Review: Murder Among the Mormons By John Michael May, Chris Richards, Brent Metcalfe
Netflix’s Murder Among the Mormons has been a Hollywood story in the making since the 1985 bombings of Salt Lake City.
“This story was always in the mythology of Utah,” Tyler Measom tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Dozens of filmmakers have tried to tell it. I have a file of probably 40 to 50 production companies, large and small, that pounced as soon as the bombs went off up until just a few years ago. It’s a subject that’s always been wanting to tell, but a lot of people have had a hard time getting it done.”
Ultimately, it was Measom and Jared Hess who were able to bring to screen the historical events of 1985, which play out like a true-crime saga and over three parts in the BBC Studios docuseries Murder Among the Mormons, now streaming on Netflix. Speaking to THR, the directors, who were each raised in the Mormon faith and who currently reside in Salt Lake City, credit the accomplishment to their proximity to the story.
“It was embarrassing for a lot of the people and institutions that were deceived. Within the community, it just didn’t get talked about much,” says Hess, noting that he first truly learned about the events when he was in his early 20s. Measom, who left Mormonism years ago (and chronicled some of that story in his 2010 documentary Sons of Perdition), remembers his father referring to the incident as “a black eye on the church” one night at the family dinner table. “The story is in our DNA in many ways. We come from a long line of Mormons. I had left the faith years ago, but it is kind of who we are as a culture,” he explains. “We love these people. We care for these people. We show empathy for these individuals.”
In 1985, a series of pipe bombs killed two people, document collector Steve Christensen and the wife of Christensen’s former boss, Kathy Sheets, and severely injured another, sending shockwaves through the local Mormon community. A trove of early Mormon letters and diaries were then found destroyed in the vehicle of the third victim, renowned rare document collector Mark Hoffman, and the ensuing investigation into who was behind the murders threatened to shake the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “It’s all in our face and it’s just a true-crime saga unlike anything out there as it relates to religion and murder and deception,” says Hess.
Though the “ending” can be spoiled by a Google search, the events were mainly covered by local news outlets at the time and never rose to becoming a national sensation. Which is why the pair put much care into how Murder Among the Mormons plays out, using a combination approach of reenactments with archival footage around their talking heads to appeal to a dual audience — those who are in the know about the Mormon world of rare document-dealing and those who are coming to the saga for the first time via Netflix’s global reach.
“I think one of the keys to storytelling, especially in documentary, is to keep a secret as long as you can,” says Measom of his approach with Hess, the helmer behind big-screen fare like Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre. “We were able to keep the secrets of the crimes for two episodes, almost. And because of the three-part series, of which neither Jared and I have done, we were able to figure out different modes of storytelling. With Jared bringing his narrative sensibilities and me bringing my documentary and nonfiction experience to the table, we were able to meld those together and create this narrative documentary hybrid. You are making three episodes. But in the end, you’re making one big movie. Especially in the pandemic days of binge-watching.”
The secret that is revealed heading into the final installment of the docuseries is that Hoffman was behind the bombings, and had been scamming the church for years. “Mark was able to work within the confines of the LDS faith because of their belief, their trust, their love of history and also their need, sometimes, to hide that history,” explains Measom.
“It wasn’t just one crime, one murder or one forgery — it was six years of a run this guy had where he was deceiving the biggest institutions in the country with his work,” adds Hess of Hoffman, who is currently serving out a life sentence in Utah for the murders. “Every transaction was a major crime, so there was just an endless amount of material and we had to boil it down to the most significant ones that really made an impact. But there’s an endless amount of stories that occurred as they relate to Hoffman.”
For four years, Measom and Hess researched and got to know the subjects who would eventually appear in interviews for Murder Among the Mormons. They accessed “boxes upon boxes” of material from the official investigation, and their own deep dive consisted of gaining access to Hoffman’s personal journals, home video recordings, photos, and the “thousands upon thousands” of documents and artifacts that he created. When production began, before the pandemic, they brought in editors unfamiliar with Mormonism and Utah to balance out their own fascination with the story.
“One time we went to breakfast with Dorie Hoffman, Mark’s ex-wife, and asked if Mark had any favorite movies or what he liked to watch,” recalls Hess. “She said he loved Dallas and its villain J.R. Ewing (played by Larry Hagman). She said, ‘He loved how J.R. was always screwing people over; he would just be in the room cackling as J.R. swindled somebody out of money or deceived someone.’ And I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is wild!’ We never read that anywhere and you can just see this guy having J.R. as a role model in 1985, as he is day in and day out deceiving people.”
Hoffman was famous among the church for his contributions of rare documents, which included the infamous Salamander Letter that he first produced in 1983, two years before the bombings. The artifact had questioned the origin story of Mormon founder Joseph Smith and, as Hess notes, was a major disruption to the faith. But it had been authenticated before Hoffman would go on to be uncovered as a master counterfeiter in wake of the bombings. “Suddenly, this Salamander Letter comes along that gives a completely different account of that origin story,” explains Hess of the impact of the document. “Instead of [the origin story of the faith] being about an angel [visiting Joseph Smith], it’s twisted into this dark, folk magic context where Joseph Smith was doing an occult ritual and found this white salamander, so it was like witchcraft. It was creepy. That’s why it was devastating.”
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As Murder Among the Mormons explores, with the help of confession tapes, Hoffman had set up the attacks in order to buy himself time after growing in debt and under pressure to produce another set of forged documents that would be damaging to the church called the McLellin Collection. “He details his motive and you hear just how callous and heartless he was when he says, ‘I didn’t care who it killed; if it was a dog or a child, it was to buy time,'” says Hess, quoting Hoffman about the attacks.
The filmmakers had reached out to Hoffman many times and wrote him dozens of letters, including a recent note from Measom to let Hoffman know about the docuseries’ release. “I wrote him just to let him know, ‘This is coming out, man. You may not be able to watch it, but somewhere you’ll know that people are learning about you,'” says Measom. “He’s never spoken to anyone before since he’s been in prison. So many people have tried to reach out requesting interviews both large and small, and he just hasn’t responded to any of them. So, we didn’t hold our breath that he was going to respond.”
Ultimately, the pair realized they didn’t need Hoffman to tell this story. “He was so addicted to the power he felt in deceiving people, I just don’t know how honest he would be with an answer,” says Hess of any questions they could have asked. “But I do want to hear what he was thinking leading up to the murders.”
Measom goes on to imagine an alternate outcome, where Hoffman could have used his skills to catch forgers instead of becoming one. “If Mark would have, prior to the bombings, just said, ‘Guys, I’m a fraud. I’m a forger. I owe you a lot of money,’ he would have been convicted on fraud. He probably would have done five to 10 [years]. And then he would have pulled a Catch Me If You Can, would have gotten out and he would have been working with the FBI,” he says. “But, for some reason, he felt that he had to kill innocent people in order to perpetrate and perpetuate this lie. Lie became lie became lie and he just had to continue this until two people wound up picking up pipe bombs in their driveway and in the front of their office. That perpetuating lie is dangerous, that slippery slope, and I’d just like to know what it was that made him want to keep fooling individuals or entities.”
In the end, as the duo sums up, the good guys win. And while the church and its members might have to relive a difficult time in its history, they already know the outcome. “There are moments that I think might be a surprise and make people uncomfortable, but it was uncomfortable at the time,” says Hess. “The church along with everyone else who had dealings with Mark Hoffman, they were a victim. Nobody is immune to deception.” Measom also notes that the members of the church have a thick skin, citing the hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon (“They brought a full-page ad in the playbill,” he says of the church embracing the L.A. production).
“It was embarrassing for a number of institutions. Not just the LDS church, but also the FBI and Sothebys; their reputations were all called in to question because they validated these things that turned out to be a forgery, says Hess. “The investigators did a knockout job. It was just good, amazing detective work and forensic science that ultimately brought Mark Hoffman down. We don’t gloss over the fact that people made mistakes during the time, and they were all under immense pressure. We just wanted to tell this story as objectively as possible from the perspective of the people that lived it. For most of our subjects, this was the first time they talked about this in 35 years since it occurred. So it was very emotional and there were a lot of things that we learned that we hadn’t read in any of the books.”
What moved the filmmakers the most was the forgiveness that their interview subjects showed for Hoffman.
“The beauty of what people believe is wonderful,” says Measom. “I’m happy if people believe certain things, as long as it doesn’t interrupt my life of freedoms, if you will. And many of the people who are in this film just have a love and compassion, and to see some of these individuals forgive Mark, at the end, that kind of Christ-like love and forgiveness, I think should be in many individuals. Regardless what religion or not religion they are.”
Whether or not that final message will reach Hoffman, those involved may never know. “Mark, at one time, wielded a lot of power over a lot of people because of his deceptions and right now, the only power he has is his story,” adds Measom. “He has a little jail cell and probably a few books, but what he has is a really great story and he may keep that until he leaves us, who knows.”