Netflix’s Murder Among the Mormons tells shocking true story of Salt Lake City bombings, polygamy and angels

MOVIE director Jared Hess was just six years old when a series of bombings rocked the Mormon Church in America. 

He was living in London, his dad was bishop of the Hyde Park Ward of Latter-day Saints, and Jared had no idea then that events halfway around the world would hang over his life. 

Two people were killed, a community was terrified and a global movement was questioned – yet few of those involved have spoken about it since. 

Now Jared, the man behind comedy films Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, has made a groundbreaking Netflix series about the story behind the killings in Salt Lake City, Murder Among the Mormons.

It’s hard to imagine the fear that enveloped the Mormon church at the time.

It’s this atmosphere of terror that the three-part documentary, produced by BBC Studios, attempts to capture with grainy original footage from the time. 

Jared, who has served a mission for the church and became interested in the bombings as a teen, said: “People were scrambling. They didn’t know what was happening, who was doing this, who was setting off these bombs. 

“We really try to put you in that time.”

The perpetrator, Mark Hofmann, now 66, was raised in a devout Mormon family in Salt Lake City, where the church has its headquarters. Celebrity followers of the church, formally known as the Church of Latter-day Saints, include Superman actress Amy Adams and The Killers' frontman Brandon Flowers.

At 19, Hofmann travelled to Bristol, UK, to undertake a two year mission. There, he became a regular at the city’s bookshops, trawling the shelves for books on Mormon history and reading many critical of the global movement. 

He would later say his faith had been shaken years earlier, aged 14, when he discovered his grandparents had continued to practise polygamy long after the church ended the practise.

The 'rockstar' collector

After his stint in Bristol, Hofmann returned to the USA, to study at Utah State University. While there, he claimed to have uncovered what he believed was the earliest Mormon document, written by the church's founder, Joseph Smith.

According to the church's history, Smith was visited by an angel who gave him gold plates, which he translated into the Book of Mormon. Hofmann claimed his document was Smith's very first translation of the plates.

Hofmann claimed he and his wife, Dorie, found it stuck in between pages of an old family bible. It was taken as validating the church and kickstarted Hofmann's career as a collector.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a huge demand within the church for artefacts and Hofmann delivered. His incredible findings not only made him a fortune, but also brought him into contact with the most prominent members of the movement.

Shannon Flynn, a rare document dealer who met Hofmann in the early 1980s, said: "I was very excited to meet Mark. In the Mormon document world, he was a rockstar."

In 1983, Hofmann found the famous "Salamander letter," a bombshell letter supposedly written by Martin Harris, an important figure in early Mormon history.

In it, the author claimed Joseph Smith had told him he was led to the gold plates, not by an angel, but by a white salamander.

This controversial letter threatened to destroy the very foundations of the church.

It was bought by financial consultant Steven Christensen from Hofmann for $40,000 (£28,700), who then donated the letter to the church.

Booby-trap bombs

Nearly two years later, October 15th, 1985, Christensen was killed when the first of two booby-trap bombs exploded in his office building in downtown Salt Lake City.

Witnesses say he picked up a package at the door of his office. A secretary was also injured by shrapnel to her leg.

The second bomb exploded outside a holiday home later that day, taking the life of Kathy Sheets, the wife of one of Christensen's former business associates.

Like the first, it was triggered by a professional timing device.Kathy died instantly when she picked up the bomb outside the home which police described as having the power of two sticks of dynamite.

It appeared the blast was intended for her husband, Gary, who had helped facilitate the deal for the Salamander letter.

With all the markings of a serial killer or terrorist in their midst, the community was terrified.

Ken Saunders, a rare book dealer, said: "The headlines were Salt Lake City was like Beirut, Lebanon. What on earth was going on?"

The connection between the two victims led police to look at the trade in Mormon documents.

Explosive revelations

Both Steven Christensen and Gary Sheets were found to be involved in buying the McLellin collection, an uncovered set of books and diaries said to contain explosive and embarrassing revelations about the Mormon church.

It was reported that the Church of the Latter-day Saints was in talks to buy the collection for $300,000 (£214,000).

Hofmann was scheduled to hand over the collection to the church on the day of the bombings.

The following day, a third bomb exploded in Mark Hofmann's car, blowing off his kneecap and rupturing his eardrum in the blast.

When officers examined the scene, they found documents thought to be part of the McLellin collection.

Those associated with Christensen and Sheets were warned to get their families to safety. Security around the church was stepped up.

Dorie Hofmann, Mark's then wife and mother of their four children, also appears on the documentary. She recalls thinking at the time: "None of this made sense to me. Why would anyone want to kill any of these people?"

But during the course of their investigation, police discovered evidence that Mark Hofmann had forged documents. New analysis by an expert found that many of the documents previously deemed authentic were, in fact, fake.

Despite the vast sums of money he had made from the sale of his forgeries, Hofmann's lavish lifestyle and acquisition of genuine first edition books had left him in debt.

The McLellin collection would have solved his financial situation, but he had promised too much. It was too large to forge in the time he had.

No remorse

Hofmann was arrested in January 1986. After initially protesting his innocence, he pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder, one count of theft by deception for forging the Salamander Letter and one count of fraud for the bogus sale of the McLellin collection.

He was sentenced to five years but the judge recommended he never be released.

At an appeal in 1988, the parole board found Hofmann to have a "callous disregard for human life" and decided he would spend his life behind bars.

Hofmann told investigator Michael George: "I don't feel anything for them. My philosophy is that they're dead. They're not suffering. I think life is basically worthless. They could have died just as easily in a car accident."

After he was imprisoned, he was cut off by the Church of Latter-day Saints and his wife divorced him.

In a letter written to the parole board in 1988, Hofmann explained that he intended to kill himself in the third explosion.

According to Deseret News, he wrote: "As far back as I can remember I have liked to impress people through my deceptions.

"Fooling people gave me sense of power and superiority."

As to why he made the bombs, Hofmann said he simply feared being found out.

He said: "I felt like I would rather take human life or even my own life rather than to be exposed."

Murder Among the Mormons is released on Netflix on Wednesday, March 3rd.

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