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Netflix docuseries ‘Murder Among the Mormons’ examines Hofmann forgeries, bombings

By Genelle Pugmire special To The Standard-Examiner - | Feb 27, 2021
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Historical document collector Brent Ashworth is pictured in episode 3 of "Murder Among the Mormons."

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A scene from "Murder Among the Mormons," episode 1.

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A scene from "Murder Among the Mormons," episode 3. The docuseries will be available for streaming on Netflix beginning Wednesday.

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A scene from "Murder Among the Mormons," episode 3. The docuseries will be available for streaming on Netflix beginning Wednesday.

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A scene from "Murder Among the Mormons," episode 1. The docuseries will be available for streaming on Netflix beginning Wednesday.

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Salt Lake City Chief Investigator Michael George appears in episode 2 of "Murder Among the Mormons."

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Shannon Flynn, a colleague of Mark Hofmann, appears in episode 2 of "Murder Among the Mormons." 

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Steve Christensen, a Mormon businessman and collector of LDS antiquities, is pictured in a scene from episode 3 of "Murder Among the Mormons."

One of the most prolific forgers of documents pertaining to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now the center of a Netflix documentary — “Murder Among the Mormons” — which will begin streaming on Wednesday.

In 1985, Mark Hofmann set off a series of pipe bombs that killed two people and severely injured another. More than that, it sent reverberations through the highest levels of the LDS Church.

Netflix promotion materials indicate, “The murders sent further shockwaves through the community when a trove of early Mormon letters and diaries were found destroyed in the vehicle of the victim, Hofmann, a renowned collector of rare documents, including the infamous “White Salamander” letter — an artifact whose contents threatened to shake the very foundations of the LDS Church.”

Directed by Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite,” “Nacho Libre”) and Tyler Measom (“An Honest Liar”), both raised LDS, “Murder Among the Mormons” is the first comprehensive look at one of the most shocking crimes to have ever taken place among the LDS community and the criminal mastermind behind it all, according to Netflix.

One of those people who knew Hofmann, dealt with him on a weekly basis and was a possible mark for death is Brent Ashworth, a long-time collector himself for the LDS Church and a resident of Provo. He owns B. Ashworth’s on University Avenue.

The letter

The center of the concern for the LDS Church, beyond the many forged documents purchased, was the “White Salamander” letter. The letter claimed that instead of the Angel Moroni leading Joseph Smith to the gold plates containing the Book of Mormon, a white salamander lead him.

According to Ashworth, Hofmann sold the letter to Steven Christensen for $40,000. Christensen intended to give the letter to the church.

It appears the salamander story evolved from speculation that when Joseph Smith moved the rock to collect the plates from the Hill Cumorah outside of Palmyra, New York, a toad jumped out, according to Ashworth.

“It was one of a few items I thought was a forgery,” Ashworth said.

In his biography, “Show and Tell: A Unique Journey Through History,” Ashworth tells about his relationship with President Gordon B. Hinckley, who at the time was a member of the First Presidency of the LDS Church and later became president.

In his book, he recalls meeting with Hinckley, which he did often, to discuss documents. When it came to the Hofmann documents, Hinckley told Ashworth the church went to several highly trained and professional collectors to verify authenticity.

Hinckley said the church had actually used the Federal Bureau of Investigation lab for some of the documents they had acquired, which shocked Ashworth.

“Hinckley then said, ‘You know, Brent, we even went to the University of California, the Davis campus, where they had an electron cyclotron test,’ ” Ashworth revealed in his book.

“The test was able to measure the migration of the electrons in the ink, indicating to a decade or so, how long that ink had been on a particular page of paper, thereby exposing recent forgeries of historical documents,” Ashworth said.

Ashworth later noted the reason he knew about the test was because Hofmann told him about it. Ashworth presumed Hofmann was aware of the procedure and had engineered around it.

During his meeting with Hinckley, the church leader said, “I’m pretty familiar with Joseph Smith’s writings and letters. I’m familiar with Joseph Smith’s handwriting. Not only did Hofmann have his handwriting down, Brent, he had his sentence structure down.”

Ashworth continues in the book, “At that point, he (Hinckley) paused and it was really the first time that Brent spoke saying, ‘Yes, President, it’s kind of like the guy was possessed. He was so good.’ When he said that, President Hinckley looked straight at him gently tapped his desk, leaned forward and said, ‘Well he was possessed.’ As if to say, ‘Are you just picking up on this now’?”

Ashworth said those words rang true to him. He felt Hofmann had help from the wrong side, and President Hinckley had confirmed it.

Netflix story

Netflix promotion of the Hess/Measom production sets up the three-part documentary in very focused and compelling content.

“Murder Among the Mormons” starts in episode one with the story beginning on the morning of Oct. 15, 1984, when a pipe bomb explodes in downtown Salt Lake City, killing Steven Christensen, a financial consultant and known collector of LDS artifacts.

Just one hour later, another bomb explodes in a nearby town unintentionally killing the wife of an associate of Christensen’s.

The following morning, Hofmann is nearly killed in a car bombing.

Though Hofmann survives, the rare Mormon documents and artifacts in his trunk are destroyed.

Episode two starts with investigators digging into the origins of the documents as they begin to realize that something is very wrong.

Promising leads turn into dead ends and the investigation almost grinds to a halt, until a single clue breaks the case wide open, revealing a shocking coverup.

Episode three covers Hofmann’s motives and methods, which continue to haunt people and communities today.

The documentary interviews a number of interested parties, investigators and collectors who dealt with Hofmann, including Ashworth.

Ashworth’s story

“I’d been dealing with him for about four years,” Ashworth said of Hofmann. They met every Wednesday at 2 p.m. at the Crossroads Mall in Salt Lake City.

Ashworth purchased several of the forgeries Hofmann was peddling, but one in particular was supposed to be a letter written by Lucy Mack Smith, mother of Joseph Smith, in 1829 to her sister-in-law.

“The church thought it to be one of the earliest letters about the church,” Ashworth said. “I traded $30,000 worth of documents for it; one of (George) Washington’s last letters and a (Abraham) Lincoln letter.”

Ashworth noted that because he believed Hofmann knew about the cyclotron test and the ink movement, Hofmann did many of his forgeries in pencil. Pencils cannot be traced the same way.

After Hofmann was sentenced, he gave an interview at the state prison about the bombings, etc.

“Mark said I was supposed to be part of the bombings,” Ashworth said. They were to meet at the Crossroads Mall that day.

Ashworth said his wife asked him not to go, so he didn’t. He holds to the fact that his wife saved his life.

“I got four calls, three from attorneys that saw the explosion and told me to get out of town. The fourth came from Jay Todd, executive editor of the Ensign, an LDS magazine.

“The brethren said to get you and your family out of town,” Ashworth said. “We went to St. George.”

However, for Ashworth it was short-lived because Salt Lake’s Chief of Police Bud Willoughby wanted to talk to him. Eventually Ashworth went back to Salt Lake City and helped with the investigation and eventually turned state’s evidence against Hofmann.

During the investigation, officials brought some of the burned and singed documents from Hofmann’s car for Ashworth to look at.

“I told them, ‘I think he’s a killer,’ ” Ashworth said.

Ashworth had purchased somewhere between 30 or 40 forgeries from Hofmann. The LDS Church had purchased about 50 forgeries.

Time has passed since Hofmann’s incarceration in January of 1987. Ashworth has little tidbits of interest about Hofmann during his time in prison, but there is one that makes Ashworth a bit curious.

Ashworth has hundreds of books, including several older ones he was looking to donate. He gave hundreds to the LDS Church, but the warden at the Gunnison Prison in Central Utah was wanting to build a library for the prisoners.

“One week the church would send a truck for books and the next week the prison,” Ashworth said. “In all, there were about 2,000 boxes. They even brought prisoners to help with loading.

“A few years later, Hofmann was transferred to Gunnison,” Ashworth chuckled. “He’ll see my name in those books. There is some justice in this universe.”

Of his friendship with President Hinckley, Ashworth said they met weekly. They would authenticate and discuss things. Hinckley was interested in collecting.

“President Hinckley loved church history,” Ashworth said.

As for being a marked man, Ashworth said it never really dawned on him how scary that was until a friend of his brought it up years later.

“I didn’t consider Hofmann was going to kill me until my friend Shirley Paxman blurted out, ‘Brent how does it feel to have your life saved?’ “

Ashworth said he has had some interesting moments with the notorious. When he was studying to be a lawyer, Ashworth took a criminal law class where the students were assigned to sit in alphabetical order. It was Ashworth and then next to him was Ted Bundy.

Ashworth was mad at Bundy because he stole his expensive criminal law book, but laughed it off saying he was arrested halfway through the semester anyway.

Ashworth also noted that Hofmann had been a cellmate of Dan Lafferty’s for several years. Lafferty was involved with the murder of his sister-in-law and niece, who was just a toddler at the time.

Lafferty claimed to receive revelations for the church. Ashworth mused about what Hofmann’s and Lafferty’s discussions would have been like.

While he’s not one to languish on his Hofmann days, Ashworth said he does intend to watch the Netflix documentary. He is mostly featured in episode three.


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