The Mormon Murders
A True Story of Greed, Forgery, Deceit, and Death
By Steven Naifeh, Gregory White Smith
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1988 Woodward/White, Inc.
All rights reserved.
To her friends, she was the perfect Mormon. Generous, thoughtful, forgiving, community minded, she represented everything that was good and right about their unique religion. If only outsiders, who always seemed preoccupied with the Church's unusual doctrines, missionary zeal, and Victorian politics, could meet Kathy Sheets. Then they would understand the strength and appeal of the Mormon way of life.
She was certainly no ideologue. The Book of Mormon invariably put her to sleep. (Her children once gave her an audio cassette version to play in the car, but that proved dangerous as well as boring, so she gave it up.) When the "big questions" came up in conversation — Did a tribe of Israelites really cross the Atlantic and settle in America? Did Joseph Smith really discover gold plates on a hillside in upstate New York in 1823? Was he led there by an angel? Was the Book of Mormon really another gospel that belonged right beside the Old and New Testaments? — she let others fight over them. She preferred Agatha Christie's mysteries to Joseph Smith's, slept soundly even when she missed church, and, like the rest of the country, spent her Sunday evenings watching "Murder, She Wrote." Her only tie to the Mormon power structure was a passing friendship with Hugh Pinnock, an old college pal of Gary's, who had become a bigwig in the Church hierarchy. She considered him an insufferable, sanctimonious windbag. "He-you rhymes with P.U.," she would say.
Kathy's philosophy, if you could call it that, was summed up in the aphorisms she had carved on wooden plaques and nailed up around the kitchen and family room:
THE EARLY BIRD GETS ITS OWN BREAKFAST.
BE ALERT. THE WORLD NEEDS MORE LERTS.
FORGET THE DOG, BEWARE OF MEAN KIDS.
More than ideology, more than catechisms, the signs provided what she really needed in the morning: a good laugh.
She especially needed them this morning, the Tuesday after a long Columbus Day weekend in October 1985. Gary had run out the door at the ungodly hour of 6:50 to take Jimmy to volleyball practice. (Volleyball practice at seven in the morning!) Then Gretchen, her eighteen-year-old joy and heartache, had left separately in her own car. God only knew what crisis would befall her today. Kathy wondered how she had ever survived when there were four kids in the house.
WHEN YOU REACH THE END OF YOUR ROPE, TIE A KNOT AND HANG ON.
She took advantage of the sudden quiet to sit at the kitchen counter, treat herself to a Hershey's Chocolate Kiss, and slowly recover her sense of humor. Then she called her sister, Joan Gorton. This was her other joy in the morning. "The Lovely Sisters" they called themselves — they had seen the name on an old print in a New England hotel. They traveled together every chance they got. Kathy would always ask, "Are we sorry we didn't bring the men?" and the answer was always, "Not on your life."
Without the men, they could play. "Now Joan," Kathy would say in an airport lounge, "you have to look at all the men who come through here and find one that you could have an affair with. It has to be someone our age. It can't be some young stud." That made it a frustrating exercise. "He might be pretty good," she would say when a prospect approached, "but no. Look at his dumb shoes." And then they would laugh for the millionth time.
This morning, Kathy was bursting to tell all about her recent trip to New York City with Gary. But somehow the conversation slipped into a subject she didn't want to talk about at all: their mother.
She was living — if you could call it that — in a nursing home and waiting at that very moment, they could feel it, for one of them to visit. "You just dumped me here," she would say. It wasn't that they didn't love her, it was just so hard to see her lying in the nursing home like a dead leaf clinging to the end of a branch, waiting to be blown away. They would have preferred to see her living on her own, but that was out of the question. After the last operation, she had left some grease on the stove and burned her house down.
The conversation brought the usual rush of guilt — about not seeing her more often, about expecting her to die any time. After her visits to the home, Kathy always arranged to stop at her daughter Heidi's house to play with her grandchildren. That invariably got her thinking about life again, instead of death.
Joan had to run. Lloyd, her husband, was waiting to take her to the Department of Motor Vehicles. She had let her driver's license expire. Kathy thought that sounded like something Gary would do. They both leaped at the opportunity to laugh. WHEN GOD CREATED MAN, SHE WAS ONLY KIDDING. Joan said she would call back when she returned. "There's still lots I haven't asked you about your trip," she said, signing off.
A few blocks away, Faye Kotter waited. Kathy was late for their morning walk. That wasn't terribly unusual. More than once, Faye, an attractive, athletic-looking woman with cinnamon hair, had walked over to the Sheets house and rousted Kathy out of bed when she overslept or crept back into bed after the house emptied. Faye remembered another of Kathy's signs: THERE'S A CURE FOR A POOR MEMORY BUT I FORGET WHAT IT IS.
Maybe she was still mad about their argument the other day. Faye had come unglued when she heard that Kathy's daughter Gretchen was going to a school dance with a black classmate.
Kathy was shocked. "You mean to tell me that you, Faye. ..."
"Listen," said Faye, suddenly on the defensive. "I have nothing against blacks. I don't have anything against any race. But I don't want my children dating them. I don't wish them ill, of course. I mean, I'm against slavery."
Foursquare against slavery, thought Kathy. How brave.
"I just don't know why she would want to do it," Faye said.
"Because he's a neat kid," Kathy ventured.
"I'm sure he's a neat kid."
The discussion had gotten pretty heated. But it wasn't like Kathy to hang on to something that way.
Maybe she was depressed again. The troubles at Gary's business, CFS — Coordinated Financial Services — had caught her off guard. One week she was jetting off in Gary's private plane and inviting friends to use the company condo in downtown Salt Lake City, the next week she was buying bread and cheese and "picnicking" in the park. In fact, she and Faye had planned to spend the Columbus Day weekend at a condo in California, but Kathy had to back out. "We don't have the money," she confessed. (Another company had picked up the tab for the New York trip.) It didn't help matters that finally, at fifty, her age was catching up with her: she was going through menopause.
Faye had been in the house yesterday when Gary called. All she heard Kathy say was, "When will it end?"
Whatever was holding Kathy up, Faye decided to take advantage of the delay to put in a load of wash. Just as she finished, about 8:25, Kathy appeared, hopping mad.
"I am so mad at him," she sputtered, flinging her furry beret onto the sofa, exposing her short, salt-and-pepper hair. "He makes me so mad." Tuesday was garbage-pickup day, and Gary had absentmindedly put the garbage where the dogs could get at it. And they did. Kathy had spent the last fifteen minutes putting trash back in the cans. "If Gary had only put it out where he was supposed to," she fumed, "this wouldn't have happened."
In her anger, she had grabbed her gray winter parka, too heavy by half for an autumn day that was overcast and cold — you could see your breath — but not freezing by Utah standards. Faye had put on two sweat shirts.
Kathy had also brought her car, the one with the license plate URP GAG. She obviously didn't want to walk around Naniloa that day, she wanted to drive to some other neighborhood and explore. Faye wondered if it had anything to do with Gary's speech in church the previous Sunday. She wasn't there, but by now it was all over the community. As bishop of his ward (a kind of lay minister), Gary had told the congregation, "I am going through some really hard times, and I just don't know how things are going to look financially. I have a lot to struggle with, and I don't know what's going to happen."
That, of course, started Kathy Sheets's telephone ringing. "We feel so bad for you and Gary. Can we help? What can we do?" It was all meant well, but it made Kathy squirm. "I just don't want people to feel sorry for me," she had said during their walk yesterday. On their return, a friend from up the street had approached Kathy and said, "I just have to give you a hug." Faye and Kathy looked at each other with the same thought: she had heard Gary's speech. She knew all about the problems Gary was having with CFS. Kathy wanted more than anything to avoid a repeat of that scene.
So they drove to the Cottonwood area, a fashionable suburb nearby, parked the car, and started walking. Kathy didn't talk much — a sure sign of depression. Normally, they never ran out of things to gab about. As they passed some of the big houses with the huge yards, Kathy finally said, "I wonder what the people in these houses are doing?" Faye remembered a conversation they had had months before in the same area when Kathy was her more buoyant self, before Gary's problems had weighed her down. "Can't you just picture the ladies sitting around having a luncheon after coming off the tennis court, having their shrimp cocktails and chattering. ..." She had done a whole routine.
But this gray morning she had a different take on the big houses with the huge yards. "You walk along here and you wonder what is going on in people's lives. I bet it's not really as rosy as it looks. People drive by our place, and they say, 'Gary and Kathy have really got it made. They have a neat house and wonderful kids.'" She paused a long time before adding, "If they only knew." Knowing that Faye and her husband had been through difficult times a few years back, Kathy turned to her. "Tell me. How bad can it get?"
Remembering how supportive Kathy had been, Faye offered, "It always seems worse than it really is. Anything you are imagining in your mind — even if you lose everything — imagining it is worse than actually losing it."
That seemed to help, Faye thought, so she continued. "It's not the end of the world. It really isn't. You live through it. We think we're so attached to everything, but life goes on. And people forget. You are worried about what people think. Who cares what people think? They think what they think anyway. It doesn't really matter."
Faye wanted to say more, wanted to say the perfect thing, but she couldn't think of it. "It's a matter of just being here, I guess," she told herself.
They returned to Naniloa Drive about 9:25. Faye had to get to school. At age forty, she had gone back to college at the University of Utah. Before getting out of the car, she reached over and took Kathy's arm. "Hey, you going to be okay today?"
Faye jumped out of the car with a cheery "See you tomorrow, it'll get better," but couldn't help feeling guilty. Kathy never stinted on the time she gave friends in trouble.
Instead of going home, Kathy pulled back out onto Holladay Boulevard and drove to the bank. The long holiday weekend and the trip to New York had left her without cash. On the return trip, she stopped at the entrance to the cul-de-sac and took the paper from the mailbox. As she pulled her red Audi into the garage, she saw a package halfway on to the wooden catwalk that led to the main house. She had been in such a hurry on her way out, mad at Gary, she must have missed it. She parked the car and walked around to pick it up.
She had just enough time to tuck it under her arm before it exploded. A second later, shreds of her gray parka hung from the tree branches overhead.
It was the second bomb that morning. If Kathy Sheets had turned on the radio in her car, she would have heard the frantic news reports that were already throwing Salt Lake City into a panic.
There's been an explosion at the Judge Building, and there's all kinds of people dead."
The police dispatcher sounded like her chair was on fire. She had to be new on the job, Jim Bell thought. Dispatchers were usually the coolest of the cool. They prided themselves on their deadpan delivery: "Riot in Temple Square, forty-seven dead, Tabernacle on fire, possible UFO, see the officer."
"All kinds of people dead?" Bell repeated to himself.
"There's at least one dead," she clarified, "but I think there's a bunch more." Bell guessed it was probably a boiler explosion, something like that.
"I don't need this today," he mumbled, tugging at his mustache, and then, to pacify the dispatcher, "Okay, okay, I'll go on over."
He really didn't need it. He and his partner, Ken Farnsworth, were just coming off two lousy weeks. A homicide detective's nightmare: decomposed body, no leads, probable transient. No one knew who killed him, and worse, no one cared. But they had solved it anyway. A bunch of the dead man's fellow transients had gotten drunk and shot him four times in the head. It was a damn good piece of police work and still no one cared. Papers didn't even mention it and TV. ... The thought of Channel 5's Eyewitness News team doing a live report on the decomposed bum was enough to make even Jim Bell smile, even this morning.
On the way to the Judge Building, Bell remembered that the dispatcher wasn't a rookie. She was day shift. Not the kind to flinch at nothing. There might just be something to this explosion. When Farnsworth turned on the radio, it was already the number-one story in town. Then they turned left off Third South.
It was like driving off the edge of the world.
Every patrol car and fire engine from a fifty-mile radius had converged on the Judge Building. Policemen, firemen, emergency medics, and a roaming horde of news people. It was pandemonium, all right, but still not enough to agitate Jim Bell — until he saw the dog. It was sitting obediently in the back of a big airport truck that pulled up with all lights flashing and siren screaming. It was a bomb dog. That made Jim Bell's heart skip a beat. This wasn't any boiler explosion.
Inside the lobby, uniformed officer Jim Brand Preeney confirmed it. "It's a bombing, and it's definitely a homicide, and there's one guy dead upstairs," he told them. "You can't go upstairs because the bomb dogs and bomb techs are sweeping the whole building."
When the bomb crew gave the all clear, Bell and Farnsworth took the stairs to the sixth floor. (The elevator had been turned off. Someone said the bomber had been seen using it.) The hallway looked like a war zone. The walls were blown in, the ceiling blown down, and one door frame blown free of the wall. The door had blown off its hinges and dangled from the frame. The walls were pockmarked with shrapnel craters. Chunks of wallboard and ceiling tile were scattered everywhere. Bell whispered under his breath, "We're in deep shit."
The victim lay just inside the doorway, on his back, his hips rotated slightly to the right. He had a deep laceration in his chest area, and his face was covered with black soot and some blood. It would be hard to make a positive I.D. until the medical examiner cleaned him up. (Bell didn't want to rummage for a wallet for fear of disturbing the evidence.) The pants covering his right thigh had been ripped open by the explosion, and the leg underneath shone bright red in the harsh, artificial light. The tips of some of the fingers on his right hand had been blown off in the explosion. His right leg from the ankle down was badly mangled. The heel of his shoe, and of his foot, was missing.
Surrounding the body were two six-packs of crumpled Tab cans and the remains of a bag of doughnuts. The victim did not have good eating habits.
Bell and Farnsworth herded everyone else off the floor, strung yellow Do Not Cross tape, and commandeered an office at the opposite end of the hall as a control center. Within minutes, Bob Swehla, a thirteen-year man at the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, showed up. All bombings are federal cases, ATF cases, so Farnsworth was uncharacteristically deferential. "What do you want to do, Bob?"
Swehla, like most ATF men, was a professional. None of this interagency rivalry crap. He was used to cooperating with local law enforcement. It was a rare bombing that didn't bend some local noses. The Salt Lake police would retain custody of the evidence; ATF would provide its laboratory.
Farnsworth manned the control center while Bell and Swehla laid out the bomb scene. They ran fluorescent tape in a grid and made a chart so they could note with coordinates where each piece of evidence was found. They took Polaroids of the entire area, dozens of them. Bell drew a diagram of the floor plan. Each time he picked up a piece of evidence, it had to be labeled and a corresponding label placed on the map. He started with the big pieces: bomb parts, sack parts, cardboard box parts from the device, batteries, wires, chunks of plaster, bits of acoustic tile from the ceiling, shards of plastic from the overhead lights. Just the easy stuff took two and a half hours.
Meanwhile, they tried to identify the body. The office where the bomb went off had recently been rented by Rigby-Christensen, Inc., a small consulting company. Eyewitnesses placed Steve Christensen, one of the firm's principals, in the hall at the time of the explosion. But Bell needed a positive I.D. About ten, Shane Jones, a fellow officer and part-time male model who happened to know Christensen, provided it. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Mormon Murders by Steven Naifeh, Gregory White Smith. Copyright © 1988 Woodward/White, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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