On March 3, streaming giant Netflix will release “Murder Among the Mormons,” a three-part docuseries about the 1985 Mark Hofmann murders in Salt Lake City by co-director Jared Hess, who is known for making comedies like “Napoleon Dynamite.”
Hofmann was a master forger who killed two people with bombs at the end of a long run of fooling museums, collectors and historians with faked documents from the early history of the United States and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“There’s no shame in being dunked on by Michael Jordan, he’s the best. Many people were fooled by Mark Hofmann,” said co-director Tyler Measom. “He was the best forger who’s ever been caught.”
So why did a comedic filmmaker like Hess make a documentary about Hofmann, who is serving a life sentence for killing Steve Christensen and Kathy Sheets with homemade bombs in 1985? A third bomb wounded Hofmann and destroyed what appeared to be a trove of rare documents and diaries in his car.
“People were scrambling,” Hess said about the chaos caused by the bombings. “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.”
Hess shared his reasons for making the documentary and some of his experiences in a recent interview with The Deseret News. The questions and answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: This is a fascinating choice you’ve made. Why are you doing this project?
Jared Hess: I was pretty young when it happened. I was actually living in England at the time. My dad was the bishop of the Hyde Park Ward (a Latter-day Saint congregation in London) and I was probably 6 years old, so I didn’t know much about it until I just kind of heard people mentioning it without any details as a teenager. As I’ve grown and served a mission for the church and come to just love Mormon history so much, and as I became good friends over the years with Curt Bench over at Benchmark Books, it just became so fascinating to me. (For a time, Bench counted Hofmann as a business associate and friend.) Curt’s such an incredible human being, and he would just tell me stories about this. I’d read all the books that have been written on it, and it’s just such a complex story. I’m a big true crime buff as well. It’s just got so many layers to it. So much relates to our community and culture that I just found it fascinating as a filmmaker. I also think it has a lot of themes that seem very relevant right now as well.
DN: What reaction are you getting from those who have seen it before it streams?
JH: I was able to share some of the early edits with some of my brothers and family members who are also LDS, just to kind of get their take. It’s something that you think culturally, it came and went, and people don’t know much about it, but my brother said it was educational, actually helped clear the air with some of the details. In the end, the good guys win and the bad man goes to jail, with the exception of the heartbreaking aspect of the amazing people in our community who were innocent and lost their lives due to the calloused acts of this horrible person. It’s really a story unlike anything out there. There’s a lot of, I think, strong lessons to be learned from it on many levels.
DN: Some people who were involved have described the pain they’ve continued to feel about those who died and about being targeted or being forgery victims of Mark Hofmann. Some have been hesitant to talk about it. How difficult was it for those you interviewed to revisit that time?
JH: Truthfully, for most of them it was extremely cathartic. Most of them had not spoken about this experience since it happened, truthfully. We spoke to people who knew and did business with Mark, like Brent Ashworth. We spoke to Brent Metcalfe (a church historian who did research for Hofmann). We spoke to Randy Rigby, a close friend of one of the bombing victims. We spoke to Dorie Olds, Mark Hofmann’s ex-wife. We spoke to everybody that we could get ahold of and find who experienced this. We wanted to hear the story from them firsthand, as they lived it, and tell the story from their perspective, everyone from the investigators who investigated the crimes, to the people that were business associates of Hofmann, to family members, to colleagues that were directly involved with Mark. (Latter-day Saint historian) Rick Turley gives an incredible perspective, I think, for the church and what the leaders were going through. We were also able to get a lot of really great archival footage from local media stations at the time, including KSL. We can really kind of see the perspective and hear the statements of people as the events were unfolding.
Those were such good artifacts of the period. There was stuff that I’d never seen before, and home movies from Mark Hofmann that nobody’s ever seen that really kind of put the audience in that time, especially in the first episode. 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. It was uncomfortable for so many people, including the church, people that were dealing with Mark, everybody. Everybody was trying to get their bearings as to what was going on in the midst of this tragedy that our community had never experienced before.
DN: You mentioned that the themes are still relevant today. What do you see as still relevant today?
JH: One lesson is that we’re all susceptible to being deceived on some level. That’s a part of being human, and there’s no shame in that. You just have to protect yourself against it more today. Mark deceived everyone. Everybody that ever dealt with Mark Hofmann was a victim of his, and of his deception, and I think it’s just kind of a universal lesson that everyone can can learn from.
There’s a lot of misinformation out there and you have to do your homework on stuff, even if it seems like it could be real. So those themes I think are very strong as the story is told.
DN: I think it adds to the interest that this happened just before the internet. You’ve got someone who can float through this era where nobody can check things online, right?
JH: Exactly. Now you could probably type in any anything that he had forged and have an algorithm that could show you what the source material would be that he was copying.
DN: Who are some of the characters who stand out 30-plus years later?
JH: It’s full of so many characters. From the investigative team, to Shannon Flynn, who was one of Mark’s associates, is a really colorful character, and then you’ve got like George Throckmorton and Bill Flynn, are these studious forensic guys with awesome mustaches. It’s a tapestry of personalities. The news reports at the time called George Throckmorton this ‘two-bit hick from Utah’ going up against all these big government institutions saying, ‘I think that there might be something wrong here, I need to examine these more thoroughly.’
DN: This is an interesting career choice for you. Why are you doing this now?
JH: Yeah, a comedy director doing this: Why? Fifteen years ago when I really started diving into the story and reading all the books about it, it was just something that I was just passionate about. And again, I’m a big fan of true crime stories, whether they’re podcasts or books or documentary series. This was something that, just living here in Salt Lake City and having friends that were directly involved and having Mark’s home, where he committed his crimes and built the bombs and did these forgeries is just a few blocks from my house, it all felt so close and it’s become something that I’ve wanted to do and to be able to tell in the right way and tell from the perspective, again, from the people that were close to Mark and experienced it in 1985 and through his you six-or-seven-year run of deceit.
DN: So is this a one-off passion project for you, or does this docuseries signal a change in direction for you?
JH: I would love the chance to be able to do another true crime documentary series.
DN: How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the project?
JH: We had started the interviews for this in February of last year. We had flown to New York to interview a bunch of the gallery dealers that had dealt with Mark, like the Argosy Bookstore where he had supposedly bought the Oath of a Free Man. As we were flying back literally is when the lockdown started to happen. We got shut down for a bit but started editing and then in June of this year we were able to do some of our reenactments, a couple of weeks of shooting here in Salt Lake City and (Juab County’s) West Desert to bring to life some of the moments in the film.
DN: How difficult was it to stitch together in three hours all the elements of a complex story with all of the interviews you did?
JH: We really kind of had to pick and choose. The toughest thing is that, here you have a person who for seven years or more, almost every transaction he had with somebody was a crime. It’s not one event that occurred but this whole story of people getting deceived over the course of a seven-year period. How do you cram that into a book? How do you make a movie out of that? How do you make a TV series out of it? initially, Tyler and I had pitched this as a six-part series. We felt the story was too vast. There’s so much incredibly fascinating material that we wanted to tell. We were just swimming in all these stories just by the nature of living in Salt Lake City and being in such close proximity to people that knew him or had some kind of a connection to what happened. So we initially pitched it as a six-part series and then when BBC and Netflix became involved, they said, “We want it to be a three-part series.” That’s what Netflix is doing now, is doing true crime series that are three, one-hour episodes or four, sometimes. We really had to kind of curate what were the most relevant moments and the biggest parts of the story that that were crucial to understand. We also had to tell enough about the foundational beliefs of Mormonism to set them up for an audience so that they could understand and comprehend the impact of Mark Hofmann’s forgeries.
DN: Did you talk to Mark Hofmann?
JH: Tyler Measom, my co-director, wrote Mark quite a bit, trying to reach out to him and never heard back. Essentially what we understand from people is it seems like he’s really only had contact with some of his immediate family and that’s about it. For the last 30-plus years, he’s been pretty quiet, but we were able to get his confession tapes, so we really didn’t need him to tell the story. You really see how heartless and callous he was, and it’s shocking. I mean it’s really, really shocking.
DN: How are Latter-day Saints going to feel about this?
JH: Some people have a knee-jerk reaction to the title. Our working title was ‘The Salamander.’ And then later it was ‘The Salamander Murders.’ Netflix wanted to change it. “This might seem like it’s a movie about killing lizards or something.” In their true crime, they’re just like, “Oh, we really want to communicate clearly what it’s about.” Their most effective true crime stories have the clearest titles: “The Ted Bundy Tapes.” There was a piece of archival news from the time, I think it was a national news report about Utah in an uncomfortable spotlight and said, “There’s murder among the Mormons.” Netflix felt that was very clear. This happened among the community of Latter-day Saints, among the Mormons, and there was murder that happened. That seems super clear. Some people might react to it differently, but I think for me the most important thing is you just have to watch it, to see it.
I think a lot of people may have misguided assumptions about intent, and why was this story made? But as my brother said, it was so educational, really cleared the air and had details that I didn’t know and it’s great. Again, the good guys win, and the bad guy goes to prison.
It was really uncomfortable stuff in the media at the time for the church. They were, they were under an incredible amount of pressure to understand what was going on, where it was such a normal thing for them to get and collect their history. Then when this started happening, it was so confusing, but the great thing is, again, the good guys come out on top. We didn’t want to gloss over the fact that it was really uncomfortable for everybody, but everybody confronts it, in my opinion, in a very noble way and deals with it.
There’s just so many stories, but I feel strongly that the ones that we picked and focused on were definitely the most crucial and relevant ones. Even for those who know who Mark Hofmann is, they’ve never seen a deep dive like this.