SALT LAKE CITY — The master forger slowly punches in the phone number to his next intended victim — a historian for the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The phone rings. Once. Twice. There is a click as a woman picks up the phone at the auditorium, the church's massive office building and worship center in Independence, Mo.
"Good morning, auditorium."
The forger is transferred from person to person until he is on the phone with a church archivist.
"Hello, this is Madelon Brunson."
"Hello, this is Mark Hofmann calling from Salt Lake City."
"You may remember me from that Anthon Transcript business."
Hofmann's voice is soft, humble and sincere — and somewhat reminiscent of the king of pop, Michael Jackson. The Anthon Transcript he mentions is an earlier forgery — but this is the spring of 1981, before Hofmann committed murder, before his web of deceit and forgeries was exposed to the world. For now, he is at the top of his game, the king of the con.
And he is secretly recording his attempt to sell a forged blessing.
The document has Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, telling his son, Joseph Smith III, in a blessing that he and his descendants would succeed him as leader of the church. This would have, in the minds of some people, been proof that Joseph Smith III and the RLDS Church (now called the Community of Christ) was the rightful successor to his father and not Brigham Young and the Mormons who went west to Utah.
Brent Ashworth, history buff and owner of B. Ashworth's Rare Books and Collectibles in Provo, doesn't remember exactly when he acquired the unmarked cassette tape Hofmann used to record his attempts to sell the fake 1844 blessing. Ashworth spoke at a press conference Friday at the Sunstone offices along with Hofmann expert Steven L. Mayfield. Mayfield will play the recording next week as part of the Sunstone Symposium at Weber State University.
Ashworth recognizes well the voice and the expert manipulation of Hofmann selling a rare document — and admits, especially as a former prosecutor, embarrassment at being a victim. In front of Ashworth on a large table Friday were examples of Hofmann's forgeries — such as a letter from Joseph Smith's mother Lucy Mack Smith and a manuscript page of The Book of Mormon. That phony manuscript page cost Ashworth $25,000. But he says it may be worth that much now as a genuine collectible Hofmann.
After Hofmann's crimes became known, Ashworth began collecting items associated with the man who conned him. From family members and other victims, Ashworth acquired things like Hofmann's missionary journals, a passport, letters, forgeries and, at some point along the way, a cassette tape.
In 2007, Ashworth gave the tape to the LDS Church Archives in return for a CD of the audio. He didn't get around to listening to it for two years.
"When I first heard it, I thought 'Wow, this has got to be unique, Mark taping himself,'" Ashworth said. On the tape, Hofmann spoke not only with Brunson but also with W. Grant McMurray, who ironically became the first president of the Community of Christ who was not a direct descendant of Joseph Smith.
Mayfield played a portion of the tape at the press conference. As audio played of the soft-spoken Hofmann telling Brunson about the manuscript he "found," Mayfield looked across the room at Ashworth and pretended he had a fishing rod in his hand and was reeling in a large fish. On the recording Brunson — like many other victims — is buying Hofmann's story hook, line and sinker. She asks what he wanted in return for the original. He shocks her by asking for the most rare and valuable of all historical Mormon books.
"I was hoping to trade it to you for one of your duplicate copies of the Book of Commandments," Hofmann says.
"Oh my! Oh!"
"This is pretty important though."
"Oh, well, yeah, it is, but good heavens!"
After a few more minutes, Mayfield stopped the recording.
"You can read a transcript, or read somebody's excerpts of it, but to actually hearing it going on. This is history actually happening right before you," Mayfield said.
Ashworth said the importance of it, for him, was its value for law enforcement officers, "This guy was one of the super conmen of Utah history. And this is him doing his con, doing his thing."
The forged blessing was eventually purchased by the LDS Church, which traded it to the RLDS Church for a copy of the Book of Commandments. The RLDS Church added the blessing to its scriptures. After it was shown to be a forgery, the LDS Church returned the Book of Commandments.
Three decades later, the forgeries are no longer being made. But Mayfield thinks more will be found.
"I would put money down that Hofmann probably did other (tapes)," Mayfield said. "One hundred years from now people will still be coming up with things from Hofmann."
TWITTER: www.twitter.com/degroote degroote