Digust. Disbelief. Horror.
These are just a few of the emotions I was feeling as I sat in my living room- clutching my chest, my jaw practically on the floor- and watched one of Netflix’s newest true crime documentaries, Abducted in Plain Sight.
By now you have certainly heard your friends and family- or, at the very least, your Facebook or Twitter feeds- talking about Abducted in Plain Sight. The documentary interviews the Broberg family: parents Robert and Mary Ann, and their three daughters, Karen, Susan, and Jan. The story recounts the unbelievable and horrifying true events, in which 12-year-old Jan Broberg was kidnapped and repeatedly molested by the family’s neighbor, Robert Berchtold.
Warning: This review contains spoilers. Content/trigger warnings for kidnapping, pedophilia, grooming, parental neglect, sexual abuse, and suicide. I am writing with the intent of informing those who are interested in the story but worried about watching the documentary due to the extremely disturbing content.
If I had read about Jan Broberg’s story before watching the harrowing documentary, I would have insisted it was a work of fiction. Just when you think the shocking story cannot get any worse, another terrifying detail is revealed, resulting in perpetual jaw-dropping horror.
The Broberg family lived in Pocatello, Idaho, and described their town as stereotypically safe; the type of place where you could comfortably “never lock your doors” and “trust everyone in the neighborhood”. They first met Robert and Gail Berchtold and their five children when they moved into the neighborhood in 1972. Both Robert (Bob) and Mary Ann described Robert Berchtold, who they would come to lovingly refer to as ‘B’, as “friendly” and “sharp”, with an “effervescent, wonderful personality”.
The two families quickly became close, and B began spending almost every evening with the Broberg family. Even toward the beginning, Jan’s parents and sisters were aware of the special attention B gave 12-year-old Jan, of which Mary Ann referred to as “disturbing”. Jan thought of B as a second father to her and consequently felt safe and comfortable around him- a true testament to the “stranger you know” adage.
B used his charm on both Mary Ann and Bob, seducing both of them within the same year in order to gain more access to Jan.
In January of 1974, B was approached by the High Counsel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints due to their concerns regarding his involvement with another young girl, and they ordered him into therapy to help cure his obsession with Jan. According to B, part of his therapy involved spending time alone with the Broberg’s young girls- specifically Jan- and with Mary Ann and Bob’s permission, he would often lie in her bed with her at night. Mary Ann was quoted in that documentary as saying that neither her or Bob were comfortable with it, but “it was part of his therapy”.
On Oct. 17, 1974, B kidnapped Jan and the Brobergs waited five whole days to finally call the FBI. Lead investigator Pete Welsh- and the only adult in this entire documentary who actually appeared to care about Jan’s well-being- had to convince the Brobergs, who did not suspect any foul play, that B had kidnapped their daughter.
Jan spoke in depth about what she remembered of the kidnapping through the haze of the sleeping pills B consistently slipped her. B set up a tape recording that helped convince Jan that she was half alien and needed to produce a child with him before she turned 16 in order to save her alien home planet. The recording also told her that if she was not able to complete the “mission”, they would move on to her sister, Susan. Between this and further grooming from B, Jan became naively complacent with B’s inappropriate and repeated advances.
35 days into Jan’s disappearance, B contacted his brother, Joe, and asked him to convince Mary Ann to let him and Jan get married. Apparently they’d been married in Mexico during their absence and wanted to come home, but since it wasn’t legal in the U.S., they needed permission. Mary Ann refused, so Joe did what he could to get his brother home- he called the FBI and had them tap his phone, allowing them to discover B’s location and track him down. The Brobergs went down to Mexico and picked Jan up, then later sent the marriage certificate back to Mexico to have the marriage annulled.
B was charged with kidnapping, and the Brobergs were instructed by Welsh to avoid the Berchtold family. Unfortunately Welsh’s impression of the Brobergs as being naive was a vast understatement, because when Gail visited a month later to beg them to drop the charges against B, they complied. Gail threatened Bob with the exposition of his homosexual tendencies, specifically toward B, if they refused to sign affidavits. The affidavits claimed that Jan was not taken or held against her will, and that B thought that he had the Broberg’s permission to take her. Mary Ann and Bob both signed, effectively stalling the case against B.
Unsurprisingly, B continued to see Jan and write her love letters. Meanwhile, he continued to call Mary Ann and profess his love for her as well. This marked the beginning of an 8-month-long affair between Mary Ann and B, in which he was also seeing Jan on a semi-regular basis. When Bob found out he reluctantly filed for divorce, but the pair ultimately ended up deciding to work through their issues when Mary Ann promised to rid her life of B.
Almost two years after the kidnapping, B agreed to a plea deal and he was sentenced to five years in jail. The judge then reduced the sentence to 45 days, and B ended up serving only 10 after he was released on “good behavior”. He then moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he opened a family fun center and invited Jan to come work for him over the summer. While the Brobergs originally told both B and Jan ‘no’, Mary Ann eventually caved and sent her to Jackson Hole, where she lived with B in his motor home for the duration of her stay.
Eventually Mary Ann forcefully brought Jan back home, prompting numerous threatening phone calls from B. Mary Ann’s stubbornness led to Jan’s second disappearance, though B maintained that he had nothing to do with it and was just as worried for her whereabouts as the Brobergs.
The Brobergs incomprehensibly told people that Jan was staying with a grandparent instead of alerting people to her disappearance. They finally called the FBI to inform Welsh two weeks into her disappearance.
Welsh’s team found B in a trailer park in Salt Lake City, Utah and ordered 24-hour surveillance on his motor home. A few weeks in, B allowed one of the agents inside. He insisted that he had no idea where Jan was, but the inside of the motor home revealed several large-scale photos of the child in almost shrine-like fashion. The FBI determined that she was not with him, although Welsh maintained that he knew B was aware of her whereabouts.
A few months into her disappearance, Jan made a call to the Broberg residence. An emotional conversation with her family ensued, in which Jan ensured them that she was okay and missed them, but what was really bizarre was her exchange with her father:
Bob: “Have you talked to B?”
Jan: “Not for a couple weeks.”
Bob: “Oh, does he still…want you to marry him and all that?”
Jan: “Well, I want to marry him, Dad.”
Bob: “Does he want to marry you?”
Welsh’s team eventually observed B using a payphone near where he lived, and they traced a number that he had written on the phone book in the booth to Pasadena, California. They discovered that B had enrolled Jan in a Catholic school there, under the name “Janis Tobler”, and he had been posing as her father. B was promptly arrested and brought back to Pocatello. Police went to California and brought Jan home to her family, who described her as “hollow” and “emotionally gone” since her return.
When Jan had been back home for about a month, Bob got a call in the middle of the night to inform him that the flower shop he owned was on fire. This came shortly after threats from B about wanting to have Bob killed for keeping Jan from him. An investigation ended up revealing that B had offered to pay two men he was in jail with to burn the building down, but they were unable to make anything stick in order to charge him with the crime.
Meanwhile, B was charged with kidnapping and then acquitted due to “mental defect”. In June of 1977, he was ordered into a mental health facility, where he spent less than six months before he was released.
It was around Jan’s 16th birthday that she finally decided to come forward and tell her parents about the alien story B had conveyed to her when she was 12, which finally gave her the opportunity to start to move past her trauma and heal.
28 years later, Jan Broberg began speaking about her sexual abuse at different events, after the release of the book Mary Ann wrote about her experience.
Yeah, you heard that right. Jan’s own mother monetized the horrific events she was complacent in putting her daughter through. Please join me while I scream.
B proceeded to threaten both Mary Ann and Jan about the book, attempting to show up at the numerous events they spoke at and telling anyone who would listen that the story they told in the book was false. Jan ultimately filed a stalking injunction, and she was forced to go to court when B contested it. She was awarded the injunction for the remainder of B’s life.
Even after the injunction B continued to stalk Jan at speaking events. Jan’s events were under the protection of Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA), and in one particular event, B drove by in his car yelling threats at the bikers. The police were called when one of the bikers was hurt- it is unclear if B hit the man with his car or not- and a gun was discovered in B’s car, so he was arrested and charged with 3 felonies and 2 misdemeanors. He was found guilty and instructed to return in a week for sentencing.
But B had no plans to go to prison, so before his sentencing, Robert Berchtold ended his life by overdosing on his heart medicine.
Since then, 6 more women have come forward to Jan about how Berchtold sexually abused them as children. In all this time, with all these girls, he was only found guilty once for rape and spent a total of one year in jail.
Interviewer: “Have you forgiven him?”
Jan: “Forgiveness is a tricky word. In my mind, not forgiving somebody only puts up the jail cell kind of around you. I figured out that I can live with my tragedy in a way that the tragedy doesn’t run me anymore.
Jan also said that she was able to forgive her parents “by helping them to forgive themselves”. On the topic of her parents:
Jan: “Yes, they made mistakes. But it’s one thing to make a mistake kind of as two innocent people. It’s another thing to make a mistake when somebody’s orchestrating you and playing your emotions and feelings.”
It is incredibly admirable and inspirational of Jan to stand up in front of audiences and share her story. We can only hope that her willingness to come forward and speak about her story will resonate with others who have or are experiencing trauma and sexual abuse, and give more of them the courage to come forward with theirs.
This documentary is fascinating in its own right, but make no mistake- it is in no way enjoyable to watch, and the overwhelmingly dissatisfying ending will leave you both angry and uneasy. Viewer beware!