned Deseret Book.
"One of the victims was trust," said Bench, owner of Benchmark Books, which deals in used and rare LDS books. "I never thought I'd trust again."
He doesn't feel too bad about not being able to see through Hofmann's deceptions because he's in good company - the forger fooled LDS leaders, his wife, his parents, ward members, everyone he knew.
"This was not a faith-destroying event for me," Bench said.
He does mark time as "B.H." and "A.H." - Before Hofmann and After Hofmann - and is a tad troubled how little the document market has changed in the aftermath.
There is still not much testing of a document's age or handwriting. Testing is expensive and Hofmann fooled experts, so why bother?
"It could happen again," Bench said. "There's always that potential when there's lots of money involved."
The Hofmann saga
l Mark Hofmann defrauded hundreds in the 1980s by creating bogus old letters and documents, many of which called into question the historical basis of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
l Hofmann's undoing came when he could not produce the so-called McLellin collection, the papers of an early Mormon apostle who turned into an enemy of church founder Joseph Smith. The church wanted to acquire it, and asked Hofmann friend Steve Christensen to serve as a go-between.
l Hofmann tried to mask his deceit by killing Christensen on Oct. 15, 1985, with a pipe bomb. A second bomb was placed outside Kathy Sheets' home because her husband, Gary Sheets, was a former business associate of Christensen. Hofmann hoped investigators would believe the murders were related to dealings between Sheets and Christensen.
l The next day, Hofmann injured himself with a third bomb.
l He pleaded guilty to two counts of murder in January 1987 and was sent to Utah State Prison. He currently shares a cell with double-murderer and religious zealot Dan Lafferty.