NEW YORK – The docuseries "Murder Among the Mormons" is a fascinating cautionary tale about the tragic consequences of deception and greed.
'Murder Among the Mormons,' streaming Netflix, highlights moral consequences
Streaming now on Netflix in three one-hour episodes, the show gains added intrigue and appeal from its unlikely setting.
BBC Studios produced the program, which Jared Hess and Tyler Measom direct. This is the first foray into the genre for Hess, who is best known for helming the 2004 indie cult favorite "Napoleon Dynamite." Measom, a more seasoned nonfiction storyteller, co-wrote and co-directed 2014's "An Honest Liar."
Both filmmakers were raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more familiarly known as the Mormons. Hess is still a practicing LDS member; Measom is not.
Being well-grounded in the world of the Mormon community helps the duo to shape their narrative. They draw on Hess' extensive research in exploring the crimes from which their film takes its title.
On Oct. 15, 1985, Mark Hofmann – here portrayed by Chris Richards – planted two bombs, each of which claimed a life. A third explosive went off in Hofmann's car the next day, injuring him and eventually making him a suspect. These events rocked the LDS' insular world.
Measom has a family connection to the tragedy. His cousin Ron, who appears as a commentator, was Hofmann's roommate during a proselytizing mission to Manchester, England, in 1974.
Hess and Measom shuttle back and forth in time to show how Hofmann, ostensibly a faithful Mormon and well-regarded dealer in rare documents, was in reality a highly successful forger. Dramatic reenactments and an emphasis on the personality tics of those taken in by Hofmann's deceit flesh out their story.
Shannon Flynn, arguably one of those closest to Hofmann, opens the series by replying to an invitation to assess Hofmann's trickery with the excited protest: "Don’t make me answer that!" Soon after, though, Flynn acknowledges of Hofmann that "no one has come close to doing what he has done."
In the 1980s, Hofmann's false documents exploited LDS believers' understanding of their faith, disrupting the Church's origin story. As Richard Turley, formerly assistant historian of the LDS points out, this is particularly significant because, for Mormons, "history is integral with the faith itself."
According to the official LDS narrative, as a teenager living in Western New York state, Joseph Smith (1805-1844), the movement's founder, was visited in a vision by an angel called Moroni. Moroni directed Smith to a set of golden plates. These became the basis for the Book of Mormon.
Late in 1983, however, Hofmann produced what became known as the "salamander letter." This missive, supposedly written by Smith's associate Martin Harris, indicated that it was a white salamander rather than an angel that led Smith to the plates.
A year later, Hofmann was peddling the McLellin collection. These papers, ascribed to early LDS adherent William E. McLellin, further challenged the Church's foundation story by asserting that – according to Emma, the first of Smith's many wives – Moroni appeared not to her future husband, but to his older brother, Hyrum.
Having paid $40,000 for the salamander letter, Salt Lake City businessman and LDS member Steve Christensen (Anthony Hernandez) eventually became convinced that Hofmann had played him. Fearful that his schemes were unraveling, Hofmann targeted Christensen and his business partner, J. Gary Sheets, for death.
The former was killed. But the bomb intended for Sheets ended up slaying his spouse, Kathy (Tiffani DiGregorio), instead.
Along with its grim subject matter, the series depicts a suicide attempt and includes a single crude term. Rated TV-14 – parents strongly cautioned, it's acceptable for mature teens as well as adults.
Sobering yet enjoyable, the show partly draws viewer interest by subverting the popular perception that all Mormons are wholesome folk devoted to old-fashioned values. As such, they would seemingly be the last people anyone would expect to become caught up in a web of intrigue and homicide – especially over an arcane matter like collectible documents.
As Hess and Measom's work effectively demonstrates, however, the malign effects of original sin are as perceptible in Utah as anywhere else.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.