‘Murder Among the Mormons’ Exposes a Bomber and Master Forger’s Plot to Destroy Mormonism
The new Netflix true crime docuseries” Murder Among the Mormons” investigates a series of pipe bombings and murders—and supposed documents that could shatter Mormonism.
There’s no weirder twist in Murder Among the Mormons than the initial disclosure that this Netflix true crime series (premiering March 3) is co-directed by Jared Hess, the idiosyncratic filmmaker behind Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, and Gentleman Broncos. That Hess is a Mormon goes some way toward explaining this unlikely marriage of artist and material, which he helms with Tyler Measom. Yet it remains an unexpected venture for the former big-screen comedy wunderkind, who largely neuters his trademark off-the-wall comedy style for a straightforward recap of a story rooted in deception.
Hess and Measom’s subject is an incident that rocked Salt Lake City: on Oct. 15, 1985, two pipe bombs were detonated within an hour of each other, the first killing document collector Steve Christensen in his downtown office and the second taking the life of Kathy Sheets (the wife of Christensen’s former associate Gary) at her suburban home. What linked the two victims was the big business of rare book and document-dealing that had become all the rage in the Mormon community during that decade. An entire industry had sprouted up around the practice of discovering, selling and trading 19th century artifacts with great significance to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And at the time of his demise, Christensen was on the cusp of completing, on behalf of the LDS church, a gigantic transaction—to the tune of $300,000—for a cache of newly unearthed books, diaries, letters and revelations known as the McLellin Collection.
Christensen’s partner in this mega-deal was Mark Hofmann, who by that point was a veritable legend in the field. After making his first valuable discoveries during his 1974 mission in Manchester, England, Hofmann began turning up one priceless item after another. In 1980, he and his wife Dorie found, in an old Bible, a folded letter purportedly written in 1828 by Joseph Smith’s scribe, Martin Harris, that transcribed passages from the golden plates that Joseph Smith had unearthed from beneath a stone courtesy of the angel Moroni (an event that forms the basis of the entire Mormon faith). This “Anthon Transcript” made Hofmann a star, and put him into close contact with the church’s leadership, including president Gordon B. Hinckley.
A lucrative business was thus born, and in 1984, it truly took off with Hofmann’s biggest find to date: the Salamander Letter, a note apparently written by Martin Harris which claimed that Joseph Smith had been led to the golden plates not by the angel Moroni, but by a white salamander. Suggesting that Smith had been guided by magic rather than God’s divine hand was nothing short of an Earth-shattering challenge to the fundamental dogma of the Mormon church. More crucial to Murder Among the Mormons (executive produced by Joe Berlinger), the Salamander Letter was sold by Hofmann to Christensen, who promptly handed it over to Hinckley for further analysis and safekeeping. Just as buyers and sellers often refused to divulge where (and from whom) they had acquired their gems, the LDS church sought to keep this potentially destructive document—which contradicted its core narrative about Joseph Smith—out of sight and out of mind.
Murder Among the Mormons shines a spotlight on this often-secretive milieu through interviews with many of its key players, including Shannon Flynn, Brent Metcalfe, Curt Bench, and Brent Ashworth. It also employs a wide array of archival footage, including home movies and news reports, to reveal the shadowy wheeling-dealing culture that took Utah by storm during the ‘80s. Those clips bring to life not only the strange world of rare Mormon document-dealing, but also the unique personalities that populated it, none more colorful than Flynn, who appears on camera today in a three-piece suit and bow tie. Flynn readily admits to having had a youthful fondness for guns and rebelliousness, which provides Hess with his sole opportunity to go gonzo by staging a comically macho ‘80s parody sequence in which Flynn speeds around in Hofmann’s Toyota MR2 sports car with an Uzi in hand, and then emerges from the vehicle to fire off a few hundred rounds.
Nonetheless, the prime center of attention in Murder Among the Mormons is Hofmann, a nerdy guy who had grown up in the faith but increasingly gravitated to atheism, replete with trips to New York City where he’d pull off big sales and then celebrate by eating at swanky restaurants and drinking heavily (a big Mormon no-no). The day after the two 1985 Salt Lake City bombings, Hofmann was critically injured by a car bomb. He survived the attempt on his life and, in a surprising turn of events, subsequently became the focus of prosecutor Gerry D’Elia and detective Michael George’s investigation. Questions soon arose about the authenticity of Hofmann’s treasures, and though forensic experts initially validated them, D’Elia and George weren’t deterred, and eventually managed to uncover the truth: Hofmann was a master forger, and many of the documents he’d parlayed for profit and fame (including the Salamander Letter) were counterfeits.
That bombshell provided authorities with an idea about Hofmann’s motive for his double homicides, and Murder Among the Mormons further sheds light on his reasons via a prolonged audio interview with Hofmann made after his conviction. In it, he reveals himself to be not only guilty of the offenses for which he was accused, but a terrifying sociopath who reveled in fooling others, and in undermining the LDS church’s legitimacy through the verification and dissemination of these faked documents, caring little for those he exploited and hurt along the way. Hofmann was a manipulator par excellence, one whose avarice led him to deceive others who, in turn, were frequently all too willing to be deceived in order to satiate their own greed. In an environment where no one asked too many questions or divulged more than they needed to, duplicity was simply standard operating procedure.
Even at a relatively brief three episodes, Murder Among the Mormons feels a tad padded, especially as it makes its way through its final installment. The series’ closing passages, however, are worth the wait, painting a chilling portrait of a man who—out of a lust for attention and wealth, and a desire to demolish the Mormon religion—treated history, relationships and people’s lives as pawns in his own deadly game.