In 1985, a series of pipe bombs exploded in the Salt Lake City, UT area, killing two people and severely injuring another. Investigators scrambled to find an explanation for why these bombs seemed to target members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. The events made national news at the time, but not as much is known about the events leading up to it, which is exactly what Murder Among the Mormons, a new docuseries that quickly skyrocketed into Netflix's Top 10, sets out to explain.
The murders sent a shockwave through the local Mormon community. It wasn’t random. It was definitely a targeted effort. “For those raised in the Mormon faith, ourselves included, the story of the 1985 bombings in Salt Lake City will forever be a part of the mythology of the culture,” directors Jared Hess and Tyler Measom told Refinery29. “It was a tragic and complex episode in Utah’s recent history, two innocent people lost their lives, and countless others were deceived. However, most people in the community prefer not to talk about it.” In order to understand why this happened, it is important to know what was going on in the Mormon community at large in the decade or so before.
It Starts With The Market For Mormon Documents In The 1970s
According to the series, in the 1970s, church historian Leonard Arrington began encouraging the collection of academic writing related to LDS Church history, specifically through the collection of archival documents. This search created an opportunity for a wealth of document dealers to go on the hunt for letters, old editions of books, and anything that would preserve the history of the Mormon religion founded by Joseph Smith 150 years ago. It was during this time that document dealer Mark Hofmann started his career scouring bookstores and collections to find pieces of Mormon history. Eventually, he expanded into finding and selling historic letters unrelated to the Mormon faith.
The Salamander Letter Emerges In 1980
After a series of history-making finds, Hofmann had made a name for himself in the document dealing world. His first major discovery was in 1980 when he supposedly found a document tucked away in an old bible supposedly written by the founder of the LDS Church, Joseph Smith. His second — and most controversial — find was the Salamander Letter which presented a divisive, magical interpretation of early church history that had many questioning the religion’s origin story.
At the time, the LDS Church started buying up documents to preserve its history. Though some believe it was also purchasing them in order to retain control over which narratives were recognised and which were never widely circulated, such as the Salamander Letter. One authenticator, Steven Christensen, worked for the LDS Church and bought multiple documents from Hofmann to then donate to the church’s collection.
Hofmann Fails To Produce The McLellin Documents In 1985
In 1985, Hofmann claimed that he was in possession of a number of historic documents known as the McLellin Collection which contained a letter from Smith’s wife, Emma Hale Smith, further casting doubts on the origins of the Mormon faith. With the help of Christensen, the LDS Church was arranging to buy the collection from Hofmann for $300,000 (£217k) on the condition that they had a chance to examine the collection before it was publicized. The only problem? Hofmann didn’t have the collection and he couldn’t put the forgery together in time. It was then that Hofmann felt as though he needed a way out.
3 Bombings Hit Salt Lake City In October Of 1985
On October 15, 1985, a bomb detonated inside the Judge Building, an office building in downtown Salt Lake City, killing Christensen. The package it arrived in was addressed to him specifically, and upon opening it, it exploded. One hour later, a second explosion took place at the home of Christensen’s former business associate, Gary Sheets. However, Sheets was not at home, but the bomb went off, killing his wife, Kathy. Investigators immediately suspected that the two events were connected. Specifically, they think that someone connected to this community is responsible.
One day later, a third bomb is detonated. This time, it was Hofmann’s car. Both he and the McLellin Collection were inside. Hofmann survived and was rushed to the hospital with considerable injuries.
Hofmann Becomes A Bombing Suspect
Other document collectors were suspected and interviewed, but none could be connected to the murders. Around the same time, a rumour began circulating that a man in a green letterman’s jacket had been the one to drop off the package at the Judge Building. A fellow artefacts dealer recognized the description as Hofmann.
But Why Did Hofmann Bomb SLC... & Himself?
Despite having a suspect, investigators were still trying to establish a motive. Why would Hofmann want to harm people he’d worked with for years? At the start of 1986, the LDS Church offered the Salamander Letter to the FBI for analysis. After more than 100 hours of rigorous testing from top forensic document analyzers, it was revealed to be a forgery. Soon, the whole case unravelled and more and more documents found and sold by Hofmann were unveiled as fakes. In total, Hofmann may have swindled buyers out of more than half a million dollars.
In February 1986, law enforcement arrested Hofmann. But it would another almost another year before he was found guilty on two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of theft by deception. During a series of interviews from prison, Hofmann admitted to forging documents and that he believed the murders were a way to keep people from finding him out.
At the time these events were unfolding, many both inside and outside of the Mormon faith didn’t know the depths to which everything about these tragic incidents was intertwined. Hofmann had been forging for years and he tried to remain undetected by any means necessary. In the same interviews from prison, he admitted that the third bomb that exploded inside of his car was intentional — it was an attempt to take his own life.
In 2021 Hofmann Is Alive & In Prison
Hofmann was eventually convicted on two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of theft by deception. He is now serving a life sentence in Utah. He refused multiple times to be interviewed for the Netflix docuseries.
To this day, his crimes and misdeeds have left a lasting impact. Both co-directors, Jared Hess and Tyler Measom, grew up in the Mormon faith and heard about this story from a young age. "It's in our DNA. This story, this saga, the biggest crime in probably Utah history was something we grew up knowing," said Measom. "I didn't know what was happening at the time, but as we got older, we learned about this subject and the layers of these crimes."
Murder Among the Mormons is now streaming on Netflix.