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Documents Dealer Pleads in Pipe-Bomb Slayings

January 24, 1987 GMT

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ A documents dealer pleaded guilty Friday to reduced murder charges in the pipe-bomb slayings of two people, killings that prosecutors said he committed to escape detection as a trafficker in bogus historical papers.

Mark Hofmann was sentenced to five years to life in prison in the 1985 deaths of a customer who bought the fraudulent ″White Salamander″ letter about the Mormon Church’s founder, and the wife of the customer’s former business associate.

The plea-bargain agreement, anticipated for weeks, concluded one of the most sensational cases in Utah history and allowed Hofmann to avoid a trial and the possibility of the death penalty.

In addition to two counts of second-degree murder, Hofmann pleaded guilty to two counts of theft by deception. Those charges were for the sale of the ″White Salamander″ letter and for a $130,000 loan he obtained for the purchase of the McLellin collection, a never-produced cache of early Mormon documents.

Hofmann, 32, also agreed to brief prosecutors on his involvement in the slayings and the 28 related charges of fraud, theft by deception and bomb- makang he faced prior to the agreement.

Hofmann, whose murder trial had been scheduled March 2, was sentenced to five years to life for the murder of Steven Christensen, 31, and one to 15 years for the murder of Kathleen Sheets, 50, and for each of the theft charges.

In sentencing Hofmann, 3rd District Judge Kenneth A. Rigtrup said the length of Hofmann’s stay in prison was up to the state Board of Pardons, but he recommended that Hofmann ″remain incarcerated for life″ because of the ″indiscriminate″ nature of the killings.

Hofmann was taken to Utah State Prison.

Rigtrup said evidence indicated Sheets was killed by a bomb intended for her husband, J. Gary Sheets, Christensen’s former business partner and a fellow documents buff.

Hofmann, showing no emotion, declined to make a statement, but answered ″guilty″ when Rigtrup asked for his plea to each of the charges.

On his way into court Hofmann told KUTV he feels sorry for what happened. ″Other than that, I wouldn’t like to make any public comment,″ he said.

Asked about his family, Hofmann said, ″I obviously feel the worst for my family, but I think we’ll live through it all right.″

″It was a fair compromise from both sides,″ Hofmann’s attorney, Ron Yengich, said of the agreement which took a month to complete.

Salt Lake County Attorney David Yocom said the victims’ families had concurred in the plea bargain and that prosecutors and investigators believe the punishment is appropriate.

The plea comes nearly a year after Hofmann was formally charged with the killings of Oct. 15, 1985.

Hofmann himself was seriously injured the next day when a pipe bomb blew him from his parked sports car in the downtown area. Investigators maintained the device had been triggered accidentally and named Hofmann their prime suspect within days of the blasts.

Testimony at a preliminary hearing showed Hofmann was being pressured by creditors to repay several hundred thousand dollars he had borrowed contingent on the sale of the McLellin collection, documents purportedly written by an early church leader.

Before his arrest, Hofmann had virtually set the agenda for Mormon scholars beginning with his first find six years ago of the ″Anthon Transcript,″ a single sheet of water-stained paper containing faded characters allegedly copied from the gold plates Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith said he translated into the Book of Mormon. The transcript is now believed to be a forgery.

It was the now-discredited ″White Salamander Letter″ that rocked Mormon historians and theologians. It was a document in which early Mormon convert Martin Harris said Smith claimed to have been visited by an ″old spirit″ that transformed itself into a white salamander.

In the letter, Harris quoted Smith as saying it was the salamander that had led him to the gold plates, not an angel, as official church histories maintain.

Christensen had purchased the Salamander letter from Hofmann for $40,000 and donated it to the church.

Indeed, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was Hofmann’s most avid customer, paying $57,100 for seven documents and trading historical items for 40 other Hofmann finds.

The church was identified as a victim in several of the original fraud charges. Gordon B. Hinckley, a member of the faith’s First Presidency, bought several documents from Hofmann, and church Elder Hugh Pinnock, a trustee of First Interstate Bank, arranged a $185,000 loan for Hofmann to buy the McLellin collection.

Church spokesman Richard P. Lindsay said in a prepared release that church leaders had not been consulted and were not involved in the plea bargain.

He said the attention drawn to the fraudulent documents had harmed the church’s image.

″The church, its early leaders, its doctrines and its members have been abused by much of the commentary about the meaning and impact of the questioned documents which are at the center of these tragic events,″ he said.

Gary Sheets said he was pleased with the plea bargain arrangement, saying he did not want Hofmann to spend the rest of his life in prison because of the suffering it would cause Hofmann’s family.

″Mark Hofmann has a wife and children and they are fine people. My heart goes out to them and I want them to know our prayers are with them,″ Sheets said.