true crime

Abducted in Plain Sight Director Explains Why the Brobergs Were in ‘Absolute Denial’

A young Jan Broberg and Bob Berchtold. Photo: Courtesy of Top Knot Films

If you haven’t heard about it yet, Abducted in Plain Sight is a documentary that started streaming on Netflix last month and is impossible to watch without unleashing primal screams. It tells the story of Jan Broberg, a girl who was kidnapped not once, but twice, in the 1970s by a family friend named Robert Berchtold, who manipulated her and raped her repeatedly.

While Berchtold’s behavior is obviously abhorrent, Abducted in Plain Sight is also a shocker because of Jan Broberg’s parents, Mary Ann and Bob. As the documentary reveals, not only did they hold back on contacting law enforcement and allow Berchtold to lie in bed with their daughter over the course of several months, but both had their own sexual encounters with Berchtold. Bob Broberg, who passed away in November, admits in an on-camera interview that he “relieved” Berchtold in “an act of masturbation” one afternoon when the two went out for a drive, while Mary Ann Broberg describes a lengthy affair with Berchtold that began after the man kidnapped Jan the first time. Because of their concern that these details would become public knowledge, Berchtold was able to persuade them not to make a fuss over his relationship with Jan. For viewers at home, learning about this dynamic is absolutely infuriating.

Skye Borgman understands those feelings. The filmmaker spent three years working on Abducted in Plain Sight, which was screened at various film festivals in 2017 and 2018, and started streaming on non-Netflix platforms last year. But its arrival on Netflix has kick-started a whole new conversation about the Brobergs, whom Borgman says lived in a kind of “absolute denial” that may be hard for many to understand. In a recent phone interview, Borgman answered questions about her documentary (including how she uncovered details about the case), whether the sexual relationship between Bob Broberg and Berchtold was more than a one-time thing, and how Jan Broberg found the capacity to forgive her parents.

I’m curious to know how you found out about Jan’s story and how you decided to make this documentary.
Really, we found the book [Stolen Innocence]. I guess Jan and Mary Ann had self-published it, so it didn’t get out in a big way. The producer, Stephanie Tobey, was talking to this other producer about how crazy this story was, and [she] gave her the book. Stephanie read it, and then made the introduction to Jan, and then got me onboard. I read the book and just didn’t understand how something like this could happen. They had left both of the sexual affairs out of the book. Jan had told us about her mom, but she hadn’t mentioned her dad. That was the most confusing part about it. I just didn’t know how it could happen and I wanted to figure that out.

So you found out about Mary Ann’s affairs with Berchtold from Jan?
Yeah, she told us about them later.

How did you find out about Bob’s relationship with him?
There had been kind of a manifesto that Berchtold himself had written. We had a few pages of it, and it mentioned something about a relationship with the dad. I had kind of dismissed it, which was a big mistake and a great learning lesson for me. And then, when we got these transcripts from the two hearings that they had gone through, they had talked this masturbatory event in the car. I said, “Oh my gosh, it’s true.” The pieces started to fall together, in terms of what he did to these two parents to blackmail them.

When we went for the interview with Bob, I wasn’t sure if I was going to ask him about it because nobody in the family had mentioned anything. I wanted to, but I didn’t know if I was crossing a line with him. So throughout the course of the interview — it was eight or ten hours long — I was asking him about their relationship and how much [Berchtold] meant to them as a friend. And then, he told us about the event in the car. It was the first time that he’d ever admitted anything publicly. We talked to Mary Ann the next day, and she said that he’d never gone into detail with her about what exactly had happened. And he talked to her that night about it.

The family really didn’t talk about what happened, especially regarding Berchtold’s abuse of Jan. In the film, Jan’s sister Karen says that their parents didn’t ask Jan anything because they couldn’t bear to think about what she had gone through. Which I understand on some level, but it’s also looking the other way to such an extreme. How were they able to do that?
I think it’s just absolute denial. I really do. The shame they feel [about] the affairs they had threw them into such denial. Between the time Jan was 16 and 21 — when they weren’t really talking about this stuff at all, when they hadn’t realized any of the sexual abuse — I think they literally were able to convince themselves that if Jan’s not telling us about this, it didn’t happen. When Jan started becoming sexually active, started liking boys, started figuring all of this stuff out, that’s when the ramifications of what had happened with Berchtold really started to surface and she needed to tell her parents about this secret that she had been holding in. It is hard to understand, but I think it really was that they could not believe it.

So they believed she had been kidnapped — that Berchtold married her in Mexico, and wanted to marry her here in the States — but there had been no sexual relationship? They convinced themselves of that?
They convinced themselves of that, even though so many people [and] the FBI said that this is something that happened. I think it really has to do with the fact that they placed so much faith in experts, in doctors who said, “There has been no sexual abuse because her hymen hasn’t been broken.” They didn’t have any real concept that anything else could be sexual abuse. It was purely penetration, really, that they thought was sexual abuse. So if a doctor said, “There’s been no penetration,” they’re like, “Okay, she’s fine. She’s fine.” That’s part of the denial as well.

I wanted to circle back to Bob Broberg. Is your sense that the one time in the car was the only time that he and Berchtold ever had a sexual encounter? Or did you think that, maybe, there had been more to it and Bob just didn’t talk about it?
We asked him. 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. [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.

I wondered if he was gay and not dealing with that. That’s something you didn’t talk about, I guess?
Right. He never talked about that. I mean, he says that he’s not. He chose very certainly to stay with the church and to stay with his family. And that was something that he was very committed to. Both those things are the two most important things, really, in his life. Church and family.

With regard to Mary Ann, it’s tough to process that she not only had this affair, but she had the affair after her daughter was kidnapped. It seems like she compartmentalized it all, for lack of another way of putting it. How do you think she was able to do that?
Compartmentalization, I think that’s exactly what she did. And I think she continues to do that to this day. But I really think that Mary Ann was in love with Berchtold. It had started before the first kidnapping, and he had made her feel beautiful and made her feel attractive. They were 13, 14 years into a marriage, and so it’s that time where probably Mary Ann and her husband aren’t having all that much sex anymore. And Berchtold comes along and makes her feel sexy again.

That the Brobergs didn’t really think of it as him kidnapping [Jan], even though he took her without their knowledge, this is where I think the depth of the brainwashing really comes in, Mary Ann loved him, or thought that she loved him, and just couldn’t see what had really happened. He came back and was still saying, “I love you, Mary Ann. I think you’re great. You’re beautiful.” It didn’t really dawn on her that he could also be attracted to a 12-year-old little girl. And again, doctors had said nothing happened. So I think they thought he had just had a little mental breakdown. But again, it’s that denial. Even though I think somewhere deep inside they knew something was wrong, they just couldn’t see it.

In the film, Jan says that she’s heard from six other women who were abused by Berchtold. Do you know anything more about that?
I don’t know much about that. We’ve reached out to a few of them to see if they wanted to share their stories and they weren’t really interested. But they had reached out to Jan when Jan first started speaking about [what happened to her] about 15 years ago.

I’m so curious about Jan because she seems very well-adjusted, strong, and able to talk about all what happened. But recovering from this kind of trauma is very, very difficult. Do you have a sense of how she was able to recover and forge healthy relationships as an adult?
She’s relied a lot on her faith. And, for better or worse, the whole family really believes in forgiveness. Their LDS faith opened the door for this guy to enter and to completely infiltrate their family, but I also believe their faith saved them as a family and kept them together because of this idea that we can forgive and love. I asked Jan, “Were you ever just completely infuriated with your family?” She said, “I was mad at them for a while, but it didn’t really last that long, because I knew it wasn’t their fault.”

She’s this amazing, incredibly strong, wonderful woman, but she carries this with her. Even when I was talking to her after the fact, she said she’s always looked for that love that she felt with Berchtold in relationships she has today. She’s never felt as special as he made her feel, so every relationship she’s been in has not lived up to her feeling that way. It’s an incredible thing — this is how impressionable all children are at the age of 12 or 13. That love that she felt for him sticks with her still today.

You mentioned that their faith opened the door for this to happen, which is something that I mentioned in my review. In what way do you think it did that?
I think there are many good things about faith, but with this particular family, they just placed a little bit too much in their faith. This man comes in, and because he’s part of the LDS church, it automatically gives him a stamp of approval. This idea of looking like an upstanding family in the community, giving the idea that nothing’s wrong, I think that was something that the church holds very high. They didn’t want people to know about it so that they could look like that high and upstanding family in the eyes of the church and in the eyes of the community. And that’s all part of what added to the blinders, the denial, and keeping things quiet. Not calling the police or the FBI when they should have, not talking about what was going on, and not accepting that something bad was happening to their daughter because it was somebody else in the LDS church.

But it’s not like someone in the church was specifically instructing them to do that.
Yes, although I do think there were times when, later, they do talk to the bishops a lot. And that’s something that they put a lot of faith in. They were seeking guidance from the church primarily, and then law enforcement secondarily.

As I’m sure you have noticed, once the documentary landed on Netflix, that’s when everybody seemed to be finding it.
We had gotten a great response while we were on the festival circuit, it’s just we can reach 300 people at a time. So Netflix has really opened the door. I mean, we’re in 190 countries now.

I’ve been watching the domino effect of people reacting to it. Friends of mine online are like, “Oh, I’m going to watch this!” And then five hours later: “OH MY GOD.”
I know!

Since it started streaming on Netflix, have you talked to Jan or anyone else from the family?
Yeah, it’s hard on them. Especially Jan. It’s hard on Mary Ann, but she’s got this way about her where it’s not really bothering her. She’s not online all that much. She sees the comments, especially on Facebook. I don’t think she’s seen anything on Twitter. But Jan and Susan and Karen are looking at all of it.

It’s been hard because it hasn’t been this building up of backlash. It’s just this wall that hit when the film came out on Netflix. I’ve been answering a bunch of tough questions for a year and a half at screenings and Jan hasn’t really been a part of that, so I think she’s finding her voice again, knowing that the reason she did this is to start the conversation. It’s not an easy one, but she’s willing to have it, and her whole family is willing to have it. They are very brave people for saying everything that they’ve said on camera, for opening up these wounds and laying it out there for everybody to see.

What’s the hardest thing that you’ve been asked?
A lot of people are curious if Bob and Mary Ann had essentially trafficked Jan, if they were part of it in exchange for Berchtold’s affections. I don’t for a second believe that to be the case. I think they were completely in denial and forgot about their kids for a very long period of time, because they were too interested in themselves. Absolutely, I believe that to be true. But I just don’t think they had any motivation to exchange their daughter for sexual relations with Berchtold.

Do you think there’s more story to tell, or do you feel like this documentary says everything that needs to be said?
The two things that you wished had been expanded upon — the FBI and the nature of the FBI during the time, and the LDS religion — I couldn’t agree with you more. I wish we’d been able to go into that. There were so many times when we were editing it that I said, “All right, let’s dive into this. Let’s go there.” And then it was just this rabbit hole, and we started veering away from this story about the family and what their experience was. If it were ever expanded upon, I certainly would be going into that realm a little bit, talking about faith, talking about the FBI. Who knows? We might be able to expand it into something like that, but there’s part of me that feels like this lives in a 90-minute movie.

I have one more thing to ask: What happened to the family fun center that Berchtold bought in Jackson Hole? Of all the things for someone like him to buy …
Yeah, he would buy and sell [property] and buy and sell and buy and sell. He had it for maybe a year and a half or two years, and then sold it and ended up moving away and doing something else. He was constantly trying to put himself into positions where he was surrounded by children and families. And that’s very, very common with people who are pedophiles. They’re the teachers, they’re the cops, they’re in positions where they can surround themselves with children. These positions that we think of as having trustworthy people in them, it’s worth it to question that.

For a lot of those positions, they do background checks now, but I’m just thinking: When somebody buys something like a family fun center, who does a background check on the purchaser?
Nobody does.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Abducted in Plain Sight Director on Jan Broberg’s Kidnapping