Abducted in Plain Sight . . . With Mouths Agape

Robert Berchtold with a young Jan Broberg. Photo courtesy Top Knot Films

It’s weird how we sometimes get to the content that really captivates us. When I was a very young record collector, I practically wore out Stephen Stills’ self-titled solo album. The back cover had a line mentioning the record was dedicated to Jimi Hendrix, who had died two months before Stephen Stills was released in November 1970. “Hey, if this Jimi Hendrix fellow is good enough for Stephen Stills,” I reasoned, “he’s good enough for me.”

So I obtained a copy of Smash Hits, and long before my first experience with psychedelics, it was as if someone split open my head, rearranged my mind and closed it back up. I went on to seek every Hendrix album I could find, and needless to say, my collection wound up with way more Jimi than Stevie.

I thought back to this as the end credits rolled on my big screen to Skye Borgman’s true-crime documentary Abducted in Plain Sight, which first came out in 2017 as Forever “B” and, with that title, won the 2018 Best Documentary jury award from the Newport Beach Film Festival, although I missed it there. Unfortunately.

It’s only been in the past two months that Abducted in Plain Sight has been getting heavy buzz, thanks to its arrival early this year on the Netflix streaming platform. While listening to the March 15 Dumb People Town podcast, I heard co-host Daniel Van Kirk tell Randy and Jason Sklar and their guest Aaron Urist (comedians all) the following: “I tweeted out if you want to say the words ‘this shit can’t get any crazier’ and be wrong, go watch Abducted in Plain Sight.”

Immediately taking that challenge, I am here to report that, holy shit, Van Kirk nailed it. Around about the 20-minute mark of the flick, you see and hear what you believe must be the most bizarre detail of this story. Five minutes later, a new revelation trumps the last one, and five minutes after that, the same thing happens, and so on and so forth . . . all the way through the 91-minute run time.

The basic story starts like this: Florist Bob Broberg; his wife, Mary Ann; and their three daughters befriend a new family that moves into their Pocatello, Idaho, community in the early 1970s. They belong to the same Mormon church, and the charismatic dad, Robert Berchtold, whose nickname is “B,” lights up any room he enters.

“B” takes a particular liking to the Brobergs’ 12-year-old daughter, Jan, who comes to consider her neighbor “like a second father to me.” Offering to pick Jan up from her piano lesson and take her horseback riding one day in October 1974, “B” at first seems late in bringing her home. A day passes, then two, then several before Mary Ann contacts the FBI to report her daughter and friend missing, although she does not suspect foul play. The Bureau has to inform her “B” kidnapped Jan. Heck, they had to tell both parents what a pedophile was.

Okay, before the kidnapping, your chin had already hit the floor over the budding relationship between “B” and Jan in plain sight, as the title goes, because 35 years later, we all recognize such predatory behavior. That the adult managed to worm himself into a position to snatch the girl, as well as that her parents are so nonchalant about it, leaves your mouth agape again. But keep in mind, we’re still early in the story, folks.

If what transpires had been fiction, it would be beyond belief. There are the Brobergs’ individual relationships with “B.” There is Mrs. Berchtold’s defense of “B.” There are slaps on the wrist. There is a Mexican wedding. There are—I swear to freakin’ God—ALIENS!

Having written many crime stories for the Weekly involving pedophiles who befriended families to get alone time with their children, I appreciated being able to see how it works in so much detail, as disturbing as that is. Like con men or resort salesmen or GOP presidential nominees, these smooth operators immediately recognize their mark’s vulnerabilities, and under the guise of friendship or romance or an Electoral College victory, they prey on them to their own evil ends.

Abducted in Plain Sight is a fascinating study of human nature in this regard, although so many tons of excrement have landed on Bob and Mary Ann Broberg since the doc first streamed, the tweets went viral, and the Reddit community attacked that [spoiler alert!] the grown-up Jan came forward to reveal Borgman left out salient facts that put the parents and even Mrs. Berchtold in much better lights.

Even without knowing that, Jan and Mary Ann are portrayed in the end as heroes of the piece, and boy, do you need some by then.

Abducted in Plain Sight was directed by Skye Borgman. Now streaming on Netflix.

OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.

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