Netflix true crime documentaries continue to go from strength to strength with the latest production from executive producer Joe Berlinger (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel), MURDER AMONG THE MORMONS.
MURDER AMONG THE MORMONS feels part National Treasure, part Richard Jewell, and part Manhunt: Unabomber. The three-part docuseries profiles the 1985 bombings in Salt Lake City, Utah. Was there a madman on the loose? Or was the Mormon Church out to hide damaging documents and silence anyone who had the misfortune of laying their eyes upon them?
Admittedly, as a “spiritual but not religious” type, MURDER AMONG THE MORMONS seemed like it might be a little, well, boring. I don’t know much about the religion, but enough to make me think, “eh, not for me.” And that’s fine. However, having been raised Catholic, I know how important documents are to old-school religions, and how the wrong document could potentially blow it all up.
And that’s what Mark Hofmann had reportedly done with The Salamander Letter. Modern Mormonism was based on the idea that an angel came to Joseph Smith and led him to buried, golden plates that told the history of an ancient civilization, compiled by the prophet-historian Mormon. The wisdom held within those golden plates became the Book of Mormon. (Note: this is an oversimplification for the sake of time.)
Like many other organized religions – ahem, Catholicism – angels, visions, and holy discoveries were the basis of the faith. Now imagine Smith didn’t see an angel, but instead, was directed to the gold plates by a white salamander. For a non-believer, a salamander might be just as ridiculous as an angel. However, this possible tweak to the origin story had the potential to change everything.
Angels and visions fit comfortably in the religious lexicon. Add something like an anthropomorphic lizard and suddenly the religion is more pagan-leaning, and to some, complete nonsense. The documents were potentially devastating for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The first episode of this documentary feels like a true life version of the Nicholas Cage gem, National Treasure. Initially, I had assumed Justin Bartha was the only way to get me interested in old, dusty documents, but turns out document discovery can be pretty fascinating. No, no one in MURDER AMONG THE MORMONS steals the Declaration of Independence. However, there are three bombings, two murders, and a hell of a shocking twist.
First, let’s talk about Salt Lake City. It’s Mormon af. Just how Mormon is it? Well, at one point in this documentary, a car bomb goes off on one of the key players. A young man walks by, sees the victim fighting for his life, and commands him to live. Yes, you read that right. He takes out his anointing oils, that he carries with him on the regular, and commands him to live. He says it like it’s a completely normal thing to do, so I’m going to go ahead and assume that in Salt Lake City, Utah, it is.
Having that background established, it’s easier to understand just how shocking the 1985 bombings were. Excuse the Christian reference, but as more details were released, it seemed to be a bit of a David and Goliath battle. Hofmann, a young and surprisingly talented upstart in the rare document world had found controversial centuries-old documents. And then all of the people connected to his discovery started dying.
In addition to the Salamander Letter, Hofmann also found the “McLellin collection,” which was said to contain controversial and unfavorable information about LDS founder, Joseph Smith. Steven Christensen, a document collector supposedly facilitating a sale of the McLellin documents, was killed on October 15, 1985, thanks to a homemade bomb which was fitted on the outside with a strip of tape filled with nails. Those nails proved that this bomb was meant to be deadly. The shrapnel did its job, taking out Christensen, and injuring a secretary in the leg in the process.
The next shocking death came that very same day, when another bomb went off in the home of Christensen’s mentor and former employer, J. Gary Sheets. Gary, fortunately, was not home at the time, but his wife Kathy was not quite so lucky. The day after that, Hofmann himself was the target, when a bomb went off in his car. Clearly the church was going after every person related to the release of these damaging, controversial papers. Right?
The second episode of the series focuses on one of the bomb’s targets, Hofmann. Hofmann was not just a lucky man who was at the right place at the right time to find these wildly controversial and important documents. This was not the first, nor the last big find for Hofmann, who, at the time of the bombings, was waiting for early American document “Oath of a Freeman” to be authenticated so he could sell it for $1.5 million. In the realm of Mormon rare documents, Hofmann was “a rock star.”
Calling a rare document expert a “rock star” is probably akin to someone once telling me in high school that I was part of the “popular honors crowd.” It seems like it’d be an oxymoron, but hey, apparently there’s a hierarchy for everything.
And Hofmann wasn’t just a documents expert who happened to find Mormon documents. He was also a Mormon himself. Brent Metcalfe, a rare document researcher and friend of Hofmann’s, recalls a story Hofmann once shared about his father, who became incensed upon seeing children’s books featuring dinosaurs at his son’s house. He was upset that Mark would let his children look at books that propagated evolution.
I’ll admit, at this point I was still wondering why all this was relevant to me, a non-Mormon. But if the first episode of MURDER AMONG THE MORMONS is National Treasure, then the third episode is a damn M. Night Shyamalan movie. The funny thing is, this is directed by Tyler Measom and Jared Hess, the latter of whom is known for comedies like Napoleon Dynamite. But don’t worry – this is far more Ted Bundy Tapes than Napoleon Dynamite. Hess knows a bit about the history of the bombings and the Salamander Letter, since he was raised Mormon himself.
I am trying desperately not to spoil any twists or turns for anyone, who, like me, might be going into this documentary blind. The layout of this docuseries is flawless, building up the tension, before pulling the rug right out from under you. There are also memorable one-liners, like the introduction of forensic document examiner George Throckmorton, who simply says, “The reason I got into forensic science is, I don’t deal with people. And I disassociate myself as much as possible.”
Much like in Netflix’s recent Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer and Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, the talking head interviews really make this documentary the touching piece that it is. Because when it comes down to it, whether you’re a Mormon, a Christian, or agnostic – we’ve all been duped before. We’ve all felt the flush of embarrassment on our faces as we finally realized we’d been wrong the entire time.
No one captures this gut-wrenching feeling quite like Metcalfe, who admits, “And that frightened me, that I could be that deceived by someone.” Another rare document dealer, Shannon Flynn, gets emotional throughout the doc, asking filmmakers at one point, “Can I ask a favor? Don’t make me answer that.” You’ll have to watch the doc to find out what he doesn’t want to answer, but just know, it’s a powerful moment.
Fellow murderinos, promise me you will not Google the outcome before the documentary is over. MURDER AMONG THE MORMONS is a surprisingly delicious thrill ride with twists and turns that will only pay off if you go in as unaware as possible. Trust me.
MURDER AMONG THE MORMONS will show you how far someone will go to keep their reputation intact. It will also give you a glimpse at the world of rare document dealings, which is a lot more cutthroat than you likely imagined. If you’re not religious, don’t let the title fool you. This is more about cons and a desperate cover up than which god you choose to worship (or not).
MURDER AMONG THE MORMONS debuts globally on Netflix on Wednesday, March 3, and trust me, you do not want to miss it.