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Mysterious Bombings Kill Two in Salt Lake City—and Rock the Mormons

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Steve Christensen may not have had a premonition of disaster, but he knew he was wading deeply into intrigue. “I feel like I’m living through an episode of Miami Vice,” he joked to a friend about a deal he was cutting. Four days later Christensen, 31, was dead—killed at 8:10 a.m. on an October Tuesday by the explosion of a shrapnel bomb left in a package with his name on it outside his downtown Salt Lake City office. An hour and a half later Salt Lake City was rocked by another bomb—this one taking the life of Kathy Sheets, 50, whose husband, Gary, was Christensen’s business partner.

To police the case seemed simple enough—at first. Sheets’ and Christensen’s investment firm, CFS Financial Corp., was in trouble. Just two weeks earlier they’d sent a letter to investors saying they were $5.4 million in debt. Police speculated that the killings were the work of angry investors. Detectives also were investigating Sheets’ and Christensen’s connection to controversial historical documents concerning the Mormon Church, officially the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the business angle struck them as the most fruitful approach. “I think it’s important that we not unnecessarily alarm our citizens,” said Police Chief Bud Willoughby. “We have things well in hand.”

That was Tuesday night. On Wednesday at 2:40 p.m. the police saw their scenario blown apart by a third bomb, just a block from the Mormon Temple. Fire fighters dispatched to the scene found a blue Toyota in flames and a man, seriously injured, lying on the ground nearby. The victim was identified as Mark Hofmann, 30, a shadowy dealer in historical documents whom the police had been trying to contact as part of their investigation. Yet Hofmann quickly changed, in police eyes, from victim to suspect. In their new scenario police speculated that Hofmann, in an act of revenge, may have left the bombs for Sheets and Christensen and then may have accidentally blown himself up when handling a third explosive in his car. In a flash the entire case turned on its axis and landed in the strange labyrinth of Mormon history.

Salt Lake City is the Jerusalem of the Mormon Church. Some 70 percent of its citizens are adherents. The common link between Sheets, Christensen and Hofmann, all Mormons, was church documents. In 1984 Christensen paid Hofmann $45,000 for a controversial epistle. It dated to the early 1800s and was called the “Salamander Letter.” The letter reported that in 1823, when Mormon founder Joseph Smith discovered the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon is said to have been inscribed, he encountered a “white salamander” that transformed itself into an “old spirit.” The business of the salamander disturbed many churchmen because it differs from the official version, in which Smith received the tablets from an angel of God. The difference is of critical importance to the Mormon faithful because the church claims to be infallible. It also plays upon an exposed nerve, as Mormons consider themselves embattled, the lone true believers in a world filled with the unenlightened, whom Mormons call Gentiles.

Notoriously secretive, the church has largely kept quiet about the October murders. But at the time of the bombings Christensen, a Mormon bishop (local church leader), was representing some high church officials in another deal with Hofmann. Hofmann claimed to be acting as an agent for a party who owned some or all of the so-called “McLellin Collection”—yet another group of historical documents that allegedly puts in question essential church doctrine. Christensen is thought to have been setting up the deal with a group of investors who would see that the collection found its way into church hands. Apparently no one has seen the documents Hofmann said he had for sale. Indeed some Salt Lake insiders doubt that the collection actually exists.

In the days before the killings the deal for the McLellin Collection apparently went sour. Hofmann was a star in the document-trading world, but he reportedly was in financial trouble. He had large sums of money tied up in documents, and his indebtedness was said to be considerable. He also had put down $5,000 earnest money for a $650,000 house in south Salt Lake, and a payment of $200,000 was due on the Friday before the bombings. He was desperate for cash. In fact, in an unusual act, Hugh Pinnock, a high church official, had arranged six weeks earlier for Hofmann to receive a 30-day loan of about $180,000 from the First Interstate Bank of Utah, where Pinnock sits on the board of directors. Pinnock says the money was to be used to “pay for some valuable documents.”

For whatever reason, Hofmann apparently could not cut a deal with the churchmen to deliver the McLellin Collection, though the negotiations were frantic. Apparently Hofmann also had been attempting to sell the McLellin papers to other potential buyers. Shortly before the murders Christensen waited in his car several nights in front of Hofmann’s home, trying to catch up with him. When the document trader finally arrived Christensen whisked him off to a late get-together with Pinnock, according to a lawyer friend of Christensen’s. On Thursday Christensen met all day with Hofmann, helping him organize his financial affairs. That weekend Christensen told a friend who knew of the deal, “I’ll be glad when it’s Wednesday and all of this will be over.”

On Wednesday Christensen was dead, but the story was far from over. Investigators speculate that the murders may have been prompted by an 11th-hour discovery of some kind of fraud. Just after the car bomb injured Hofmann (now recuperating from multiple wounds), a man named Brent Metcalfe dashed to the scene, invited police to inspect his own house and car and asked for protective custody. A self-taught scholar, Metcalfe had once worked as a historical researcher for Christensen but recently had been secretly working for Hofmann, purportedly on the McLellin Collection. He feared that he also might be a target of the murderers. Then, a few days later, police arrested Shannon Patrick Flynn, 28, a photographer and recent business associate of Hofmann, for possession of an unregistered UZI submachine gun. Police also said they found a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook, which includes bomb-making instructions, in Flynn’s home. He later was released on $50,000 bail. Police say there may yet be more arrests in the case.

The church, meanwhile, strongly implied that Christensen had been working on its behalf when he was slain. At his funeral, a high church official praised the financier’s “pure” motives and loyalty. In another provocative eulogy, Christensen’s friend and confidant, Randy Rigby, said, “I don’t want to speculate. But I think that when all of the facts in this case are known, it will be shown that Steve died as a martyr for his church.”