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‘Murder Among the Mormons’ Directors Discuss the Netflix Documentary
This interview contains spoilers for Murder Among the Mormons.
In October of 1985, three planted homemade bombs exploded across Salt Lake City killing two members of the Latter-day Saints community. The violence shocked and bewildered the local Mormon population. But, the strange story that continued to unfold connected the murders of document collector Steve Christensen and the wife of Christensen’s former boss, Kathy Sheets, to the rare Mormon document dealing business. The third bomb injured but did not kill rare document dealer Mark Hofmann.
Netflix’s Murder Among the Mormons tells the story of Mark Hofmann, the skillful forger who spent years scamming document collectors and the Mormon church with fake documents until he finally, enveloped in lies and debt, resorted to murder to avoid being caught. His forgeries, which even the Library of Congress and the FBI deemed authentic, included the works of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Emily Dickinson. But the most damaging perhaps was the Salamander letter—a document Hofmann forged which called the founding tenets of Mormonism into question. Steve Christensen purchased the controversial document and gave it to the Church in 1984, and though the Church later released its contents to the public, President of the Church Gordon B. Hinckley stated that “This does not preclude the possibility that it may have been forged at a time when the Church had many enemies,” in the early days of Mormonism. Although the letter eventually proved to be fake, the letter itself and Church’s handling of the situation had a profound impact on members at the time.
The violent attacks of October 15, 1985 resulted in an unprecedented media spotlight on the church, a long police investigation into the niche world of Mormon document dealing, and the conviction of Mark Hofmann, who pleaded guilty to the bombings in 1987. He is currently serving a life sentence in a Utah prison, and is known as one of the world’s most accomplished document forgers in history.
The twisting, heartbreaking, little-known tale of profound deception and murder is told for the first time on a massive scale in Netflix’s Murder Among the Mormons. The enthralling three-part documentary was created by documentarian and filmmaker Tyler Measom and Napolean Dynamite-creator Jared Hess, who both grew up in the Mormon faith. The series was executive produced by true crime giant Joe Berlinger, who’s best known for his work on The Ted Bundy Tapes and more recently, Crime Scene, and whose touch is felt in the show’s suspenseful storytelling. Through interviews from people closely connected to the crimes and dramatic recreations of the events, Murder Among the Mormons contextualizes and explores a shocking and horrific tale with care and attention to detail. The co-directors talked to Esquire about the process, what reaction they’re expecting to the documentary from the Church, and what they’d most want to ask Mark Hofmann, who declined to participate in the film, if they had the chance.
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Esquire: Why was it important to you both to make this documentary and did you make it with any specific goals in mind?
Tyler Measom: Well, we made it because why would anyone make a documentary? To get rich and famous, right? No, Jared and I both grew up in the Utah Mountain West in Utah and Idaho. This story was very familiar to both of us and Mormonism is in our DNA. It’s in our history. To find this story, a remarkable true crime story that is set in our culture and involves people that we know and are actually related to in some instances, it was something we of course had to do. We’re lucky that we’re able to do it.
Jared Hess: Just to reiterate that, the thing that was super important to us was to be able to tell the story from the perspective of the people that lived it. We really wanted to give them a chance to be able to put us in that moment in 1985, when these bombs were going off and nobody knew who was responsible for it. We felt like doing a documentary about it as opposed to narrative fiction was the most compelling way to let these people on screen share what they lived through.
Portrait of Mormon antique collector/dealer Mark Hofmann, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1981. Hofmann later planted bombs that killed two church members, was arrested, and subsequently revealed to have been a highly successful forger. (Photo by Ben Martin/Getty Images)
How do you feel that the church and community dealt with the tragedy at the time and reacted to the large-scale publicity?
Jared: Utah at the time of these bombings was rather small and they definitely did not have crimes of this nature. I think any time three pipe bombs explode in any city, there’d be a great deal of fear. It was for a long time very disrupting to the community. It was also very disrupting to members of the faith and members of the church, who had their notions of what the church was. When a lot of these documents were discovered, it may have shifted their faith a little bit.
Tyler: It was just such a difficult time, and very uncomfortable. The church had not dealt with anything like this before, that these documents that they had purchased and acquired from Mark Hofmann, suddenly the people directly connected to the document had been bombed, and two people killed. It put them in a very uncomfortable position and they never had to face a controversy like this ever. It was a very trying time for the leadership of the church. Also I think for the membership.
If you had the chance to talk to Mark Hofmann for the documentary, what would you most want to ask him?
Tyler: We’ve reached out to Mark dozens of times. I’ve sent him so many letters and he’s yet to speak to anyone since he’s been in prison other than visits from family. I’m curious because Mark was such a genius at what he did, he was so good at crafting these documents. I want to know where he may have gone off from using these “powers for good,” to becoming the criminal that he became. Where was that turn? Did he ever want to go straight, if you will?
Jared: I echo that. I’m curious what was going through his head leading up to the decision to kill people. Truthfully, what did he plan to accomplish if he had gotten away with it? What would have been his next steps? What was his long-term game plan? Truthfully, it doesn’t seem like he ever thought that far ahead because he obviously got in so much trouble with the Ponzi scheme that he had created and was just in over his head with debt and owing people money. He maybe didn’t think that far ahead, but I’d be curious to hear it from him now, after being in prison this long, how he puts that all together.
What was the most challenging part of making this for you both?
Tyler: We started this process in 2017 and so it’s been four years of development and fundraising and shooting and trying to find archival footage. This story is massive. It’s a big story filled with twists and turns and greed and religion, and drama, and forgery and the culture in which it takes place. I think the most difficult thing honestly, was deciding what to keep in and what to pull out, which stories are better left untold. And what are the most important elements of this narrative that we can tell in a three-part series.
Jared: Mark Hofmann, he had a six-year run where almost every transaction was a major crime and a major deception. It wasn’t just one or two crimes that he committed along the way. It was like every day he was breaking the law on some level. Just the sheer volume of stories that we uncovered through our research. Again, like Tyler said, it was like, “Man, how do we consolidate this and really curate the most significant moments in transactions to put in the film?” Then also, it was difficult to really comprehend the stakes of what was occurring. We had to set up the tenets of Mormonism for people that don’t know anything about it. We spent a lot of time, I think, in the first episode, really trying to dial in what was important. You really have to understand the founding beliefs of the church in order to fully comprehend why the Salamander Letter was such a disruption to the faith.
Did anything surprise you in the process of making the doc or your research?
Tyler: Well, I think one thing we probably should have projected going in, but didn’t, is how much pain still hangs over this entire state because of something that happened 37 years ago. Mark Hofmann took people’s lives. He took people’s money, he took their trust. He took their faith, and he did it without regret, without remorse and callously. To talk to these individuals who were in direct contact with him and to listen to their stories, and to see the pain resurface. To see the hurt that this one man has caused through his mass deceptions that still has deep scars in these individuals was hard to see. On the flip side, what was amazing in many of them is how they were able to move past it, how they were able to forgive someone who had done these horrible things to them. I think that speaks volumes to the culture in which these people exist to be able to really move on with their lives, despite such trauma.
Jared: Tyler and I both live in Salt Lake City where this occurred and so for the last couple of years, we’ve spent a lot of time going to lunch with all the people that ended up being in our film. Just hearing their firsthand accounts of what they experienced and stories. A number of books have been written on this subject, but we would hear things from people that we had never, ever read about. We were constantly surprised at just the magnitude of heartache and deception that Mark inflicted on so many people. That was super surprising and just what you discover along the way, in conversations and in interviews.
Portrait of Mormon antique collector/dealer Mark Hofmann as he holds a first edition of ’Book of Mormon,’ Salt Lake City, Utah, 1984. Hofmann later planted a bomb that killed two church members, was arrested, and subsequently revealed to have been a highly succesful forger. (Photo by Ben Martin/Getty Images)
Did any of your interviews particularly stand out to you as difficult or surprising in any way?
Jared: Shannon Flynn, who was Mark Hofmann’s associate for the last couple years of Hofmann’s ill-fated career was constantly surprising us. With things that he was saying, just inside stuff that I don’t think he’d really ever talked about with anyone for a long time. And he’s such a charismatic personality. Tyler and I were just constantly shocked at the things that we were hearing from him. That wasn’t difficult, but he was definitely a surprising figure that really I think, shines throughout the series as someone that’s highly entertaining and at times very suspicious.
Tyler: I think that the pain that people still felt. Jared and I would spend quite literally hours hearing these people regale us with these tales. I think it’s quite rare for these people, for someone to listen to them for so long about something that happened. I think just hearing their pain resurface after for so long was really surprising to me. Shouldn’t have been, but it was.
Do you think that this event impacted how other people perceived the LDS church?
Tyler: I left the church a number of years ago and part of it was because of the vast history of the Mormon faith and some of the things that they had done in their past. I think for a lot of individuals, when they are taught one way that a man saw an angel, then all of a sudden, the document is found that says there’s a salamander, that a church would purchase that and possibly try and hide it from the public. Yeah, I dare say that it did shake a lot of people’s faith both now and then of course. I think it’s hard. Faith is a delicate balance for individuals. Some people are sitting on the precipice at any point and some people you can throw darts at them regardless and they’ll stay true. I do think there were some ramifications from the Hofmann incident, without question.
Joe Berlinger is a huge name in the genre. What was having him attached to this project for both of you?
Tyler: Joe was amazing. He was really instrumental, really getting behind the project and supporting it. Then, I think really throughout the editing and as we structured the storytelling for, it was really, really insightful. There was a lot of information to unpack and you had to educate the audience on Mormonism. He was very helpful and wise and amazing as we put this together. His support of our vision, I think was just awesome.
How did making this compare to other projects for you both? I know Jared, your background is more in comedy.
Jared: Tyler and I just shared an equal passion for this story. The interviews, the archival, the recreations that we put together. I definitely learned so much working with Tyler. Documentary was a new thing for me, but it’s always been probably my favorite film genre. I find myself watching non-fiction documentary films more than the narrative. It’s just something I’m obsessed with, especially true crime. It was amazing to be able to collaborate with Tyler.
Tyler: I’ve done documentaries in the past and many of them have centered on belief. This was a little bit in my wheelhouse and a couple of the films I’ve done here in Utah, but teaming with Jared, both of us seasoned directors in our own field and making this narrative documentary hybrid was a blast. Again, it was such a passion project for both of us. This is something I think we both have been wanting to do for a number of years before we met up and said, “Let’s do it together.” Making it and having it on a place like Netflix, where it’s assured to be seen by the vast majority of America and the world, I don’t think we could have had anything better with this, to be frank with you. It’s been a dream.
What do you hope people who had no knowledge of the incidents before to take away from the documentary?
Jared: One of the cool things about this story is that most people outside of Utah don’t know anything about it. Even people from Utah don’t know the details of this story. After it occurred, I think that there were a lot of institutions and people that were embarrassed by the deception that they’ve endured. They were also heartbroken from just the devastation and the tragedy of what had occurred. So it wasn’t talked about much within the community. You’d have to go and kind of read a book about it or know somebody who directly experienced it firsthand. Our hope is that people don’t read any articles about it and just go into the series called knowing nothing because I think just the twists and turns that occur are just unlike anything in the true crime genre. It was such an isolated regional event that occurred that people just don’t know anything about it.
What do you anticipate the reaction of the church and the community in Utah to be to the documentary?
Tyler: Ultimately, it’s a great story. I do think there will be a bit of interest here in the state of Utah, just because it is something that is so close to home. Any story that relates to a certain culture or demographic is going to appeal to that certain demographic. I think what is going to happen within the members of the church and within the community is, I think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised by the amazing story itself, I hope. I also think that they will likely go into it with a number of assumptions of why the film was made and what might be in it that won’t really… that aren’t necessarily going to come to fruition. By and large, Jared and I stayed true to the story. We didn’t have an axe to grind. We didn’t choose sides. We told the story as it happened while it happened to those people who it happened to.
Jared: Exactly. The great thing as it relates to the church is, the good guys win in the end and the bad guy goes to jail. They know what occurred, they lived through it. Again, I think the details of this story and how it unfolded and hearing firsthand accounts from people is what will make it so compelling for people that know the story already. Just the sheer amount of detail and insight that came through the production process as we were shooting it that people have never heard before, I think is just going to be really exciting and compelling. At the end of the day, if they come into it thinking that there was an agenda behind the making of it, they are just going to get lost in the story. Like Tyler said, no axe to grind at all. We just really wanted to objectively tell a story and let the people who’ve lived it share the experience.
Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints handled Hofmann’s forged documents.
Lauren Kranc is an editorial assistant at Esquire, where she covers pop culture and television, with entirely too narrow of an expertise on Netflix dating shows.
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