Netflix's Docuseries 'Murder Among the Mormons' Is Your Next True-Crime Obsession
The show takes a thoughtful, scrupulous look at a series of bombings in 1980s Utah.
Over the course of its twist-filled three episodes, Murder Among the Mormons, the latest Netflix true-crime docuseries about a series of deadly bombings in Utah in 1985, reveals itself to be a canny study of belief. The con artist, particularly one who traffics in forged documents, preys on the widespread instinct to trust that the spectacular item being offered up is authentic. What exactly makes an artifact "real" in the eyes of a buyer? Who makes that decision? If authority figures decide to accept something on faith—or through a less-than-rigorous process of testing—does it then become "genuine" regardless of its fundamentally fraudulent origins?
Those questions are gently prodded at by directors Jared Hess and Tyler Measom, who take an approach that hardly reinvents the now-standard Netflix true-crime house style but does tweak certain conventions of it. There are plenty of interviews, ominous home video archives, news clippings, and reenactments—and, yes, the series does feel stretched out at key points. (Would this work better as a two-hour movie? Probably.) But, compared to recent shows like Fear City or Night Stalker, Murder Among the Mormons has a restrained, wry tone that fits its buttoned-up world of Salt Lake City's rare document dealers and tight-lipped Mormon officials. One of the series' key subjects, a soft-spoken gentleman named Shannon Flynn, conducts his interview while wearing a three-piece suit and a bowtie.
Those dapper touches contrast with the fundamental brutality of the crimes discussed. On what a prosecutor interviewed in the series describes as a "beautiful day," two pipe bombs were planted and exploded at different locations in Salt Lake City, killing the document collector Steve Chrsitensen at his office and the wife of one of Christensen's business partners, Kathy Sheets, in her home. A third bomb blew up in a car the next day, injuring the rare document dealer Mark Hofmann, who the police eventually learned planted the first two bombs in an effort to get out of an elaborate scheme involving a set of potentially valuable papers referred to as the McLellin Collection.
The contents of McLellin Collection were supposed to be similar to other significant discoveries that Hofmann made during his lauded career as a document dealer. (At one point, he's compared to a "rock star" in his field, modeling himself after Dallas's charming prime-time soap villain J.R. with his sports cars, expensive meals, and flashy guns.) Murder Among the Mormons goes into great detail describing the importance of texts like the Anthon Transcript, a document Hofmann found in a 17th Century King James Bible, and the Salamander Letter, which challenged the foundational narrative of Mormonism by swapping out the angel that leads Joseph Smith to the golden plates with a white salamander. As you'd imagine, these documents were especially interesting to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the religious sect which Hofmann was raised in and remained a member of.
But, as the series eventually reveals, the documents Hofmann was selling were frauds, painstakingly constructed in a home office he hid from his wife and designed to fetch top dollar in a hot rare document market. Hess and Measom construct each episode around a turn in the narrative, leaving some of the most fascinating bits of biographical detail about Hofmann for the final episode. Hofmann, who remains in prison as of this writing, declined to speak with the filmmakers for the project, but the series makes ample use of an audio interview recorded following his confession, and many of the other interview subjects, like a Mormon Forensic Document Examiner named George Throckmorton, provide illuminating bits of analysis and insight.
The involvement of Hess, the filmmaker behind absurd comedies like Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, might make you think Murder Among the Mormons will be more fanciful than it ends up being. (Hess and Measom both grew up in the Mormon faith and apparently met years back working on commercials and music videos.) Besides an extended sequence in the second episode where Hofmann and Flynn drive around and fire off guns in the desert, a parodic macho celebration of their success, there's not much traditional comedy here. But Hess's sensibility can be identified in the fundamentally empathetic tilt to the material, a base level respect and fondness for the people caught up in Hofmann's web of lies. Though Hofmann's story is disturbing, there's a warmth and curiosity to the series that helps it stand out from more traditionally grisly true crime fare, shedding light on how a master of deception can move through the world with such relative ease.
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