Jared Hess directs an uneven documentary on forgeries & a gruesome series of bombings committed within the Mormon community.
Jared Hess’s three-part docuseries Murder Among The Mormons premieres on Netflix this week, and it’s a difficult series to quantify or categorize. Playing out as part True Crime thriller, part indictment of how far the church of Latter-Day Saints is willing to go to protect its origins, Murder is a frank look at the 1985 bombings in Salt Lake City and the man who perpetuated them. It’s a fascinating, devastating account of the crimes of Mark Hofmann, a brilliant forger and con artist who thought his only way out from under his crimes was murder and mayhem. The series is surprisingly funny in places, but the emotional impact of Hofmann’s crimes is clearly still resonating among his victims and peers to this day.
In the fall of 1985, several people in Salt Lake City were horrifically killed by booby-trapped pipe bombs placed around Salt Lake City. One victim of the bombings was Hofmann himself, who survived after undergoing surgery. Whether it was an attempted suicide or an effort to throw suspicion elsewhere, Hoffman was gentler to himself than he was to victims Steve Christensen and Kathy Sheets, whose bombs were stuffed with nails for maximum carnage. “A guaranteed fatality,” one expert says.
Horrifying as the bombings were, they’re not given as much weight in the series as Hoffman’s forgeries and their impact on the church leadership. Hofmann might have been driven by ego and greed, but it would be nice to walk away from Murder Among the Mormons with the sense that the human tragedy was the greater crime rather than giving money to a convincing swindler. The murders of Christensen and Sheets feel almost like an afterthought by comparison.
The most fascinating piece of the puzzle is Hofmann himself. There was already a fairly excellent episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent based on this story (starring Stephen Colbert! It’s great!) but more of Hofmann’s home life and backstory might have given some much-needed context to the person who would commit these crimes. After three episodes the viewer never gets the sense of really knowing or understanding Mark Hofmann. Maybe that’s the point, that some people are just unknowable.
It would be nice to walk away from Murder Among the Mormons with the sense that the human tragedy was the greater crime rather than giving money to a convincing swindler.
Why did Hofmann create so many forgeries? Because he could. Because he was so good at it, he even fooled the FBI’s forensic laboratories. But why did he forge letters about Joseph Smith finding the original Book of Mormon not through divine intervention, but from folk magic and a white salamander? The experts believe it was because Hofmann wanted to destroy the church from the inside by diminishing its origins.
This is where Murder doesn’t hold as much water as a straightforward crime doc, by painting the taste of life Hofmann experienced outside of the Church as wicked and wrong. He went to England! And read books! Oh…no? Granted, as an outsider looking in, there are things about the Mormon culture some viewers aren’t going to understand, and this part of Hofmann’s story might be the one time that he comes across as sympathetic, particularly in a community famous for ostracizing nonbelievers.
Hess wisely plays the in-person interviews of historical document experts against archival footage of those same experts in the 1980’s—showing rather than telling how these historians (all men, I might add) were fooled by the monster in their ranks.
Hofmann’s crimes left a trail of trauma and recrimination behind him, leaving his peers still wondering forty years later if they could have done anything differently, and that’s the most devastating part of Murder. It wasn’t that Hofmann was a master criminal, far from it. He might have been good at crime, but his feast-or-famine lifestyle should have garnered more attention than it did, or the penchant for sports cars, butterfly knives, and semi-automatic weapons. Were those people in his life too blindly trusting because of the insular nature of their society, or did they know something was off and just didn’t want to jump to any conclusions? Murder Among the Mormons leaves that for the viewer to decide.
Murder Among the Mormons is now available on Netflix.