In February 2007, Ida Smith attended a lecture about Mary Magdalene at the Salt Lake City Public Library. There, she ran into her cousin, Julie Taggart, who told her she had left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded by Joseph Smith, the brother of Ida Smith's great-great grandfather, Hyrum Smith.
Taggart, a self-described former "Molly Mormon" and divorced mother of eight, said she had found something better: a translation of the fabled sealed portion of the Book of Mormon.
After she heard a version was out there, Ida Smith later wrote, "I felt like I had been struck by a bolt of lightning." All her life, the now-79-year-old Ida had been waiting for the sealed portion of the gold plates that LDS Church founder Joseph Smith had been unable to translate. It was from the remaining one-third of the gold plates that he translated The Book of Mormon. According to Mormon mythology, the sealed portion-of which, Mormon scripture authorities say, very little is known-would only be released when the faithful were ready for it.
Ida Smith (pictured at left) has always believed, "if I wanted the truth badly enough, I would get it." After then-LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley had asked his church's 10 million members to read The Book of Mormon during 2005, Ida Smith had been convinced the LDS Church would finally receive the sealed portion. But come LDS General Conference in April 2006, and then October that same year, it was not mentioned.
Daniel Peterson, a Brigham Young University professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, says, "Mormonism is rich in producing would-be prophets" and that occasionally "people come along purporting to know what was in the sealed portion or actually reveal it." One such person is Christopher Marc Nemelka. While Nemelka acknowledges there are two other sealed portions on the Internet, his translation, he says, is the only one taken from the gold plates, which were given to him by Joseph Smith in a 1987 visitation while Nemelka worked as a security guard in the Salt Lake Temple. "If Joseph Smith were a true messenger," then, Nemelka says, there's "a big chance" so is he.
Nemelka's translation, which Taggart gave to Ida Smith, is titled The Sealed Portion: The Final Testament of Jesus Christ. Nemelka says the book uses "religious prose and symbolism to explain how advanced human beings have interacted with human kind throughout the history of the earth." One LDS Church member who converted to Nemelka's version of the sealed portion is Monica Smith (no relation to Ida Smith). Monica Smith wrote on TheSealedPortion.com that, after reading it, "The atonement of Jesus Christ finally made sense. The meaning of the temple endowment was absolutely incredible. The history of the Earth laid out in one fell swoop was remarkable. Christ's visit among the Nephites brought me to tears." Its ultimate message, as Monica Smith wrote, was "do unto others what I would want them to do unto me." This expanded to the Worldwide United Foundation, an organization promoted in the sealed portion and set up by Nemelka and his followers. It functions as both a vehicle to end global poverty and also to receive anonymous donations from those moved to support its aims to outlaw hunger, homelessness and promote universal insurance through a signature campaign.
While BYU's Peterson finds the translation unconvincing, in part because "it's contradictory to canonized [LDS] texts," Ida Smith nevertheless had an intense, life-changing reaction when she read the book. She devoured it over six weeks, in the process emptying two boxes of tissues and several red ballpoint pens as she wept and underlined page after page of scripture. The voice of the Mormon angel Moroni "was unmistakable," she later wrote. By the time she had finished the book, "my entire worldview had been forever changed." It revealed to her what she had suspected since her youth: that the LDS Church was fallible and unnecessary, and that its prophets since Joseph Smith had been in name only. No other sealed portion, Nemelka says, "has the power to take somebody like Ida Smith and change their mind about their religion."
Nemelka says his job "is to counter the bullshit of the LDS Church." Whether you believe he made up the sealed portion or not, he says he is doing his work, "for the good of other people. All I've seen is the prejudice, alienation and pain the LDS Church has caused other people, and I did something about it." A spokesman for the LDS Church declined to comment in regard to this story.
Nemelka has indeed attempted to demolish the LDS faith. Polygamy critic John Llewellyn argued in a 40-page court-filed document when Nemelka unsuccessfully sued him for defamation and slander, that Nemelka used "Joseph [Smith], Moroni and Timothy to negate the basic beliefs and teaching of the LDS Church, mainly priesthood authority and the sacredness of the family unit."
While Nemelka says he has no followers, ex-acolytes put those who believe he is a modern-day Joseph Smith as numbering no more than 80, although Ida Smith says a hundred thousand have downloaded his sealed portion.
In her small, book-lined living room in Orem, Ida Smith says the translation "made so much sense, it never entered my mind to question what it was." But when she tried to share her new gospel with her younger brother, Hyrum Smith, he pleaded with her to abandon it and return to the LDS faith. "Your eternal future is at stake here," Hyrum wrote in an e-mail. "You have been duped by a very clever, seemingly sincere, diabolical guy."
Proclaimed by his own translation as a prophet, Nemelka says he's rather a messenger for "advanced beings from another planet," even though he's issued several prophecies. Those same beings, he says, told him to sue his critics in 2007, something he's told those who believe in him they shouldn't do. "I have to disregard all rules of humanity," he says, laughing. "I'm the ultimate hypocrite. I'm under mandate to violate every gospel of Christ that I perpetuate."
To the bewilderment and despair of Ida Smith's family and friends, Nemelka's work won Ida's faith. It's not simply her lineage that made her such a prize for Nemelka. She also spent much of her life with LDS notables: Her father was a general authority and her cousin is Quorum of the Twelve Apostle Russell M. Ballard. She was director of the now-closed BYU's Women's Research Institute under Apostle Jeffrey Holland, and she counted former Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, among her friends. Such was the consternation among Ida Smith's intimates after her conversion to the sealed portion that her family, Sen. Bennett and apostle Holland all tried to dissuade her from following a man who claims not only to being mentored by 2,000 year-old beings from Mormon mythology called the three Nephites, but also says he's the reincarnation of Hyrum Smith. Her family's pleas fell on deaf ears.
Whirlwind of Dramas
Smith's lifelong quest for "the real truth, which has great appeal to me" has an almost laser-like intensity in its piercingly focused path. Try to find the "truth" about Nemelka's journey, however, and you can end up buried under the weighty tomes he has published with the help of followers and a daily blog drenched in smiley-face icons and Mormon mysticism, from which he pontificates and rails against those he calls his enemies and supporters alike. Then there's the welter of court filings documenting Nemelka's criminal history and highly litigious personality, which also illustrate, among other things, his contradictory claims over the years as to the origins of his translation. Whether you subscribe to critics and former followers who see Nemelka as a charismatic charlatan with a talent for writing and an ability to manipulate disenchanted former LDS members, or, as Ida Smith believes, a mortal messenger of the divine channeling her great-great grandfather, it's arguably difficult to conjure up a more intrinsically Utah tale. Here, after all, is the story of how a LDS blue blood found her truth in a handyman's "translated" writings. Nemelka acknowledges that unless you accept he's a messenger for advanced beings, then he's either "delusional," a genius who "can write these books," or "the devil is inspiring me."
In a 2001 City Weekly cover story called "True Believer" by former editor Ben Fulton, Nemelka, at the time in jail, admitted to inventing rather than translating the sealed portion. He subsequently recanted his jail statements to Fulton, saying they were made to placate 3rd District Court Judge Denise Lindberg, who he claimed was persecuting him.
Lindberg was not the only judge unimpressed by Nemelka. In a scathing Aug. 1, 2007, decision, 3rd District Court Judge Stephen Henroid contrasted Nemelka's aspiration "to be among the working poor" with the situation of the nine children he fathered with four women. "Respondent has a history of living off the support of others and apparently thinks his example is good enough for his children," Henroid wrote in his ruling. He concluded, "His failure to pay even the nominal child support he owes, and condemning his children to live in poverty, is reprehensible." While Nemelka disputes he is responsible for nine children, citing four having been adopted and two who were emancipated, he declares that "no judge, no state, no government official has the right to tell me what job I have to do. If I want to raise my kids in poverty"-as part of their education, he adds-"that's my choice."
Nemelka's brother Joel sees Christopher's aspirations in a darker light. Christopher "doesn't want to go out as a footnote," he says, and "couldn't stand to live like I do, earning money, taking care of his kids. To me, ego drives it all."
As a former acolyte, Idaho-based Sue Kammerman offers an equally critical perspective. "I believed with all of my heart and soul that he was a ‘true prophet,'" she wrote in an e-mail to Nemelka and City Weekly. She helped publish most of the books he is linked to. "I was as devoted and as loyal a ‘follower' (for lack of a better word) that Christopher had," she noted in the same e-mail. But while Nemelka's initial message, as she understood it, had been to "love one another," after a while, it devolved into "tests," conducted by Nemelka to protect his work from those he claimed might betray it. "Mind games," "white lies," and "drama ... drama ... drama. That is how I would describe the 4 years of my knowing Christopher Nemelka," Kammerman wrote. He turned his message into "book upon book ... page upon page ... of do I dare say ... ‘bullshit.'?"
"Tests" Nemelka has employed include requests for money. In 2005, he says, he decided to test those "who wanted to help" his work, by telling them "to send me what you think this work is worth." He then sent the money back with interest. Two years later, in a September 2007 e-mail, Nemelka again asked for money, saying it would be a one-time request. Harry Dschaak, who says he was an inner circle member for 4 years until he and his family were effectively blacklisted by Nemelka, recalls how he and other members of the inner circle went through a "month of hell," trying to decide whether Nemelka meant it or not. "You'd feel like your whole soul was at stake as you weighed those kind of challenges and asked yourself, ‘Do I believe this work is true or not?'?" he says now. Nemelka used the money he raised to buy a recreational vehicle. He declines to comment on a second e-mail City Weekly has seen, allegedly sent out a month later, where he mourned for those who had not given funds "because of their doubts in me," and with whom "I, personally, can have nothing further to do with."
In contrast to Kammerman and Dschaak's disenchantment and subsequent rejection by Nemelka, Ida Smith remains, much like Taggart, a fiery advocate for Nemelka and his work. "The world is such an effing mess," Taggart writes in an e-mail. "Would you not gamble on something to reverse those trends?"
Her gamble was an £85,000 loan to Nemelka to publish his early works. He ended up, he says, taking out loans to buy Taggart a condominium in the same Orem complex as Smith, which his wife is helping pay off. Taggart is not the only member of the group residing there. Nemelka and his fourth wife, Sheri-he had two plural wives during a foray into polygamy in 1993-live part-time, Nemelka says, in Ida Smith's basement, as well as in the RV. Sheri Nemelka financially supports her husband, according to Nemelka, while he writes his books and communicates with advanced beings only he sees.
"I was prepared to give up everything for the truth," Ida Smith says. "I was looking for the truth all my life. And I wasn't afraid."
Smith traces her independence back to a three-day rail trip from Salt Lake City to Chicago in 1942. Her mother sent the then-8-year-old alone to visit an aunt. Since then, Smith wrote in her Internet-posted autobiography, "I don't believe that I ever felt I needed to ask permission of anyone else to do what I wanted to do."
Unlike her older sister, Ruth, Ida did not go on a mission, something she was grateful to miss. "While I can say the gospel is true, I cannot go out and honestly say the church is true. It's an earthly organization, it's people, and people are imperfect."
In spring 1978, the LDS Church asked her to set up and run the Women's Research Institute at Brigham Young University. She accepted the position, despite her misgivings that the institute would not conduct empirical research. Rather, the focus was to demonstrate that the LDS Church, according to the founding document, "cared about women." Smith crisscrossed the country, meeting with ward leaders and women often struggling in the midst of identity crises. She remains haunted by the "empty" facial expression of one married woman with six children who told her, "I have no idea of who I am."
Mormon men found her intimidating-too sure of herself, she recalls, while Mormon marriages, where "It's a big him, a little her," did not appeal to her. She never married, remaining, she says, "a straight arrow" all her life.
When Taggart gave Smith a copy of the sealed portion, Smith was entranced. She had been waiting for this her whole life. The first thing Ida's brothers Denis and Hyrum did, when she gave them a copy, was to research Nemelka. "It never occurred to me," she says. "Just read the damned book and you'll know what I am saying."
If she had investigated Nemelka before reading his work, she would have discovered a man with a controversial past. He says that in 1987, Joseph Smith gave him the plates of the sealed portion, along with the Urim and Thummim-intergalactic cell phones, Nemelka says, that receive text from advanced beings in another solar system-with which Smith translated the Book of Mormon.
Nemelka says he spent the next few years running from this responsibility, including a period as a fugitive from the law in 1991 after kidnapping one of his first two children. After he was convicted of several protective-order violations against one of his former partners, Nemelka violated his probation and was sent to jail in 2001 for a year by 3rd District Court Judge Denise Lindberg. When Nemelka's attorney, Ed Brass, motioned for her to review her sentence, she refused, writing, "Mr. Nemelka continues to victimize others, manipulate and misrepresent facts, and in other ways demonstrates that he does not merit the privilege of probation."
Nemelka fled to California in 2002 with an outstanding arrest warrant hanging over him. Three years later, he returned to Utah after Judge Royal Hansen inherited his case from Lindberg and closed it.
Of his checkered past, Nemelka now says he wants "society" to give him "a mulligan."
"Off the Record"
Shortly after Ida Smith's conversion to the sealed portion, her brother Hyrum asked her if she would talk to LDS apostle Holland, whom she had known since the 1970s, about Nemelka. "Many ‘crazies' have come and gone and the Church has kept silent on them," Hyrum Smith noted in an e-mail. "I think that is wise, because they all die eventually of their own weight."
On June 12, 2007, Ida called Holland, who told Ida their conversation had to be "off the record, [...] Jeff to Ida." This was for her, he said, "because I love ya." He told her several times there could be no "bugging of telephones." She agreed but recorded it anyway, not at Nemelka's behest, she says, but to protect herself legally if it were ever to come down to her word against Holland's.
"This guy is a wacko," Holland told her, "he's just not in touch with reality." While Holland agreed with her that it would be "wonderful" for the LDS faithful to receive the sealed two-thirds of the gold plates, it would not be coming from "somebody down at Joe's Bar and Grill," he told her. "If we really believe there's an order and a priesthood in the church, it's gonna come to the president of the church," in the form of prophecy.
Holland wasn't the only big gun her family rolled out. Longtime family friend Sen. Bennett asked her to read a book he had recently written about his journey to prove that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, Ida says. She in turn asked him to read the sealed portion. In a five-page letter dated Aug. 27, 2007, Bennett wrote, "I am convinced, beyond any reasonable doubt, that [Nemelka's works] are forgeries." Although the Book of Mormon celebrates that "Jesus is the Christ," he noted, "Christopher's central message is that a Christian church is unnecessary," an interpretation Ida Smith agrees with. "Christopher is the person who has been called upon to give you real truth in the latter days, and is the only true messenger in the world today," she says.
By the time Ida Smith had joined the ranks of those convinced, as Taggart says, that Nemelka has "the keys to unlock the mysteries of life," Nemelka was mired in a series of legal battles largely of his own making. In 2007, following instructions, he says, from his immortal mentors, he filed 11 lawsuits, targeting past critics including Judge Lindberg, a psychologist, former plural wives and even several of his own siblings who had, he alleged, slandered him.
For one of the 11 lawsuits he filed, Nemelka used Smith's recording of her conversation with Holland to source his claims he had been defamed by the LDS Church, apostles Holland and Smith's cousin Ballard, Ida's brothers, Hyrum and Denis, all of whom he named as defendants.
Friends No More
Nemelka filed a motion seeking a judge who was not LDS to hear his cases. Judge Paul Maughan, in a July 13, 2007 ruling-while noting that Nemelka's motion to exclude LDS-member judges would disqualify "a substantial percentage of the 3rd District bench"-denied it. Several months later, after Maughan was assigned Nemelka's lawsuit against the LDS Church, he recused himself, citing "personal and familial relationships" with one or more of the defendants.
When, on Nov. 2, 2007, 3rd District Court Judge Constandinos "Deno" Himonas heard initial pleadings from Nemelka, who represented himself, and the church's lawyers, Himonas raised the allegation that Nemelka was a "deceiver" with regard to his claims he had translated the sealed portion.
"I could prove without a doubt to the court, to the jury that in fact I had that calling, just like Joseph Smith did, no difference," Nemelka said. Taggart recalls she and other supporters in the courtroom, "held our breath, hoping the judge would say, ‘Yes, prove it to us,' allow us to see how Chris would have proved that, have the record before us." But they were disappointed. The court didn't want to look at the issue, Nemelka said, and "I don't want to go there."
After just over an hour of legal arguments, Himonas abruptly ended Nemelka's lawsuit, dismissing all charges against the defendants.
Ida Smith's involvement with Nemelka's lawsuit against the LDS Church cost her dearly. While she says her excommunication in 2008 did not trouble her, she wrote in her autobiography, "My family have isolated me and think I have been either deluded, deceived, or have lost my mind."
She also lost a close-knit group of female friends she had had since the 1970s. In late August 2008, she received a letter from seven friends, all, according to Nemelka's blog, senior and well-connected figures in the LDS Church, that stated, "We are aware you have made choices that prevent us as covenanted, Temple-recommend-holding members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from associating with you at this time."
Smith says the letter, "made me smile. I wasn't devastated. I felt so sure." While she cried, she says, it was only for her friends. "They cut themselves off."
In late 2009, Nemelka suffered a similar loss of support as Ida Smith did when, he says, his large, mostly devout Mormon family, turned their backs on him. This followed the death of Nemelka's 19-year old nephew, Pfc. Aaron Nemelka, one of 13 gunned down by U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan in Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5, 2009.
Christopher Nemelka gave several media interviews, which angered his family, his brother Joel says. Christopher Nemelka, however, says he had every right to inform the media that his nephew, who he claims was told by his family to either join the military or go on a LDS mission, "died a victim of his family, of his religion, of his country. I did not use that as the platform to publish Human Reality: Who We Are and Why We Exist." The book, whose author Nemelka declines to divulge, came out around the time of Aaron's death.
At Aaron Nemelka's funeral, on Christopher Nemelka's instruction, Taggart and several young male followers handed out a press release to the media, he says, "which strongly disagreed with the LDS Church's involvement with my nephew's funeral." Someone from Nemelka's group placed several of these releases on a table dedicated to Aaron Nemelka's memory. One of Christopher Nemelka's brothers "reamed him," he says, in an e-mail demanding to know how he could have sanctioned such behavior.
Because of his stance on Aaron's death, Christopher Nemelka says, "I've alienated my entire family, OK?" That's a perspective his brother Joel agrees with. "He used his nephew's death as a marketing tool," he says.
An Empty Grave
On June 16, 2010, at 6 p.m., Ida Smith and a crowd of around 50 onlookers gathered in the Salt Lake City Cemetery in the lower Avenues, a few feet from the 18-foot obelisk dedicated to the memory of Hyrum Smith that looms over his family plot. They were attending the dedication of a gravestone recently placed on Ida Smith's own burial plot, which she had donated to Nemelka.
Nemelka did not attend the dedication of the gravestone that proclaimed him as the reincarnation of Hyrum Smith, along with boasting two trademarked Websites inscribed in bright blue at the base of the plinth, which promote his work. He says the gravestone is not meant to mock. "It stands as a contrast to the falsehoods that the LDS Church has been giving the world for a long time, OK?"
Nemelka's stand-in, his attorney Rodney J. Vessels, told the crowd that Ida Smith, "will be known in history, throughout all generations of time, as one of the greatest protectors and progenitors of her great, great grandfather's true legacy. "
The plot was not all she gave him. Nemelka is the executor of her will and her estate. Ida set up a trust, he says, called The Marvelous Work and Wonder Trust, to which she signed over all her assets. Others, he says, have also signed over their wills to Nemelka's "work." His message, he continues, "has freed" many people up. "It has given them a whole different view of life, and knowledge."
Ida Smith's generosity did not go unnoticed. In 2010, Nemelka says agents representing the Office of Recovery Services and in pursuit of allegedly between £40,000 and £50,000 the state says he owes in back child support, knocked on Ida's door. They wanted to know why Ida had signed over her home to Nemelka's wife, Sheri. Ida Smith says she told them to ask Nemelka and sent them away. Nemelka says the IRS has also investigated the Worldwide United Foundation, and, he says, "closed the case."
According to a close friend of Ida Smith's family, her family continues to hope she will one day, as Hyrum Smith e-mailed Ida in 2007, "discover that this is false and come away from it." Kammerman took that path two years ago and says her life "is so much happier" now. When she dies and stands before her creator, she knows what she'll do if she's told Nemelka's "work" was indeed, as she says he claims, the only way to find truth, peace and happiness, on the earth. "I'm going to call bullshit," she says.
For now, Ida Smith stands at the center of Nemelka's peculiar universe, her search for a spiritual truth she can embrace having led her to become a beacon for Nemelka's message that the LDS Church is false. "This is real truth in your face," she says about the gravestone. "Let the chips fall where they may."