Older generations like to talk about the golden age of parenting, when you could trust your neighbors, leave your doors unlocked and let your kids run free without care. The Netflix true-crime documentary, “Abducted in Plain Sight,” shows what happens when that approach goes horribly, horribly wrong.
The film, directed by Skye Borgman, tells the true story of Jan Broberg, a 12-year-old girl, who, in 1974, is kidnapped from her home in Idaho by Bob Berchtold, a trusted family friend. What follows is a disturbing and bizarre tale of sex, rape, blackmail, brainwashing and even alien abduction.
Berchtold, or “Brother B,” as he was called, was a master manipulator and textbook predator. Charismatic and genial with a magnetic personality, he cast a spell over the entire Broberg family, including loving but astonishingly naive parents Mary Ann and Bob.
Early on, it was clear Berchtold only had eyes for Jan. As the Broberg and Berchtold families grew close, his infatuation with Jan was alarmingly obvious. One afternoon, in 1974, he finally made his move. Under the guise of taking her horseback riding, Berchtold made off with the young girl, disappearing for several weeks, over which time he drugged, raped and brainwashed her.
When he was finally apprehended, Berchtold persuaded the Brobergs not to press charges. And after all that, the family remained in contact with Berchtold, even allowing him — against Mary Ann and Bob’s better judgment — to spend nights in bed with Jan after he told them the sleepovers were a necessary part of his therapy.
It’s impossible not to pass judgment on Mary Ann and Bob, whose unquestioning trust of Berchtold borders on stupidity. How could they be so permissive? How were they not able to see the red flags? How, even through a subsequent kidnapping by Berchtold in 1976, did they remain so calm and sanguine while dealing with their daughter’s abductor and abuser?
In the documentary, their regret is earnest. While there is no doubt they now recognize their error, it’s still difficult to sympathize with them, even though Jan and her sisters are unequivolcally forgiving.
Of her parents’ failure, sister Karen Campbell offers the closest thing to an excuse, explaining that the trauma of the ordeal was too much for them to process: “… they didn’t probe more when they knew something had happened. They didn’t want to know. It’s too painful for them to realize that they allowed that to happen to her.”
But it’s not just Jan’s parents who failed to protect her. The legal system was similarly feckless. While sentenced to five years in prison after the first kidnapping, Berchtold was able to avoid serious prosecution, only serving a total of 10 days.
Amazingly, upon his release, he was somehow allowed to operate a “family fun center,” putting this man, whose history of predatory behavior toward children had resulted in a formal reprimand from the high council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, in direct contact with children every day.
The entire Broberg family, including Jan, who is now an actress with multiple network TV credits, fully participates in the documentary. Their honesty and willingness to reckon with the pain and guilt of this massive trauma is admirable.
At a lean 90 minutes, the film struggles to adequately tell the whole story. This is a dense, tangled tale with many strange angles worth examining in depth. Multiple episodes would have given director Borgman space to unpack those details and provide analysis and nuance. As it is now, we’re left unsatisfied and wanting more.