“Murder Among the Mormons” unfolds, for the most part, like a simple detective novel.
A day later, a bomb exploded in a car parked in downtown Salt Lake City, seriously wounding document merchant Mark Hofmann and prompting an investigation that lasted more than a year.
But the three-part series, which begins airing Wednesday, March 3 on Netflix, is not just another true crime story, because the story is so intertwined with the culture of Utah and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints. Days.
“It’s a story that took place in a relatively small city where a human being was able to use culture to perpetrate his crimes,” said filmmaker Tyler Measom.
Decades later, the bombings and their backstory still hang over Salt Lake City and the LDS Church as a dark legend.
“I think this story, even now, still makes a lot of people uncomfortable,” said filmmaker Jared Hess. And it’s because they really don’t know what happened. They assume that some bad things happened, possibly in regards to their faith, but they really don’t know. “
Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite”) teamed up with Measom (“An Honest Liar”) as directors / executive producers of the documentary, which they constructed as a mystery, though it was solved in 1987 and a quick search on Google or the El Salt archives. Lake Tribune will give you the details. (Warning: older “spoilers” later).
But they are convinced that most people, even in Utah, do not know what really happened.
“I’m frankly surprised how few people he knows, even in this state,” said Measom, who estimated that 10% of the people he told about the documentary while working on it were familiar with the story. “So I think when it comes out, there will be a surprised Utah.”
“You live in this strange semi-mythological space,” Hess said. “… And it was such an isolated regional story. The news cycle was broadcast nationally and then it came and went.”
The narrative strives to “keep as many secrets as we can, whenever we can,” Measom said. “We try to tell the story the way it was revealed to the people who lived it.”
“And then when the bombs went off, it really put the viewer in the position of how these people were experiencing it in 1985,” Hess added.
Explaining the salamander
One of the biggest challenges of “Murder Among the Mormons” is that the majority of Netflix viewers are not Latter-day Saints and don’t know much about the church or the culture that surrounds it, which is an integral part of the mystery of historical documents. linked to the bombings.
“The feedback we got from people” who saw the first cuts of the documentary “was: ‘I don’t know anything about Mormonism. I need more, ‘”Hess said.
The filmmakers had to “educate viewers about the fundamental tenets of the faith and origin stories of Mormonism, enough to understand that when the Salamander Letter came to light, how did this really tell a story completely? different? “
The letter was intended to reveal that a magical salamander guided the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, to the gold plates that faithful church members believe were translated into the Book of Mormon.
It is a striking contrast to the orthodox account of faith, which says that the angel Moroni appeared to Smith and led him to the gold plates.
For many viewers, both inside and outside the church, the history of the salamander will be difficult to understand. To give viewers context, the documentary includes excerpts from old church movies – incredibly cheesy by 2021 standards – about the official version of Smith’s First Vision.
Hess and Measom wanted to “make sure we were communicating enough information to [viewers] I was able to understand what disruption the Salamander letter was within the community, ”Hess said.
“It goes from familiar terms like God and angels to folk magic and salamanders,” he said. “I think for faithful Christians, that’s a big, big leap.”
Hofmann claimed that he had found the Salamander Letter and later sold it to Christensen, a faithful Latter-day Saint who planned to donate it to the church.
Exploring faith, motives, and deception
Measom and Hess, who live in Utah, recognize that anything that affects the LDS Church will be sensitive. And “Murder Among the Mormons” is not just about church members, but also high-ranking leaders.
Gordon B. Hinckley, who was second counselor in the church’s First Presidency at the time and became president of the church in 1995, unknowingly purchased forged historical documents from Hofmann prior to the bombings.
Those who defend and those who question the motives of the church are given a voice; there was a perception that the church was buying controversial documents to hide them.
“I think there will be some preconceived notions about this documentary,” Measom said. “That it is an attack or a defamation of the church, or that it is a joke for the church. And Jared and I walked that line very carefully. “
(Hess is a member of the LDS Church; Measom was raised as a member, but left the church years ago.)
“I think the church did its duty over the years to collect and own its history, no matter what it is,” Hess said. “And while we are talking to the people directly involved, they want to get the material and research it for context before presenting it to the public.
“But from a different perspective, it looks like, ‘Oh wow, you’re buying things so you can bury this controversial past. It definitely has two sides, and we touch both. “
But Hess, at least, is not buying dark motives on the part of church leaders. And with documents at the heart of this story later exposed as forgeries, he is not swayed by questions about how LDS Church leaders like Hinckley, who are believed by faithful church members to be “prophets, seers, and revelators.” , they could have been misled.
“The church is fully vindicated” of any connection to any crime, he notes.
“I think when people are in these high-stress situations where they’re trying to orient themselves to what’s going on, it’s like, yeah, people make mistakes,” Hess said. But at the end of the day, we are all human. We are all vulnerable to deception. “
A complicated story in just three hours
The two Utah filmmakers presented “Murder Among the Mormons” to Netflix as a six-hour documentary, but were “forced to make some decisions” when Netflix wanted it to take three hours. In the end, that approach “really helped the storytelling,” Hess said.
“Murder Among the Mormons” details how the investigators faced great obstacles and the “experts”, who turned out to be wrong, in bringing Hofmann to justice.
He did not go to jail immediately after the attacks, it took him more than a year. There were multiple hurdles and, in fact, he almost got away with it.
“The amount of archival materials we had after four years of intense searching was quite staggering,” said Measom.
There are some chilling photos from the crime scene showing the bodies of Christensen and Sheets, which come from the files of the late Ken Farnsworth, one of the Salt Lake City detectives who investigated the case and saved more than two dozen boxes of materials. .
“He took everything, every piece of paper,” Measom said. “Every message he had, every note, every letter he wrote, every call. And he had some photos that have never been seen. Many of them are horrible and we decided not to include them. “
‘This happened at the end of the street’
The idea for the documentary came about five years ago, when Doug Fabrizio, the host of KUER’s “Radio West,” gave Measom a book on crimes and suggested that he make a movie. Measom read it and jumped.
Hess learned of Measom’s plans; the two had lunch; and they decided to form a team. “The stars aligned,” Measom said.
Hess said he has always been interested in history because he is “a huge fan of Mormon history. And this story was so complex and fascinating on so many levels. And tragic. “
And this story still resonates in Utah, he said. “It really surprises you,” Hess said. “Like, ‘Wow, this happened right down the street.’ You don’t have to look far before you find someone who has a story directly related to what happened.
“… The other day I met the LDS stake president in my neighborhood. And it turned out it was the Holladay boy who delivered the newspaper to the Sheets family the morning the bomb was planted. “
It’s also a story many people have tried to tell before this, Measom said. The debris from the bombs “hadn’t even been cleaned up when Hollywood was invading the road, trying to do this project,” Meason said.
“I have a folder with literally dozens and dozens of companies that tried to make this story, both narrative and documentary, from the 80s to the 90s until now.”
When Hess and Measom started working on their documentary, they didn’t expect it to resonate the way it does in 2021.
“There are many themes within the story that I think are relevant to the current zeitgeist,” Hess said with a laugh, “as it relates to disinformation. And again, I think anyone is vulnerable to deception. “