Dressed in a three-piece suit with natty bow tie and a thin gold chain around his ample mid-section, the distinguished older gentleman with the high-pitched voice fidgets in his chair, his fingers flying this way and that, like a trial witness undergoing cross-examination.
“Can I ask a favor?” he says. “Don’t make me answer that. Don’t make me answer that. Let someone else do it. I don’t want to make a hero out of him. Because he WAS fantastic.”
This is the opening salvo of the Netflix limited documentary series “Murder Among the Mormons.” We don’t know who this man is or who he’s talking about, but we’re instantly hooked — and throughout the three-episode deep dive into the 1980s scandal that resulted in three bombings that killed two people and seriously injured another, we remain captivated by the latest in an increasingly impressive catalog of true-crime Netflix documentaries that includes “Making a Murderer,” “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” and “American Murder: The Family Next Door.” And even though the 1985 murders in Salt Lake City attracted widespread media attention at the time, “Murder Among the Mormons” is an invaluable, extensive and journalistically sound record of events that will fascinate those of us who have forgotten all but the basic details and a generation of viewers that likely have never heard of this story.
The interviewee in that opening scene is Shannon Flynn, a rare document dealer, and the man he’s talking about is one Mark Hofmann, the “Indiana Jones” of Mormon documents (as one old news report calls him) who made a series of astonishing discoveries in the 1980s that shook the very foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while catapulting Hofmann to niche fame and possible riches.
That’s when things got really complicated, and bloody. After suspicions were raised about the legitimacy of Hofmann’s findings, two Hofmann associates were killed by hand-made bombs, Hofmann himself was seriously injured in a third bombing that appeared to be a suicide attempt, and the former golden boy became the prime suspect in the bombings. Turns out Hofmann was a master forger and con man who fooled the Mormon Church as well as the rare document community and even leading forensic authenticators of the time. When a visibly upset Flynn says he doesn’t want to lionize Hofmann but acknowledges Hofmann was “fantastic,” he’s talking about Hofmann’s abilities to create documents that appeared to originate in the mid-19th century but were flat-out fakes.
Directors Jared Hess and Tyler Measom do a superb job of telling this incredible true story via a treasure trove of archival news footage, audio tapes and home videos; the occasional re-creation of events, and interviews with a host of historians, researchers, investigators, news reporters and other key figures. (Hess, who is best known for directing comedies such as “Napoleon Dynamite,” grew up in the Mormon church.) We see how Hofmann created a sensation as a Utah State student in 1980 when he purchased an old Bible and found a letter inside written by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons. “In the Mormon document world, [Hofmann] was a rock star,” says one historian.
It was another Hofmann find that roiled the Latter-day Saints community. According to Mormon teachings, the Angel Moroni appeared to Smith and presented him with the golden plates from which Smith translated the Book of Mormon. This tenet of the faith is challenged when Hofmann comes forward with a letter supposedly written in Smith’s hand, describing a “magic salamander” spirit guarding the golden plates and demanding Joseph bring his dead brother Alvin to take possession of the plates. Deemed authentic by experts, the “Salamander Letter” challenged the very bedrock of the LDS story. “Instead of gods and angels, now it’s salamanders and magic,” says Sandra Tanner, a researcher of Mormon history.
This is when “Murder Among the Mormons” begins to play out like something from a real-life, Utah-based version of “The Da Vinci Code.” Hofmann starts taking trips to New York and binge drinking with associates, buys a spiffy new Toyota MR2 and develops an affinity for automatic weapons, while his now ex-wife Dorie (who is interviewed in present day for the film) takes care of their children and wonders what in the world is happening with her husband. After seven years of fleecing dozens and fooling thousands, Hofmann felt the walls closing in as questions were raised about several documents he had sold or was trying to peddle.
On Oct. 15, 1984, a pipe bomb exploded in the downtown Salt Lake City office of businessman Steven Christensen, a collector of Mormon documents who had purchased items from Hofmann. An hour later, a bomb killed the wife of an associate of Christensen’s. The next day, Hofmann is seriously injured in a bombing that destroys hundreds of putatively valuable documents.
Amazingly, there’s much more of this story to be told, and “Murder Among the Mormons” does a superb job of telling the tale.