A handheld camera wobbles and zooms in on Mark Hofmann sitting on the floor of his 1985 living room, bouncing a baby on his knee as he watches a news story about himself. We hear the voice of longtime Utah TV news anchor Randall Carlisle delivering the headline, “the police theory that Mark Hofmann was forging documents was a real surprise to the community of scholars and collectors who worked with Hofmann.”
The Netflix documentary series Murder Among the Mormons includes the scene from one of Hofmann’s many home videos. The three-part series reached the top 10 on Netflix this week. Through interviews and news reports, the documentary unfolds the rise of Hofmann as a prolific purveyor of rare historical documents, the subsequent bombing that killed two people and his ultimate exposure as a forger and fraudster.
In the second episode, Hofmann’s ex-wife Dorie recalls just how much Hofmann loved watching the news and how he reveled in the coverage that centered on him. And, from 1985 through ‘86, there would have been a lot for him to revel in.
Just after 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 15, 1985, people in Utah would have been arriving at work, reading the paper over breakfast or saying their morning prayers. Then reports broke that a bomb had exploded in the Judge Building in downtown Salt Lake City. The explosion killed businessman Steven Christensen and brought the world to a halt. For hours, it would be all anyone could talk or think about, especially if they had friends or family members in the vicinity of the blast. That is, until another bomb exploded in the Salt Lake City suburbs, killing Kathy Sheets in the blast meant for her husband, Gary. After that, the story dominated conversation and both local and national news coverage for the entirety of the criminal investigation.
The voices of perennial news anchors and reporters in the documentary will be familiar to some. I know Carlisle from our work together in TV news. Before our time as co-workers, he was on the news desk at KUTV in Salt Lake City. The documentary makers (Jared Hess, who is perhaps best known for his 2004 film Napoleon Dynamite) used ample footage of Carlisle and then co-anchor Michelle King and interviewed their co-worker at the time, reporter Rod Decker. Carlisle had been on the anchor desk for five years when the bombings began. “The newscasts were so much more fluid then,” he remembers. “They had to be because developments were happening so fast.”
“All of our resources were allocated to that,” says Carlisle of the bombings. “The story took so many twists and turns. We were getting so many tips, and we had to follow-up on all of them ”
Reporters and police investigators alike were running down tips about Sheets’ and Christensen’s business dealings. Some linked them to Las Vegas and the mob. “We had to pursue every one of them because, at the time, it all sounded reasonable. And the police were doing the same thing,” says Carlisle. “We got to play detective as well.”
Journalists also received tips directly from the police. “Whenever the police were questioning a new suspect, someone would leak it to us, so we’d show up and get the shot of this guy walking into the station.” The ever-evolving investigation and constant coverage gave rise to endless speculation. That speculation took an abrupt turn when the third bomb went off.
“When we learned that the bomb had gone off in Mark Hofmann’s car… that changed everything,” says Carlisle. “It was the turning point for the whole investigation. It caused all of us to reflect instantly and say ‘what does this mean? Where do we go from here?’”
When investigators revealed they had found what appeared to be historic documents related to the LDS church in Hofmann’s car, the focus of the coverage took a turn as well. “We shifted directions toward the church. There was a ton of speculation that the bombing had to do with keeping quiet documents that could hurt the church,” says Carlisle.
He adds they always had to be mindful of how they reported on that thread of the bombing investigation. “We were told to be respectful of the church. Just because someone wants to keep the documents hidden at all costs, that doesn’t mean the church is behind it.”
Richard Turley is a former historian for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who also appears in the Netflix documentary. He wrote a book on the Mark Hofmann bombings called Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case (1992), in part to address the rampant rumor and speculation about the church’s dealings with Hofmann. “When something this sensational occurs, if repeated often enough, that speculation hardens into fact,” says Turley.
And that’s true still today. He adds, “In today’s world, many people do not scan broadcast or print news, instead they rely heavily on their social media feeds. Over the last few days since the mini-series, we’re seeing a significant number of people who assume nothing has been written about the subject previously. But there is an entire literature about the case, including my book and others. The work of journalists and so forth. Don’t just assume because you haven’t seen it nothing has been done.”
Related Story: Former LDS Church historian on Mark Hofmann copycats
Hofmann had generated news coverage before the bombings as well, particularly when he “discovered” what’s come to be known as the Salamander Letter. When the letter came out, Randall recalls KUTV sent a reporter to upstate New York to cover the origins of the golden plates. Members of the church believe the plates were given to church founder Joseph Smith by an angel, and, from which, Smith translated the Book of Mormon. (The Salamander Letter challenged this version of events, claiming it was a white salamander rather than an angel. Forensic investigators later proved Hofmann forged the letter.)
In some ways, the coverage of Hofmann demonstrates just how much TV news has changed since 1985. Back then, watching local news stations was the only way the public could stay up-to-date on the bombings and the investigation. Now, a bomb exploding in Salt Lake City, Carlisle says, might not even make national news. “If you had the same story today, people would be following it, but it wouldn’t be on the top of everyone’s minds. It would only occupy the first three or four minutes of an evening newscast.”
Looking back at a career spanning decades on air, Carlisle says that was the best job he ever had in TV news. “We were unraveling a mystery at the same time as the police. For a news person, it was a very exciting time.”
The documentary series on the Mark Hofmann bombings Murder Among the Mormons is available to watch on Netflix.
We spoke with Richard Turley on a recent river trip floating the trail of John W. Powell. And while you’re here, check out our latest print issue of Salt Lake magazine and the other stories in our Arts & Entertainment section.