The true crime documentary, Abducted in Plain Sight, which recently appeared on Netflix, initially seems to be a nightmarish but otherwise unremarkable suburban kidnapping story. Set in the 1970s, Robert and Mary Ann Broberg and their three young daughters, Jan, Karen and Susan, are a nice Mormon family from Pocatello, Idaho, who quickly become close pals with their new neighbor, Robert Berchtold, and his wife and kids. So close that the Broberg girls come to view Berchtold, known as “B,” like a second father, especially middle daughter Jan. Somewhat predictably, the documentary soon reveals that in 1974, two years after befriending the Brobergs, Berchtold picked up 12-year-old Jan from school and disappeared with her for five weeks. Not so predictable is the eventual revelation that, in 1976, Berchtold abducted Jan for a second time. This stranger-than-fiction true story only gets more outrageous, dumbfounding and utterly unpredictable from there. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
Abducted in Plain Sight is the second full-length feature directed by documentary cinematographer Skye Borgman, whose diverse credits include We Are Galapagos (2018) and Quiet Riot: Well Now You’re Here, There’s No Way Back. Told primarily through extensive interviews with the Broberg family, Abducted in Plain Sight reveals the truly mind-blowing details of what Jan endured as Berchtold’s physical, psychological and emotional captive. But what makes the documentary particularly shocking is the ease with which Berchtold was able to groom Robert and Mary Ann Broberg into giving him unfettered access to their young daughter both before and after Jan’s kidnapping. Abducted in Plain Sight is certainly a cautionary tale about the insidious tactics child predators use to isolate, manipulate, and control their young victims — but it’s also a deeply disturbing story of adult denial.
Now in her forties, Broberg describes how, during the first kidnapping incident, Berchtold brainwashed her into believing the two of them had been abducted by aliens, and assigned an important mission to birth a child before her 16th birthday. The safety of her family depended on them completing their mission in secrecy, Broberg was led to believe, ensuring her silence about Berchtold’s sexual abuse after they were located in Mexico by the FBI. Broberg assured her parents that she had gone with Berchtold willingly, and that he had done nothing wrong.
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Both parents present themselves as being utterly clueless about the existence of child predators, so bowled over by Berchtold’s apparent warmth and charm that they allowed him, for months, to sleep in Jan’s bed because he said his therapist recommended it. When he abducted Jan for the first time, the Brobergs waited three days to alert the authorities, unwilling to confront the reality that a man they trusted could actually be a threat.
Upon Jan’s return home, the couple not only resisted the FBI’s attempts to hold Berchtold fully accountable, they even began to question whether he was such a bad guy after all. He continued to contact Jan, at times sleeping in her bed, and grew increasingly insistent about his desire to marry her, but the Brobergs still never contacted police. In 1976, when Jan disappeared again, the Brobergs didn’t suspect Berchtold was responsible until the FBI discovered that he had enrolled their then-14-year-old daughter in a Catholic school in another state.
After the second abduction, Berchtold was forced to sever contact with Jan, but she continued to believe in their alien mission for several more years. In the documentary, she describes coming to the realization that none of consequences that came with failing their “mission” actually came true, and how quickly the illusion shattered. It took her several more years to tell her family the full story about what Berchtold did to her, and even more time for the Brobergs to reckon with their own culpability. Mary Ann and Jan Broberg wrote a book about the experience, Stolen Innocence: The Jan Broberg Story, and shortly before its release in 2004, Berchtold resurfaced to refute their accounts, even filing a lawsuit to prevent its release. His goal, as it turned out, was to see Jan again even if it meant bringing her to court, and Abducted in Plain Sight includes footage of their first encounter in nearly 30 years. It was also their last — a year later, Berchtold committed suicide.