Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Genius Bomber: The Mormon Forgery Murders


The detectives put Hofmann under surveillance and started some complicated background work, which included speaking with church elders.

The church quickly issued a statement saying it did not know Hofmann, but upon learning that the Library of Congress was to pay him a substantial sum for a document called the Oath of a Freemansupposedly the first document printed on an American press---the church had quietly approved a 30-day loan for the McLellin collection, which had historical value for the church.   Steve Christensen had vouched for Hofmann and was monitoring the deal.  The parties involved had discovered that the loan had expired without payment and that the collection had not been forthcoming.  The bank and the church were worried, especially with Christensens death.  The church agreed to send the salamander letter to the FBI for analysis.

Oath of a Freeman
Oath of a Freeman

Shannon Flynn
Shannon Flynn

In the meantime, investigators seized Hofmanns van to search it for possible traces of the bombs.   Inside was a receipt for a facsimile copy of the Oath of a Freeman for $25 from Argosy Bookstore and a grain of smokeless gunpowder like that used in making the bombs.  They also found a man, Shannon Flynn, who had once purchased blasting caps for Hofmann and a book, The Anarchists Cookbook, which detailed the construction of bombs.  Flynn admitted they had made and exploded fertilizer bombs together and indicated that Hofmann had a lot of debts.

The church then called a press conference to explain its dealings with Mark Hofmann as a document collector and its acquisition of the salamander letter.   The elders distanced themselves from the entire affair and made it appear as if their involvement had been peripheral. 

But the McLellin deal turned out to be more important than the elders were admitting.  Christensens relatives indicated he had rearranged his life and even upset family members over this collection.  It was their impression he was making sacrifices on behalf of the church, but the church was not acknowledging that.

It seemed to detectives that there was a lot of double-dealing going on.   Then a church leader quietly repaid the debt that Hofmann owed from his own pocket.  Investigators were puzzled and still could not figure out what charges to file against Hofmann.

Document dealers across the country were streaming to Hofmanns defense, aware that the investigation was moving toward discrediting his discoveries.   That would be bad news for all of them.  Hed been selling documents all over the place for the past five years. 

Hofmann leaves the hospital in a wheelchair.
Hofmann leaves the hospital in a wheelchair.

On October 31, Hofmann was released from the hospital.   Investigators still did not have a motive for the double homicides, but they intended to keep a close eye on him.

Another search warrant was issued for Hofmanns home and the police removed felt-tipped pens, wires, drill bits and a Radio Shack catalog with batteries circled, bringing their total items to sort through from the various searches and crime scenes to more than 5,000.  While Hofmann took and passed a polygraph, another team of detectives started to piece together Mark Hofmanns complex document dealing.

Then an expert in questioned documents from the attorney generals office read the story in the newspapers. He was Special Agent George Throckmorton.   He felt sure that something was amiss with the authentication process for the salamander letter.  Knowing that authentication experts tended to hedge by acknowledging that ink or paper was consistent with the right type for the age, he was aware that they rarely made definitive pronouncements.  And anyway it wasnt that hard to find paper that could be dated back.  He went to a dealer he knew and asked to look at those documents that had come through Mark Hofmann.  He scanned three letters alleged to be from Joseph Smith, all written from prison at about the same time, and decided that something was definitely wrong.

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