Entertainment

Why Everyone's Talking About Netflix's Shocking True-Crime Doc 'Abducted in Plain Sight'

abducted in plain sight
The Broberg family, ca. 1970. | Netflix
The Broberg family, ca. 1970. | Netflix

If you hadn't already noticed, everyone around you is watching what is quite possibly the most messed-up movie in the whole world. For years, Netflix has trotted out true-crime hits like Making a Murderer and The Ted Bundy Tapes, but the streaming service's latest sensation might be so outrageous it destroys the entire genre: the you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it 2017 kidnapping documentary Abducted in Plain Sight.

Its title might sound like an exaggeration, or a bad Lifetime movie, but it is neither of these things. Abducted in Plain Sight, which was directed by Skye Borgman and played the film festival circuit a few years ago before Netflix gave it a home, is the story of how the seemingly perfect Broberg family was nearly destroyed, singlehandedly, in the mid-'70s by a sociopathic neighbor, Bob "B" Berchtold, who was obsessed with their 12-year-old daughter. That's just the setup, which is tragic enough without getting into the truly insane aspects of the story.

If you're afraid to watch, or if you already watched but entered into a fugue state of shock as you attempted to replay and digest everything you just witnessed, here are the most unbelievable twists in a true story that leaves you questioning reality. Yes, this is even wilder than the guy in the FYRE documentary who was fully prepared to exchange sexual favors for Evian. It perhaps goes without saying, but if you'd prefer to experience the dizzying feeling of watching this movie without knowing in advance what happens, or you find the nature of this story disturbing (child abuse, sexual abuse, all kinds of psychological manipulation) stop reading now, because there is a lot of the above to come. 

Bob Berchtold insinuates himself into the Broberg family.

Bob Berchtold, otherwise known by his nickname, "B," had a pedophilic obsession with Jan Broberg, one of the Broberg family's three daughters. Members of the family interviewed for the doc say multiple times at the beginning that they lived in the kind of neighborhood in Idaho where no one locked their doors, so you KNOW something terrible will definitely happen to them. A master manipulator, B first had to influence the entire Broberg family, and sex was the only way he knew how to do it. He flirted constantly with the mother, Mary Ann Broberg, complimenting her body and telling her he loved her. He also convinced the father Bob to provide him some "relief" (read: a handjob) when B confided he wasn't getting any sexual satisfaction from his own wife. B used both of these betrayals in order to gain leverage on the Brobergs later on.

Berchtold manipulates the Brobergs into taking part in his "therapy."

After being "convicted" of homosexuality by the Church of Latter Day Saints, B persuaded the Brobergs to take part in his "therapy," which involved his spending time with their daughters -- specifically Jan -- at night. He claimed his therapist recommended spending time around young girls to help him resolve his issues, which obviously makes no sense. But the parents just LET HIM. B would lie down in Jan's bed while she slept and listen to creepy tapes made for him by the phony psych doctor (it's later revealed the doctor had his license revoked) who gave him a note for his "treatment," enabling his obsessive tendencies. It wasn't a "once in a while" occurrence, either: The documentary claims Berchtold stayed in Jan's bed, unsupervised, four nights a week for several weeks before her disappearance. 

abducted in plain sight
Director Skye Borgman and Devin Ordoyne, playing Robert "B" Berchtold in a flashback. | Netflix

Berchtold kidnaps Jan and convinces her that aliens want them to have sex.

B kidnapped Jan for the first time (yes, you read that right, the first time) by telling her parents that he was going to take her horseback riding. Instead, he drugged her and spirited her away in his mobile home across the border to Mexico, where he played her tapes from a "box" and made her believe that aliens were talking to her. The "aliens" told Jan that her "mission" was to save their planet by having a child with a "male companion" -- who turns out, conveniently, to be B, who pretended that he was also abducted by flashing white lights. The key is that she had to produce a child by age 16, or the aliens would move on to her sister.

When, a month later, the FBI was finally able to locate Jan and B and have Mexican authorities arrest B, he bribes a guard to let Jan see him in his cell at the jail where they're both being held. B claims that the aliens told him that if she breathes a word of her "mission" to anyone, her family would die and her sister would be abducted in her place.

Berchtold's wife blackmails the Brobergs into claiming their daughter wasn't actually kidnapped, after all.

Remember how B had insinuated himself into the Broberg family so effortlessly? Apparently he came clean to his own wife, who, instead of disowning him completely, used the knowledge of the affair with Mrs. Broberg and the homosexual act with Mr. Broberg to blackmail them into refusing to testify against B. And... it worked. They signed a statement claiming B had their consent to take Jan to Mexico, which made the criminal case against him fall flat, essentially allowing Berchtold to return to his life after receiving a five-year sentence for kidnapping that was reduced to 45 days.

Jan's mom has an affair with B.

Yes, this is AFTER B kidnapped Jan the first time. Mary Ann Broberg, despite admonishments and warnings from the FBI not to have contact with Berchtold or his family, decides to have a ton of contact with B. Like, so much that they have a torrid affair that lasts for almost a year, during which Berchtold tells her he loves her, all with the aim of buttering her up to get back together with Jan. After 11 months (11!), Mary Ann's husband, Bob, files for divorce, but when Mary Ann gets served with the papers, she realizes (finally!) that maybe her relationship with B isn't all that great of an idea. Bob and Mary Ann got back together, and the two remained married until Bob's death in 2018. 

Jan goes to work at an amusement park that B bought.

After escaping meaningful punishment for, you know, kidnapping and sexually assaulting a child, B buys an amusement park in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Jan, still completely brainwashed into believing that she is in love with him, begs her parents to let her work there in the summer. And the parents just LET HER. Not only that, her mother put her on the plane to Jackson Hole herself, a decision Bob says she'll regret, because Bob is starting to piece things together. 

abducted in plain sight
Director Borgman filming another flashback. | Netflix

Jan disappears a second time, writing a note saying she ran away. 

You might think that when Jan, who's been kidnapped before and is angry with her parents for not letting her stay longer than two weeks in Jackson Hole, disappears again, her parents might call the FBI right away. Instead, they wait two weeks -- they don't want it getting out that Jan has disappeared twice, that wouldn't reflect well on them -- at which point the authorities tap the Broberg's home. Berchtold, of course, keeps calling them and saying he misses Jan, that he has no idea where she is, but he definitely does because this guy OBVIOUSLY took Jan again. The FBI tracks him down in Salt Lake City, where he's living in a motor home covered in pictures of Jan. But nope, he has no idea where Jan is. 

B takes Jan to a Catholic school and tells them that he's a CIA agent on the run from Lebanon.

In a last-ditch attempt to hide the two of them from Jan's family, B installs her as a student in a California Catholic school, telling the nuns that Jan is his daughter, and he's a former CIA agent who escaped the crisis in Lebanon and is on the run -- hinting that, if any agent-type people come around the school looking for a man and a little girl of Jan's description, they're the ones out to get him.

The FBI finds a number Berchtold wrote down on a phone book, and they trace it to a school in Pasadena. Once agents discover where she is, B is finally arrested. He's sent to a mental facility on an insanity charge and gets out after just six months.

Jan goes to summer camp and starts to realize she was abused.

Jan recovers somewhat and goes to summer camp. While there, she does a little community theater and starts to flirt with a nice boy her age. One night, her mom calls and tells her that the dogs look sick, and that maybe she fed them something bad. Jan immediately panics, believing that the aliens from her past are still watching her, saw that she'd been unfaithful to her "male companion," and have decided to make good on their promise to punish her family. The next day, her mom calls again and tells her that the dogs are perfectly fine, there's nothing to worry about. For the first time, Jan wonders if the aliens were just completely made up -- though it takes her years to finally believe the truth.

B confronts an adult Jan in court when she files for a restraining order.

Decades later, Jan joins her mother on a book tour, promoting her mother's tell-all memoir about everything that happened to their family. B keeps trying to show up at their events, and at one in Utah he tries to pass out fliers proclaiming his innocence. Jan files a restraining order against him, which Berchtold decides to contest in court, meaning they see each other for the first time in decades. He accuses her of trying to make a profit off of her family's lies, but although it's customary for injunctions to last only a few years, the judge rules in favor of Jan and puts the order in effect for the rest of B's life. Berchtold subsequently gets convicted on five charges stemming from a confrontation with Bikers Against Child Abuse, a group that was providing security for an event where Jan Broberg was speaking, but he commits suicide before facing prison time. Meanwhile, multiple women from all over the country come to Jan with their own stories of assault at the hands of B.

Even this account doesn't capture the mixture of disbelief, rage, and horror that watching Abducted in Plain Sight inspires. When you hear, for example, Mary Ann Broberg say her affair with B was a wonderful time in her life, or see the lengths to which Jan will go for what she describes as genuine love, it's almost impossible to relate to it as a true story. But it is true, and while it's easy to think that no one alive could be as naive as the Brobergs, the documentary is a sobering reminder of the power of manipulation, the failures of the justice system, and what happens when parents aren't totally focused on the well-being of their child. 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.