Why the Unbelievable True Story of Abducted in Plain Sight Really Is That Disturbing

The 2017 documentary that's seen new life on Netflix tells of a pedophile conman who played the long game and the family that barely escaped his clutches

By Natalie Finn Feb 16, 2019 11:00 AMTags
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What is there left to say about Abducted in Plain Sight?

The 2017 documentary that saw new life when it landed on Netflix in January has set the internet a-chattering with its twisted tale of an entire family that fell prey to a charismatic conman 45 years ago. While the inclusion early on of commentary from all five immediate members of the family shows that Jan Broberg, her sisters and her parents physically survived what happened, the web spun for them by their friend and neighbor Robert Berchtold still feels increasingly inescapable as the story unfolds.

How they managed to untether themselves from Berchtold's clutches takes up only about 20 minutes of the 90-minute film, and there are plenty of unanswered questions—not least of them being how this man was walking around free—but also about how the Brobergs, particularly dad Bob and mom Mary Ann, really pieced their relationship back together, and whether they did it successfully or not.

But the story of how Berchtold infiltrated their lives, all in pursuit of a then 12-year-old Jan Broberg, may be enough for one sitting.

"This kind of abuse is so icky and so close to home, it's really hard to look at," Jan acknowledged in a recent interview with E! News.


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There are a lot of layers hiding in plain sight in Abducted in Plain Sight, particularly one that isn't really probed but is one of the most glaring.

That is the fact that, when Berchtold, whom Jan affectionately called "B" at the time, disappeared with her after taking her to go horseback riding one afternoon, her family waited five days to contact authorities.

Mary Ann Broberg explains that she waited at the behest of Berchtold's wife, Gail, who pleaded with her not to call the police. Mary Ann recalls being alarmed—both she and her husband felt there was something not right about all the attention Berchtold paid to their eldest daughter—but still confident that he wouldn't actually hurt her.


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Wait, seriously?

Acknowledging that not-common reaction to that, as well as other parts of the film that seemingly demonstrate that her parents didn't always have her best interests at heart, Jan says that those inexplicable moments in particular are helping to foster a conversation that otherwise wouldn't occur to anyone to have.

"Even those that are really angry with my parents and pointing fingers," she told E!, "I'm like, That is starting them thinking about something that otherwise they wouldn't have thought about. The point is, is that when [predators] target your child, they usually start by grooming all the people around the child so that their access to the child is...almost natural, like they're your best friend."

"They're like the leader at church, you know, you go on service activities with. Or they're the person in the community center or in the Boy Scout troop. So that conversation needs to begin because until we can have the actual understanding that most abuse of children, sexual abuse, is by someone they know, love and trust, and almost all of it happens inside the child's home, we're not going to get anywhere."

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The Brobergs were part of a tight-knit community in Pocatello, Idaho, and they were devoted members of the Church of Latter-day Saints. Mary Ann was the church chorister. When the Berchtolds—Gail, Robert and their five children—moved next door, the husbands bonded over being business and family men (so Bob Broberg said), the wives naturally gravitated to each other and the kids got along great, too. There was "a best friend for everyone" between the two families, Jan remembered. 

But as relayed in Abducted in Plain Sight, Berchtold soon started paying special attention to the three Broberg girls, Jan, Karen and Susan, particularly doting on Jan, who came to think of him as a second dad. All the girls thought of him as the playful, fun-loving adult male who'd always be up for games. (It takes a minute to adjust to the pervasive reenactments, shot in a way to resemble what '70s-era home movies might look like.)

In hindsight, that was nothing but Berchtold ingratiating himself into their lives. Jan and Karen shared a basement bedroom and Berchtold, who owned a furniture store, built a wall that gave the girls their own bedrooms. More importantly to him, it gave Jan privacy.

Of course, the Brobergs didn't know that Berchtold had been convicted of raping a child and had spent time in prison (inexplicably, less than a year)—or that the Church of LDS had "reprimanded" Berchtold in January 1974 for his behavior involving another young girl. There was no such thing as a national or state sex offender registry that was available to the public yet. In the wake of what happened to Jan, six women would come forward to her declaring themselves to be past underage victims of Berchtold.

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Then you find out that Jan, prior to being kidnapped, had on at least one occasion spent the night at the Berchtolds' house and, she recalls in the film, woke up to find her underpants pulled down and B's hands on her—to, as he explained, calm her because she was tossing and turning. 

She convinced herself that he was telling the truth.

Jan also went on vacation with the Berchtolds to Seattle in June 1973 and recalls waking up, groggy (Berchtold apparently drugged her on numerous occasions, telling her it was allergy medication), and seeing a naked Berchtold standing by the bed.

But the real bombshell isn't that Berchtold revealed himself to innocent 12-year-old eyes (and jogged the suspicion of willfully blind adult eyes) that he was a creep before taking Jan. It's that, before he kidnapped their eldest daughter, Berchtold seduced both of Jan's parents, details that were left out of the book Mary Ann eventually wrote about their ordeal. Stolen Innocence: The Jan Broberg Story was what initially drew the attention of Abducted in Plain Sight director Skye Borgman.

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Mary Ann recalls being flattered by Berchtold's compliments about her body and other flirtatious remarks and, eventually, at a church function in Utah they wandered off from the crowd and made out. But that was the extent of it at the time, she said.

Exponentially more shocking was Bob Broberg's recollection of being in the car with Berchtold one day while his friend was lamenting that he couldn't stand his wife anymore. Bob says that Berchtold then asked him for "relief"—and he complied. 

Berchtold would go on to hold that intimate act over Bob's head. No mention is made of whether it ever progressed beyond that one encounter which, considering Bob's professed devotion to his church and family, left him wracked with guilt and shame.

"We asked him," Borgman told Vulture recently. "We looked in the court transcripts. We tried to find that out, and the answer is we could never really figure it out for sure. [In the car] is the only time that he remembered it happening, but this is a story that happened 45 years ago. There are always memories that you can alter by just believing that they were different, so I don't have a good sense of if it continued.

"But I think it may have happened more than once. I really don't know for certain if it did, and I don't know that it really would have made all that much difference. I think that Bob Broberg would have felt as much guilt if it happened once or if it happened twice."

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Jan was taken on Oct. 17, 1974. FBI special agent Pete Welsh caught the case on Oct. 22, 1974, and would be on it for the next several years.

Right away, the FBI discovered that the Berchtold family motor home was missing from the storage unit where it was usually parked. Soon they found Berchtold's abandoned Ford Maverick, the driver's side window broken and a bit of blood on the inside of the car. There was one set of footprints leading away, leading Welsh to believe he had carried Jan into the motor home.

They stayed off the radar for 35 days. All the while, Berchtold was busy brainwashing Jan, playing her tapes that wove a whole fantastical tapestry about being half-alien, and that it was her job to save a planet on the verge of destruction. He also raped Jan, while diligently working to convince her that he loved her and everything they were doing was part of some master plan. Of course, she was instructed that, if she told anybody about any of it, particularly the part about Berchtold having sex with her, her father would be killed, Karen would go blind and Susan would be taken away.

On Nov. 20, 1974, Berchtold called his brother Joe Berchtold, and asked him to contact the Brobergs to get their permission for him to marry Jan, because the marriage they had apparently entered into in Mexico (where the federal age of consent is 12) wouldn't be considered legal back in Idaho.

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Joe, who says in the film that his brother "was always a sexual pervert," enlists the FBI to trace Berchtold's whereabouts, and they caught up with him and Jan in Mexico.

Because of the fake plot Berchtold had immersed her in, Jan insisted she wasn't raped. Mary Ann says that a doctor's examination revealed that her hymen was intact (Jan explains that he would only insert about an inch of his penis into her) and Jan seemed far more concerned about what was going to happen to B than anything else. Meanwhile, their "marriage" was annulled.

Berchtold was indicted on kidnapping charges. But on Dec. 24, 1974, Gail Berchtold presented Bob Broberg with some papers to sign—agree to no longer participate in the case against her husband, or else they would expose their "dirty laundry," i.e. Bob's homosexual liaison with Berchtold, for the world to know.

The shame of being exposed proved too great, so the Brobergs agreed to state that their daughter "was not taken by force or against her will, nor was she held or confined against her will at any time while in the company of the defendant," and that Berchtold may have been under the impression that he had their consent to have Jan with him.

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Berchtold moved to Ogden, Utah, but continued to be in touch, with both Jan and Mary Ann Broberg. (The five Berchtold children are mentioned once in the story, in the acknowledgement that they exist. Borgman told Vanity Fair that she reached out to his immediate family, "but nobody really wanted to do an interview...They weren't interested in dredging up the past.")

In the spring of 1975, Mary Ann visited Berchtold, and they ended up having sex—the start of an eight-month affair. With the guy who had kidnapped her daughter. In fact, he encouraged her to leave her husband and start a new life in Utah. Also during that period, Berchtold visited Jan nine times, spending the night with her twice.

"It was always about sex at that point," Jan recalled.

Bob Broberg filed for divorce and made sure to be out of the house with the girls when Mary Ann got the papers, which alleged that she was endangering their daughters. He called it the worst day of his life.

A lawyer advised Jan to cut Berchtold out of her life and go plead her case with her husband, who ultimately was relieved to reconcile. They remained married until Bob Broberg died in November 2018.

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Despite the Brobergs stating that Jan was not taken against her will, the case against Berchtold went forward. He pleaded guilty to felony kidnapping in June 1976 and was put on five years' probation and sentenced to five years in prison, all suspended except for 45 days, and told to report to jail within three months. Factoring in good behavior, he ended up spending 10 days in jail that September.

In the meantime, a 13-year-old Jan was begging her parents to let her go to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where Berchtold was running a "family fun center" that summer. (Cue an idyllic scene of families riding in electric bumper-boats in a theme park lake.) She started acting out and eventually Berchtold called and told Mary Ann that Jan would just hitchhike to him if they didn't let her go. So, Mary Ann (without her husband's knowledge) put Jan on a plane and sent her to Jackson Hole, where she stayed for two weeks with Berchtold in his motor home.

"I was livid," Bob recalled.

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"There were times when the family was just so frustrating to me," Skye Borgman shared with Vanity Fair, describing how she and her editor took a six-week break from the film at one point to process the truly nonsensical sequence of events they'd been apprised of. "It was the best thing that we could've done, because we were able to come back and feel everything we were supposed to feel."

What bears reminding, especially when you reach this point in the storytelling, is that the entire family was manipulated by Robert Berchtold. And if you consider which buttons he toyed with—faith, trust, family, community, desire, sexuality, fidelity—you can sort of, maybe, start to understand why Bob and Mary Ann Broberg made one seemingly unconscionable move after another. Or at the very least suspend judgment. 

"Bob said that he was just so grateful that we had told their story in such a sensitive way," Borgman said. "It was really quite shocking to me and, I think, speaks more to the Brobergs' capacity for truth and forgiveness and just wanting to get that story out there."

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Jan flew to Salt Lake City, where her mom picked her up, but on Aug. 10, Jan disappeared again. At one point Jan did call her family, telling her dad that she still wanted to marry Berchtold, and that he wanted to marry her.

The FBI continued to watch Berchtold and, finally, on Nov. 11, 1976, they watched him leave his home to use a payphone across the street. When he was done, they went to the payphone and called a number that was written in the still-open phone book that was attached to the booth. 

Someone at a Catholic boarding school in Pasadena, Calif., answered.

Berchtold had picked up Jan from her family's house and driven her to California, where he told the school officials that she was his daughter, her mother had recently died, and he wanted to enroll her at the school.

Authorities brought a resistant Jan back to Idaho.

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The hold that Berchtold had on Jan didn't really start to crack until Jan. 24, 1977, when Bob got a call that the flower shop he owned in town was on fire.

"'Let it burn!'" Jan remembered her dad saying as he wrapped his arms around his at least physically unharmed family.

Two men were convicted of arson, but authorities could never connect the fire to Berchtold. He was charged with first-degree kidnapping and found not guilty by reason of mental defect. He spent less than six months in a mental facility.

When Jan was 16, she went to a summer drama camp at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and she met a boy she liked. When he bought her an ice cream one day, she freaked out and called her mom, begging to come home. It wasn't until then that she realized none of the terrible things Berchtold had told her would happen—about the aliens, about her sister going blind, etc.—had come to pass.

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And then... the story of Jan's childhood ends. She later got married and had a son, then divorced. She's an actress who's been steadily working since the early 1990s and is best known for playing Louise on Everwood, while her most recent role was on the TruTV series I'm Sorry.

"Being in the theater was my healing space because I wasn't talking, I didn't tell anybody anything…boy, did I learn how to share my emotions on stage," Jan told E! News. "I could scream, I could cry, I could be somebody else during a period of time when I couldn't actually talk about what was happening. So, theater saved my life. That's why I think I've always been involved in the arts because I know the power."

When Mary Ann's book, Stolen Innocence, came out, she and Jan embarked on a series of speaking engagements. Berchtold, calling the story "a pack of lies," compiled his own version of events, printed it out like a manifesto and handed copies out around the town wherever they were appearing. Jan eventually secured an injunction against him for stalking, set to expire only when he did.

Mother and daughter were speaking at Dixie State College in St. George, Utah, in March 2004 when Berchtold showed up, with a gun. Security was tight though, and muscled members of Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA) prevented him from getting close. Berchtold ended up running into one of the bikers with his car, and the guy remained on the hood, clinging to the windshield wipers, until he saw the driver pull a gun.

"Of course I'm scared. I have children," Jan told the Deseret Morning News after the incident. "I'm scared, but I'm not laying down to die. I'm not defeated."

Berchtold was charged and found guilty of aggravated assault possession of a firearm by a restricted person.

Facing down another trip to jail, he took his whole bottle of heart medication and washed it down with kahlua and milk. That was in 2005. (Joe Berchtold agreed to participate in the movie because his brother was dead, feeling someone should speak for the family.)

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Abducted in Plain Sight (originally called Forever "B") screened at film festivals in 2017 and 2018, but it wasn't until Netflix added it to its seemingly infinite trove of true-crime offerings that the documentary started making waves.

Broberg says that, while she originally chose to do the film anyway to help others who have suffered abuse, or to help people recognize the hallmarks of a predator or the signs that someone is being abused, getting this Netflix bump has proved an unparalleled way to get her story out.


Jan worried for a long time about sharing all of the, not just grisly, but really out-there details of her story, naturally wondering if some people wouldn't believe her. Ultimately, she realized that it didn't matter what people thought.

"It doesn't matter if somebody doesn't believe me," she told E! News. "I know the truth, I lived it, and I survived and thrived. My parents somehow came through all of it and stayed together. Our family is a loving, intact family that went on to do amazing things. I want people to have that hope, too."

And she agrees that the 90-minute film only explains so much.

In response to those who have asked for more, she says "maybe there will be an opportunity to do that. But at least we can talk about it. We can look at, how does that start? How does that grooming begin? How does the manipulator get you from point A, to being their best friend, to kidnapping and abusing your daughter. And then how do you not know—or see it even, still?"

"But that conversation has started."