Tribune religion reporter: My brush with Mark Hofmann and why friends suggested bomb-sniffing dogs search my wedding gifts

Peggy Fletcher Stack reflects on her interview with the yet-to-be-exposed forger and the fear that erupted in the world of Mormon historical documents,

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack talks about her newspaper career in 2017.

I was on my honeymoon in St. George on Oct. 15, 1985, when separate bombs exploded in Salt Lake City, killing two people.

That tragic event, its aftermath, the police investigation, and subsequent fallout so dramatically detailed in the just-released Netflix documentary “Murder Among the Mormons,” came at a pivotal moment in my life and career.

It will be forever linked with my wedding three days earlier — which means I always know how long it has been since “Mormon bomber” Mark Hofmann forged his way into notoriety and tried to blast his way out.

Back in town on Oct. 16, I called my colleagues at Sunstone magazine, a scholarly Mormon publication where I was the editor, to tell them I would be late to work and my associate asked: “Have you seen the news?”

I said “no” (my focus had been, well, elsewhere) and he told me that my good friend Steve Christensen, a Sunstone columnist and among the magazine’s biggest donors, had been killed in an explosion as had Kathy Sheets, wife of Christensen’s former business partner, Gary Sheets.

(Courtesy photo) Peggy Fletcher Stack at her Sunstone office in 1985.

Stunned, I rushed to the Sunstone office on the second floor of downtown’s old Bennett Glass & Paint Building near the Salt Palace and started to field phone calls from reporters and worried friends.

I initially believed the bombs were planted by angry investors in Sheets’ company. It had nothing to do, I assured them, with controversial Mormon documents that had challenged some of the origin stories of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I was on the phone with a New York City-based TV journalist that afternoon, when we heard the news that Hofmann, the socially awkward source of those documents, had been badly injured by a bomb.

Fear ripped through the fabric of our office — like in those scary campfire yarns when the victim learns the killer is in the same house.

We didn’t think Hofmann was the bomber, of course, only that the blasts were connected not to a troubled business but rather to troubling artifacts. We knew that few groups had publicized, dissected and debated Hofmann’s finds more than Sunstone.

Steve’s father, Mac Christensen of Mr. Mac missionary suit fame, called to tell me to be careful. Others suggested we get bomb-sniffing dogs to check our wedding gifts, many of them stacked outside our apartment door.

My new husband, Mike, and I spent that night at his parents’ house, worried about possible new victims. Because our wedding reception was listed on Steve’s calendar, police investigators later interviewed me at length about my friendship with him and about any possible awareness I had of Hofmann’s double-dealing.

Watching the three-part Netflix series last week, I was reminded how frightening those days were not only for the whole Salt Lake City community but especially for those immersed in Mormon history — investors, supporters, traders and anyone who had done business with Hofmann. Many associates went into hiding.

Some, including me, speculated that the bomber probably was a devout Latter-day Saint who believed that the documents had caused members to lose their faith.

That hypothesis tapped into the struggle we were seeing between those who stuck by the traditional narrative of the Utah-based faith’s beginnings — that founder Joseph Smith was led by an angel to a set of buried gold plates, that God meant for Brigham Young to be Smith’s successor and that polygamy was sanctioned by heaven — and those who were open to more nuanced, varied, even contradictory accounts.

For five years, Hofmann had dazzled the scholarly, religious and media community with unprecedented historical “discoveries” about Mormonism. Trouble is, the most dramatic ones were fakes.

How Hofmann got started

(Tribune file photo) Mark W. Hofmann, left, and LDS Church leaders N. Eldon Tanner, Spencer W. Kimball, Marion G. Romney, Boyd K. Packer and Gordon B. Hinckley examine the "Anthon Transcript" on April 22, 1980.

Hofmann emerged on the Mormon scholarship scene in 1980 as a student at Utah State University, when he claimed to find a copy of the paper shown around by Smith’s friend Martin Harris, known as the “Anthon Transcript,” which included characters Smith said he copied when translating the faith’s foundational scripture, the Book of Mormon.

The nerdy collector next produced what he said was a “father’s blessing” from Smith to his son, ordaining the young man to be his prophetic successor. That supported assertions made by a group then known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now called the Community of Christ), which teaches that Smith’s progeny, not Young, was to lead the fledgling faith after the founder’s death.

And, finally, among many other items, the infamous “Salamander Letter,” which said Smith was prevented at first from gaining possession of the plates, according to The Associated Press, by an ″old spirit″ that ″transfigured himself from a white salamander.″

In each case, Hofmann would assess what would bring the most money — affirmation or controversy — and who would pay top dollar for the “treasure.” He reasoned that the more damaging ones would attract Latter-day Saint leaders, who might choose to conceal them.

I interviewed Hofmann in 1982 for Sunstone Review, a monthly tabloid that provided news, commentary and book reviews.

The mousy researcher lacked social graces, I thought, since he never looked me in the eye. Now I realize it could have been because virtually every answer was a lie and that he was laying out the case of what he intended to forge — capped by a plot to make up the so-called lost 116 pages of the original Book of Mormon manuscript, considered the holy grail for Latter-day Saint document hounds.

(Tribune file photo) Mark Hofmann during one of his court appearances.

I asked Hofmann how he authenticated documents (Mormon papers are “easier than the same process for, say, Lincoln or Washington,” he explained, because Latter-day Saint historians mostly look only at context, penmanship and signatures), what else was out there (a Martin Harris letter in which he mentioned “hearing the voice of the Lord and the things that he saw on the table and the angel appearing”) and why the church itself was not on the trail of such documents (“I really can’t figure it out myself … not a single person on the staff of the historian’s office is trying to compete with me”).

I had heard about the Salamander Letter from Steve Christensen, who wouldn’t let me write about it until he had bought it and donated it to the church — even as eager scholars and critics were pressing him to learn more.

The letter became public in 1985, and more than a thousand people crammed into a Salt Lake City ballroom that summer for a Sunstone Symposium to hear scholars explore Smith’s connection to magic, based on that phony document.

In the end, Hofmann fabricated most of his Mormon finds — and many more early American papers.

“Most people are a little like me,” he told me in the interview. “You have your beliefs and you don’t really let things change them too much.”

Don’t believe him.

What motivated Hofmann

Hofmann, who is serving a life sentence in prison, was motivated partly by the desire to upset the Latter-day Saint story, hoping the documents would shake the church’s historical foundation and thrust members into a collective faith crisis.

He took great delight in duping top church leaders, including future President Gordon B. Hinckley.

Ironically, the Hofmann saga did push some church historians to take a fuller, richer look at Smith’s era, including his practice of what is known as folk magic.

These days, the church proudly promotes the massive Joseph Smith Papers project — dubbed the “lunar landing” of Mormon history — and has no problem embracing and displaying “a seer stone” Smith placed in his hat as a divine instrument to produce the Book of Mormon.

It took until April 1986, not long before my husband and I were leaving Sunstone to live and work in Africa, for investigators to piece together all of Hofmann’s fraudulent activities and determine the bombings were part of a deadly scheme to cover up his counterfeiting.

There was an unexpected moment in the bomber’s preliminary hearing that horrified me. Steve Christensen’s neighbor across the hall from his Judge Building office testified that after the explosion, she went out to find my friend lying on the ground, his body torn apart but emitting a sound “like a child crying.”

(Tribune file photo) Steve Christensen, seen here in a photo taken sometime before his death in 1985, was killed by one of the bombs set by Mark Hofmann

Not until then had I allowed myself to weep about what he might have suffered in his last breaths and what his death meant to the community and me.

For the past 35 years on my anniversary, I have taken a moment to think of him, that crazy time of breathless document hunting, the dread surrounding this nefarious whodunit, and the search for truth.

Post-Hofmann, I try to remain skeptical of outrageous claims. They might be just that — outrageous.