SALT LAKE CITY — Fooling people at a young age with card tricks and magic laid the groundwork for one of Utah's most infamous criminals to take on a life of forgeries and murder.
In a handwritten letter made public this week, Mark Hofmann provides a look into what led him to fake hundreds of historical documents and kill two people with homemade bombs more than 25 years ago.
"As far back as I can remember I have liked to impress people through my deceptions," he wrote. "Fooling people gave me sense of power and superiority."
The four-page letter titled, "A Summary of My Crimes," was written to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole in 1988 and released recently by the state records committee. Hofmann, 56, is serving a life sentence at the Utah State Prison.
On Oct. 15, 1985, Hofmann planted a bomb that killed businessman and document collector Steven Christensen. Later the same day, a second bomb killed Kathleen Sheets, the wife of Christensen's former employer. The next day, Hofmann himself was severely injured when a third bomb exploded in his car.
It's been long believed that explosion was an accident. But in the letter, Hofmann writes that he intended to kill himself.
"My motives and feelings which led to the murders are hard for even me to explain," he wrote under a section of the letter titled, "The Homicides."
Curt Bench, a Salt Lake book publisher and former friend of Hofmann's, said that statement says a lot "because it makes me wonder why we think we could ever figure out why he did what he did."
Hofmann wrote that the most important thing to him was to keep from being exposed as a fraud in front of his family and friends.
"I felt like I would rather take human life or even my own life rather than to be exposed," he wrote.
Bench described some of the contents of the letter as "chilling."
"It just confirms how cold-blooded the murders were and that they were indeed to throw suspicion off of him so that he wouldn't be exposed," he said.
Two of Kathleen Sheets' children, Jim Sheets and Katie Robertson, read Hofmann's letter with interest Tuesday, but said it didn't provide much insight for them.
"You can never understand the minds of criminals, especially those who are narcissistic like Mark," Jim Sheets said.
Noting Hofmann wrote the letter when he still had an opportunity for parole, Jim Sheets said it would be interesting to see what he would write today. "I'm not sure it would be the same as that letter," he said. "Would he be more candid and clear? I don't know."
Jim Sheets and Robertson say they and their family have moved on and have unconditionally forgiven Hofmann.
"Life is good," Robertson said. "I'm OK without knowing what he is thinking."
The letter does reveal some of Hofmann's personality, she said. But "I don't know that he is capable of telling the truth because he was as a deceiver for such a long time."
Both said they were most struck by the concern Hofmann expressed for his children. "I'd like to believe that's sincere," Jim Sheets said.
Of his own childhood, Hofmann wrote that some of his earliest memories are of doing card tricks and magic. He started collecting coins when he was 12 and soon figured out ways to fool other collectors by altering coins to make them appear more desirable. By age 14, he developed a forgery technique he believed was undetectable.
"I exuded in impressing other collectors and dealers with my rare coins," he wrote. "Money was not the object."
By age 24, his interest had shifted from U.S. coins to old Mormon money, which along with his coin collection he sold a year later and "decided to forge for a living.
Money then became the object."
From 1980 to October 1985, forgeries were almost his exclusive source of income, Hofmann wrote. He estimated that he forged hundreds of documents with at least 86 different signatures.
Hofmann produced items attributed to George Washington, Daniel Boone and Emily Dickinson among others. He also gained notoriety for discovering documents purported to reflect early Mormon history. He later admitted he created material to embarrass the LDS Church, hoping it would pay large sums of money to keep them private.
Hofmann wrote that he had learned to live with the stress, guilt and fear of his "life of crime" through rationalization and hypnosis.
"In October 1985, it seemed like everything started to collapse around me. I could not come up with the money to pay off investors to keep from being exposed as a fraud."
Hofmann wrote that he bought components for the bombs without knowing who the victims would be, "only that drastic measures were called for."
Looking back on the decisions he made during what he called a "time of panic," Hofmann wrote, he could see many forms of rationalization. For the first time in his life he started reading obituaries, trying to convince himself of the worthlessness and unfairness of life.
"I told myself that my survival and that of my family was the most important thing. That my victims might die that day in a car accident or from a heart attack anyway," he wrote."I thought about the Nazi Holocaust, the earthquake in Mexico, and other disasters."
"I remember on the night before the first two bombings going into my children's bed rooms (sic) and kissing them while they slept telling myself that my plot was for their best good," he wrote. "That night I also 'chickened out' of the suicide attempt and made the final selection who my victims would be."
The bomb that killed Christensen was to take the pressure off two fraud schemes he had involved Christensen in, Hofmann wrote. The second bomb that killed Kathleen Sheets was a "pure diversion."
News stations reported that night that an eyewitness had a good look at the person who delivered the Christensen bomb, including a description of the letter jacket Hofmann wore. Police also released a composite drawing of the man.
"I felt like that was the end," Hofmann wrote.
Hofmann wrote that he took his family to stay with his parents that night, telling them it was for their safety because a business associate of his had been killed. "But actually it was because I knew from the news reports that I was a suspect and anticipated the police knocking on the door at any minute."
Hofmann drove to Logan early the next morning to buy parts for a third bomb.
"I had decided the night before after seeing the news that the 'jig was up' and that the only way to keep my family from the certain knowledge of my guilt (this time not only of fraud but murder) would be to kill myself," he wrote.
Contributing: Andrew Adams