Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Genius Bomber: The Mormon Forgery Murders

Connecting the Dots

Investigators had quickly learned that Steve Christensen was a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints and was considered to be an upright and honest businessman with an interest in Mormon history.  That morning, hed been scheduled to meet with church officials over a rare collection of documents related to the church.  Nothing about that seemed amiss.  He was also going to meet with business partner Randy Rigby, who arrived shortly after the bomb had detonated.  It was Rigbys contention when questioned that the bomb was associated with the Mormon document deal on which Christensen was working, but the church elders had assured everyone who asked that it must be about Christensens former employer, CFS Financial.

With that in mind, something was beginning to make sense.

What appeared to join these two incidents was that two months earlier Christensen had left his boss and mentor at CFS Financial Corporation, a real estate venture that had badly floundered and lost investors a lot of money.   Gary Sheets was its founder.  But then, he was also involved in the Mormon church (also a bishop) and was a longtime friend of one of the elders engaged in the document deal.  He had even stood outside the Judge Building with many others, awaiting word on what had happened, even as his wife was picking up the other bomb.

Sheets was now a good suspect.

Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism
Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism

But there were other possibilities cropping up as well.   It was the belief of other document dealers that this could have been the work of Mormon fanatics who had learned about the controversial documents that Christensen had bought to put into the churchs care.  Of note was something called the salamander letter, purchased in January 1984, which offered an alternate version of the story of Mormonisms founder Joseph Smiths discovery of the golden plates that became the basis for the Book of Mormon.  Smith claimed that when he was 14 years old, an angel revealed the plates location to him, but the alternate version in the salamander letter indicated that something quite different had happened, and it wasn't positive. 

In the Mormon church, there had long been fear that a document might turn up one day that would verify past rumors that Joseph Smith had been a "money-digger," which would mean that he had asked farmers to pay him to go over their land with a "seer stone" to try to locate buried treasure.   It was a fraudulent and illegal activity, and even worse, it involved Smith in occult pursuits.  Apparently there was a record from 1826 that some Joseph Smith had been arrested for money digging, but the elders insisted it was not the Joseph Smith.  His many revelations had come from God, not from the use of the dark arts.

But the rumored salamander letter indicated that what they hoped was not true about their founder might indeed be the real story.   And then it had turned up.  Document dealer Mark Hofmann had located it and brought it to the churchs attention.  Radical splinter groups from Mormonism did not want the church to have it.  Fundamentalists did not want to believe it was real.  Enemies could be counted on both sides.

Martin Harris
An image of Martin Harris

The salamander letter, supposedly written by Martin Harris, a close friend of Smith's and the farmer who had funded the Book of Mormon's initial printing, was dated 1830.   It did indicate that Smith had found the golden plates, but also said that when he reached for them, a white salamander that was guarding them had transformed into an "old spirit" and struck Smith three times. Apparently this creature did not want Smith to take the plates, but he did anyway.   If this rendition of events was true, it undermined Smith's testimony about what had occurred and also implicated him in something more wicked.  Even worse, it threatened the entire foundation of Mormonism

Hofmann claimed that the letter was authentic, and he proved it by comparing it with the farmers handwriting in the back of an old prayer book.   Christensen had then purchased the controversial letter to donate to the church, where the elders would keep it in the vault reserved for what many believed were the church's great secrets.

Nevertheless, word about this documents existence had leaked out and its contents made available in renegade publications.   Many people were alarmed about the letters discovery.  Christensen certainly could have been murdered over that. Someone warned dealer Mark Hofmann that he could be targeted as well for even finding the piece, so he told his wife they might have to leave town.

Gary Sheets
Gary Sheets is comforted by family members after the bomb killed his wife.

On the other hand, Gary Sheets faltering company was the beneficiary of an insurance policy taken out on Christensen for half a million dollars.   And they could not dismiss the puzzling bomb at the Sheets residence.  The bomb that had killed Kathy Sheets had apparently been meant for her husband, Gary.  He did not have any clear part in the document deal.  He also did not have much life insurance on Kathy.  His own fear was that some disgruntled investor who'd lost money with his bankrupt corporation had used the bomb to make his statement to those who had run the company.  Theyd had a serious downturn recently, and people were angry.  A computer readout showed that they had a long list of 3,000 investors, and the police would have to go through them one at a time, as well as through the companys complicated financial records.  Apparently the recent losses were in the millions.

The way the first bomb had been constructed with such deadly nails indicated to investigators an intense degree of rage.   The media that evening emphasized the CFS connection and even hinted at hired assassins from New York, where Gary Sheets recently had visited.  Some media outlets also mentioned the salamander letter.   The investigation was picking up speed, but in no clear direction.

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