By Mabell, Dave on December 14, 2018.
A former Lethbridge student is facing jail time if he’s convicted on charges of theft and burglary involving historic Mormon documents near Salt Lake City.
Kevin Schuwer, 29, has been charged in relation to an 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, an 1835 hymnal and an 1849 gold coin – all listed in Utah court documents as counterfeit.
A Lethbridge high school graduate who went on to perform with the University of Lethbridge Singers, Schuwer may be sentenced to up to 10 years in jail if convicted. The Salt Lake Tribune newspaper reports he also faces a debt of $539,000 (USD) in civil court.
Observers say the items are part of a booming trade in LDS-related documents and photos – some of them fake – among Utah church members who can afford their price.
Court records list Schuwer as a resident of Orem, near the Brigham Young University campus in Provo. BYU officials say he was a student there from the fall of 2013 through winter semester of 2015 – but did not graduate.
A photo of an early 20th century “apostle” with the LDS faith is the object that prompted the charges initially, although more items are listed on the court record. Schuwer is charged with stealing the photo from a special collections area in the Utah State University’s library in Logan.
The Tribune reports Schuwer has admitted selling the hymnal and the church-related gold coin for $125,000 – but says both were fake. In a civil judgment entered earlier this fall, Schuwer admitted acting as the “middle man” in the sale of an 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon, said to have been owned by church founder Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma.
The buyer paid $129,000 for the book, the court records show – but never received it.
In a similar incident, the Tribune says Schuwer admitted to keeping $105,000 in cash or other assets he received for a 1614 copy of the King James Bible – purportedly owned by King James himself. But the buyer never received it.
Utah court records show Schuwer filed papers admitting to a number of frauds, agreeing to pay plaintiffs $539,000 to settle the lawsuit.
Meanwhile in Provo, BYU police say Schuwer entered the special collections area of the BYU library, removed a photo of Joseph Smith and another man, and replaced it with a copy. Detectives say he sold the original for $2,000.
Ken Sanders, an antiquities dealer in Salt Lake City, says there’s a brisk business there, buying and selling items with some connection with the denomination’s founding nearly 200 years ago.
An 1830 edition of the foundational book, he says, “is the Holy Grail of Mormonism.”
And church members with deep pockets are ready to buy.
“That’s created a lot of fraud,” he said in an interview.
Long-time antiquities dealers like him may be caught in the middle, he said, but some fakes are readily detected.
“This really puts a black eye on our business,” Sanders says – though his store was not involved. And Schuwer is far from the only person involved in the buying and selling.
More likely the alleged fraud is “the tip of the iceberg,” with more investigations to follow.
Sanders suggests inadequate security arrangements in Utah’s university libraries is a contributing factor.
“There’s been a lack of oversight,” even though some thefts have been documented through video surveillance.
Mark Pugsley, a Salt Lake City lawyer who specializes in investment fraud, says one of the big issues is “affinity fraud” involving LDS members.
“Members of some of these religious communities are very tight-knit, very trusting.”
When someone asks for a loan – or has an important book to sell – Pugsley says too many fail to take “due diligence.”
They believe what the seller is telling them and don’t see the “red flags.”
“We have wolves in our midst here,” some of them involved in elaborate Ponzi schemes and other illegal scams. And their victims may be too ashamed to report them.
One of the most notorious is Mark Hofmann, who was involved in document fraud before setting off a series of fatal bomb blasts in downtown Salt Lake 30 years ago.
Putting a Canadian perspective on Utah’s thriving trade in LDS-related documents, University of Lethbridge instructor Kurt Widmer says fewer members here are involved in the church antiquities market. The denomination’s storied history may be less important to them than guidance for living day by day.
But he’s not surprised to hear of LDS collectables fetching high prices.
Widmer says a copy of one of the organization’s earliest documents, the “Book of Commandments” would sell for $30,000 to $50,000. And he reports the breakaway Reorganized LDS denomination – now known as the Community of Christ – sold one volume to the main LDS group for $35 million.
One reason there are so many Mormon documents in private hands, he says, is that there are so many breakaway groups who claim to be following the true path. And each may hold a historic document that’s used to justify their position.
Apart from the polygamous group near Creston, B.C., few of those dissenters are active in Canada.
But Widmer says there are about 150 Mormon groups in the U.S. today, with little inclination to return to the main flock.
“They all see themselves as the true church founded by Joseph Smith.”
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