A Review Of “A Gathering of Saints” by Robert Lindsey Dell Books 1988

This is me reading true crime books to get ideas for my own mysteries. Even though this story is relatively old, it involves one of the most incredible cases of fraudulent documents in the annuls of American jurisprudence.

This story journals the crimes of one of America’s most brilliant and prolific forgers of historic documents who also turned out to be one of the country’s dumbest killers. Mark William Hofmann started off in life as a devout Mormon, like his father. He was sent to England to do missionary work and that is where he developed an interest in historic documents.

As he later explained to investigators, his first foray into crime wasn’t with documents, but with coins. He used an electroplate tool to add a “d” to a dime which made it one of the very few minted in Denver, and thus worth thousands. The U.S. mint declared it to be genuine. He sold it and made a lot of money off a dime. This spurred his interest in crime.

He never did hold a regular job or have a vocation outside that of historic document seller and trader. Many of the documents he sold had the forged names of famous Americans on them; Daniel Boone, William Bonney, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton. He later admitted to investigators that they were all forgeries.

He explained how he created them. He found paper from the right era, at least a century old, and artificially aged it with chemical gases which made the paper and ink look faded. He made his own ink from formulas popular in the last century. He was able to study the signatures of famous people and simply reproduce them by hand. All of these had fooled document examiners who pronounced the signatures genuine.

While Hofmann victimized hundreds of unwary buyers, his main victim was the Mormon church in Salt Lake. He presented church authorities with what purported to be letters and other documents from early important Mormons and the church purchased them for their historic value. He then started producing documents which contained material that anti-mormons could use against the Church, and offered the church, or his other customers who were wealthy devout members, the opportunity to buy them before offering them to anti-mormons. The church hierarchy, including President Gordon Hinkley, would arrange for a wealthy church member to buy the document and then donate it to the church in exchange for credits against tithes.

Part of this criminal behavior was due to the fact that as a supposed devout member of the Church, Hofmann was able to find buyers of historic Mormon documents among other church members who did not question his honesty, and part of this conduct was the product of his disillusion with and later hostility towards the institution.

Hofmann had a great thing going and had managed to get over two million dollars for his various forgeries and was on the verge of his greatest fraud, one he was trying to perpetrate on the Library of Congress, and which did not involve a Mormon document, when it appears he either mentally broke down or set out on a sub-conscious path of self-destruction. He began engaging in deals that made no sense. For example, he claimed he had the opportunity to buy a collection of documents, the “MacClellan” collection” which might be very damaging to the church. He convinced an investor to come up with $185,000 to buy the collection. No one ever found out what happened to that money. He told the investor he had bought the collection, resold it, and the investor’s profit would be over $150,000, so now he owed this one investor $335,000. Instead of finding a way to fix that problem, pay the guy off, and go back to selling forgeries, he got more money for this collection which he hadn’t found, and ran up more debt. As far as his investors and the detectives could figure out, he’d run up around a million dollars of obligations, some wholly illusory such as the $150,000 profit for a sale he never made. None of it made any sense. He might have been expecting to pay off his investors once he sold the Library of Congress the first printed patriot document, but he ran up much more debt than the sale would cover and seemed to have nothing to show for it. He obligated himself to pay investors where he got no profit himself.

The investors were demanding to see the documents they had supposedly bought or get their money back. One of his regular customers, Steven Christensen, was to look at the MacClellan collection and if acceptable, buy it for $185,000 and then donate it to the church. The day this was supposed to happen, Steven Christensen was murdered by a bomb. The church insisted the review of documents go ahead a few days later in spite of the death. Before that could happen, the wife of Christensen’s former business partner, Kathy Sheets, was murdered by a bomb meant for her husband, Gary Sheets. A few days later, Hofmann was injured by a bomb. This unraveled his criminal career.

The forensic bomb experts told law enforcement that Hofmann could not have been injured in the manner he described. They believed that instead of being a victim, he was the bomber and had been injured when the bomb he was handling accidentally went off. This was a starting place for an investigation, but the district attorney wanted a motive and some connection between Hofmann and the bombs before seeking an indictment.
Hofmann’s documents had been pronounced genuine by historic document experts such as the experts working for the Library of Congress, and the FBI’s forensic questioned documents unit. Never-the-less, the Salt Lake investigators were sure they were fraudulent, and set out to prove it.

They uncovered his crimes through the simple expedience of hiring a gumshoe. They hadn’t needed a document expert, or chemist or bomb designer. Just a run of the mill private investigator to look at the “provenance” of the documents. This is a history of who has owned an object (like a painting) in the past. Hofmann had simply invented the provenances of documents he sold, or fabricated details in them. They discovered that the “poem” in a book owned by a famous Mormon named Martin which was in the same handwriting as the signature “Martin” which was found in a book which unquestionably had belonged to Martin, had not been there when its prior owners had owned it. Two of the previous owners were absolutely sure. Hofmann must have put the poem into the book himself. His forgery skills were so great, he could match the handwriting of the real signature in the book so the poem looked as if it had been written by the person who had signed “Martin” to the book. This made it much more valuable.

The investigators also found out that the 1668 Bible that Hofmann claimed belonged to an old Mormon family, and in which he claimed he found an old letter, could not have belonged to them because they had lost all of their possession when their raft flipped while on their way to Utah.

The investigators found other holes in the “chain of custody” that Hofmann had claimed for other documents. They also found the owner of the real MacLellan collection who had never met with Hoffman, much less sold him the collection.
Then the investigators found something else that was unusual. ALL the documents that Hofmann had sold had ink that had cracks in it that could be seen under a microscope. No other historical document that they examined had this characteristic. It was probably the result of Hofmann’s artificial aging process.

The district attorney, Ted Cannon, was still not ready to go forward with a murder case against Hofmann. While it looked like forgery and fraud could be proved, there was no reason for Hofmann to kill either Steve Christensen or Gary Sheets. On the other hand, Sheets and Christensen had run an investment company that had lost hundreds of millions of dollars, leaving some of its investors poverty-stricken which seemed to offer a much better motive for murder. The investment loses has been in good faith, just unfortunately investments, but still, many investors might have been angry enough to have wanted that level of revenge.

The other matter inhibiting a trial was the fact that if all of Hofmann’s activities became public, it could damage the reputation of the Mormon Church which had appeared to be hiding genuine documents that cast doubt on the legitimacy of its origins, or at best, show the Church had been foolish in its purchases, although, no more so than the Library of Congress. People involved in the investigation of Hofmann suspected that others in the process might be expressing doubts about a successful prosecution because they wanted to protect the church.

The Salt Lake Chief of Police and county sheriff, developed a very hostile relationship with the prosecutor, Cannon, and so they filed a legal action for force Cannon to convene a grand jury. Mark Hofmann was eventually indicted for two counts of capital murder and numerous counts of fraud and forgery. Even though he was charged with two capital crimes and believed to have murdered two people with bombs and had been trying for a third when he injured himself, he was allowed to bail out of jail. His family put up the bail for him. He claimed impoverishment. That was after he had defrauded investors of millions of dollars and appeared to have nothing to show for it. To this day, no one knows what happened to that money.

After hundreds if not thousands of hours of leg work most of it by volunteers, the investigators were able to make some tenuous connections between a “Mike Hansen” who had purchased items used in the bombs, to Mark Hofmann. Getting close to a trial date, the parties reached a plea deal. Hofmann would plead guilty to two counts of manslaughter and a few counts of fraud and it would be up to the parole board to set a term of imprisonment which could have been for as little as seven years per death. A date was set for entry of plea, and in the meantime, Hofmann was free. The prosecutors were just trusting him to turn himself in when the time came.

As part of the deal, he told investigators all about making the bombs. He confessed that he killed Christensen to create confusion around having to produce the MacLellan collection, and tried to kill Gary Sheets, getting his wife, Kathy Sheets instead, in order to create the impression the death of Christensen was related to the investment firm’s financial problems. He was unable to explain how these murders were going to solve his million dollar debt problem, because they weren’t. The murders were as irrational as pretending to get a profit on a sale of the collection which just further increased his indebtedness.

His famous “Salamander Letter” had wrecked havoc in the church, casting doubt on the origins of the Mormon religion, He had planned to do even more damage, forging the first book that Joseph Smith had written that had been “lost” before being printed. He expressed no remorse for any damage he had done. After he was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, he was accused of trying to solicit other inmates with contacts outside prison to murder his enemies. These inmates went to the authorities about the offer. Hofmann denied it, but this made it impractical for him to make any more attempts at any revenge killings. He remains in prison to this day.

Two things about this case really amazed me. The first was the lack of logic on Hoffman’s plan to murder Steve Christensen. There was no reason to believe this death would stop the church from demanding to see the MacLellan collection before they bought it. Hoffmann could have claimed it had been stolen from him. Instead, he killed two people, and probably was trying for three, where that would not have been likely to solve any of his problems. The murders were pointless.

The second amazing this about this case was that so many experts accepted his documents as genuine where hundreds of thousands and even a million dollars was at stake without anyone involved bothering to check the provenances. Any moderately competent investigator, like me, could have contacted one of these people who were the source of these documents and found out that Hofmann was lying. No one bothered. Amazing!

Investigators spent tens of thousands of dollars on forensic documents to test them for age but no one thought to spend five hundred bucks on a gumshoe to ask a few questions.