Officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said today that Mark Hofmann, identified as the prime suspect in two bombing deaths here last week, approached them last spring about turning over to the church early Mormon documents known as the "McLellin collection."
At a news conference called to respond to "questions, speculation and innuendo" in the wake of the bombings, church officials said there was nothing "sinister" in their meetings with Hofmann, who was injured the day after the murders when a bomb exploded in his car.
The collection is thought to contain a piece of the Egyptian papyrus from which a sacred Mormon book is said to have been translated. Elder Dallin Oaks said the authenticity of Hofmann's documents was to be verified by Steven L. Christensen, a stockbroker and Mormon bishop who died the morning of Oct. 15 when he picked up a booby-trapped box outside his office door.
The sale to an unidentified buyer was to take place that day, Oaks said. In a separate explosion the same day, Kathleen Sheets, 51, the wife of a former business associate of Christensen, died when she picked up a similar box outside her suburban home.
Both boxes contained sophisticated pipe bombs. After a search of Hofmann's burned car and his home, authorities said he was the chief suspect, but they have not charged him. He remains hospitalized in satisfactory condition.
A business associate of Hofmann, Shannon Patrick Flynn, 27, was charged this week with a federal weapons violation after police found an unregistered machine gun in his home.
Oaks said that on the afternoon of the deaths, Hofmann "came to my office and said he thought the police would question him about the bombing. He asked 'What should I say?' I told him to tell the truth." Oaks said Flynn came the next day to ask the same question and was given the same answer.
On Oct. 17, Oaks said, he was visited by Alvin Rust, a Salt Lake City gold and coin dealer who has told police that Hofmann came to him in April seeking $150,000 to purchase the McLellin collection from an unidentified dealer.
Rust has said Hofmann told him that he had arranged to sell the collection to the Mormon church for $300,000 and that the two men could split the profits. Rust said he gave the money to Hofmann without seeing the documents and was never repaid his $150,000.
Oaks, however, said the church was told in June that Hofmann and Christensen had an option to purchase the collection and needed $180,000 to complete the deal. He said the church refused to lend Hofmann the money but that a church official helped clear the way for Hofmann to borrow the money at a local bank.
Oaks said the church didn't want to get involved in the purchase of the McLellin collection, fearing such action would "fuel speculation that the church already had or was trying to obtain and suppress it." Later, Oaks said, Hofmann told the church he was unable to repay the loan and was seeking to sell all or part of the collection.
In September, Oaks said, a church official notified several persons he felt would be interested in buying the collection. A potential buyer was found who was also willing to donate it to the church. Christensen was to verify its authencity before the transaction.
Christensen two years ago bought from Hofmann the controversial "salamander letter" indicating that church founder Joseph Smith Jr. was practicing magic when he found the golden plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon. Sheets' husband, J. Gary Sheets, had helped finance a study of the letter's authenticity.
Today's news conference was extraordinary for the Mormon church, which normally handles its public relations through official spokesmen and news releases.