Your friend just watched ‘Murder Among the Mormons’ and has questions; historian Richard Turley is here to help

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Richard Turley was brought in to supervise the Church History Department in 1986. At the time, the Church was heavily involved in the investigation of a forger by the name of Mark Hofmann. Turley had graduated from Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School and his legal training proved to be effective in guiding the department through that period of the Church’s history. 

In 1992, Turley wrote a book, Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case, and he was recently interviewed for a Netflix documentary on Hofmann, Murder Among the Mormons. The documentary, currently in Netflix’s Top 10, has been reviewed this week by everyone from The Wall Street Journal to rogerebert.com. And while not all reviews have been favorable, you will likely know someone who will watch and then approach you to get your Latter-day Saint take on what happened. 

We turned to Turley for a little crash course in all things Mark Hofmann. This excerpt from this week’s All In podcast should provide you with what you need to know to confidently respond to questions surrounding the Hofmann case. 

Listen to the full interview with Turley by clicking here or in the player below. You can also read a full transcript of this week's episode here

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity. 

Morgan Jones: I feel like listeners may be caught off guard when they hear about Mark Hofmann—if they're not familiar with that story and that period of Church history—and that there may be some misperceptions surrounding that. And so first of all, can you provide just a little background, a little synopsis, for listeners that may not be familiar with what happened with that? 

Richard Turley: Sure. Because the events of the Mark Hofmann case, the major events, occurred between roughly 35 and 40 years ago, those who are under the age of 35 to 40 may not have heard of them. But essentially the high points are this—or the low points. There was a returned missionary named Mark Hofmann, who had lost his faith, and he decided that he wanted to create forgeries, and sell them.

He had three reasons for creating these forgeries: 1. He wanted to change the history of the Church by forging documents that would create a different history from the one that we typically learn. 2. Throughout his life, he had learned to hate authority of any kind. And so, because he looked at the Church as an authority, he wanted to tweak the Church by coming up with things that would make Church leaders unhappy. And then finally, 3. He had been planning on a medical career, but he figured that if he came up with the right forgeries, he could sell them for enough money that he could support himself.

So with those three motives, he began by creating first of all, a document called “The Anthon Transcript.” We know that Martin Harris took some characters from the Book of Mormon to a well-known scholar named Charles Anthon, and we have a description from Anthon of what those characters look like. Well, Hofmann basically created a document that matched the description from Charles Anthon. And unbeknownst to people around him, this young man had done a lot of studying of forging, and so he knew how to create a forgery that could essentially be undetected or not detected easily.

So he pretended to discover that document in an old Bible that he had purchased that supposedly came from a Joseph Smith relative—Joseph's sister, Katharine—and he opened that in front of his wife and then it was stuck between the pages and he took it to an archivist at Utah State University where he was going to school, the archivist helped him open it. And when the archivist saw it, he immediately identified it as this document that is described in the history of the Church. And so it became a very prominent and an important document.

Eventually, the Church acquired it from him, paid him for it, and so that began his career in forging documents. Now, the first documents that he created went through substantial due diligence. People ran tests, they did things to try to make certain that these were authentic documents, and they passed. And they passed because Hofmann had done such homework on trying to figure out how documents would be tested that he figured out ways around them.

Long story short, from 1980, when he created that first document—and he actually had a history of forgery before then, but that was the first one that really came to public attention— from 1980 to 1985, he made a living forging documents. And he created documents that became increasingly uncomfortable for Church members who had studied Church history in the usual course.

And finally, he got himself into some trouble. He began to overspend. So before he would even create a forgery, he'd spend money and then he figured he could create a forgery that would cover his debt. And his overspending eventually got him to the point where he was getting pressured from debtors and others. And so to buy himself more time, he set two pipe bombs—these were his worst crimes—he set a pipe bomb that killed Steven Christensen who was a Salt Lake City businessman in his office, and then he set another pipe bomb in a Salt Lake City neighborhood that killed the wife of Steve Christensen's business associate, Kathy Sheets.

And so those two murders immediately got the attention of the public, not only across the United States, but in other parts of the world as well—bombs going off in Salt Lake City. A short time later, a third bomb went off, and this one injured Hofmann himself. So initially, people thought he was a third victim. As it turned out, he was a forger, and he was the bomber. The third bomb apparently went off accidentally while he was trying to kill someone else to whom he owed money.

So this investigation of the bombings and forgeries went on for some time. And ultimately, Mark Hoffman was put into prison for five years to life with a recommendation that he never be paroled and that's where he is today, in prison. It’s a fascinating story. It’s a story of great evil. And some Utah filmmakers decided to create a 3-part miniseries that will appear on Netflix on March 3rd. I was interviewed by these people for the miniseries. These appear to be very serious filmmakers to me, and artistic filmmakers. So I'm looking forward to the program. And hopefully it will be as good as I think it's going to be.

Morgan Jones: Well, I hope so too. This story is so fascinating to me. And I think, you know, what you said about . . . that unbeknownst to those around him, he had done all of this research on forgery, so even his wife had no idea that he had this background?

Richard Turley: That's correct. He had a room in his basement that was off-limits to his wife, and he did his forging down there. And over time, he kept studying more and more about forgery. But of course, forging, like many, many crimes, you create a mousetrap to catch a forger, and then the mouse creates a bigger thing that a mousetrap won't catch, and then somebody else develops a bigger mousetrap. And over time, after the bombs went off and his documents began to be investigated, some forensic document analysts found the weaknesses in his method and were able to detect his forgeries.

Morgan Jones: So interesting. So obviously I feel like, Brother Turley, if you decide to put the time and effort that writing a book takes into something, it must be something that you feel passionately about. And so for you, why did you decide to dig into the Mark Hofmann case? And I heard, or read, that one of the reasons was, you felt like there were some lingering misperceptions surrounding this. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

Richard Turley: Sure. So I never met Mark Hofmann. I never had any association with him, but the bombs went off in October of 1985. I received a phone call from President Oaks, the first one in December of 1985, and I began working for the Church in January of 1986. So suddenly, I had a front-row seat for the investigation. The Church Historical Department at that time was essentially a crime scene. We had everything but the yellow tape marking it off. We had investigators there looking at documents asking people questions, and I was able to observe that like a fly on the wall, and as I observed this investigation going on and saw what was unrolling and talked to people, I realized that I had a story to tell that no one else had told before.

Morgan Jones: Yeah. So, when it comes to the way that the Church has approached Church history since Mark Hofmann, how would you say that that the Mark Hofmann case changed that approach?

Richard Turley: I think it created in Church history people a healthy sense of skepticism, particularly for new and remarkable finds. When something comes out that appears to be extraordinarily remarkable, I think that's the time when you may resist temptation to either accept or reject something, and instead, look carefully at it to answer first the question: Is it authentic?

Morgan Jones: I imagine, Brother Turley, that a lot of people will watch the documentary that's going to be on Netflix, and not just members of the Church, people that are not members of our faith will watch it and then they likely will ask questions of their Latter-day Saint friends and neighbors. What would you say to Church members going into this documentary? I know that you haven't seen the documentary, but what would you say in terms of how we can best respond to questions from friends or neighbors?

Richard Turley: My answer would be the same as with any aspect of Church history, the more you know about it, the better you can answer the questions. So I would recommend–I wrote a book, I don't want to recommend this book because I want you to go out and buy it, rather go to the library, check it out and read Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case, it'll tell you all about the inside story from the perspective of the Church employees and Church leaders who were involved.

Lead Image: Tom Smart, Deseret News
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