Film review: Abducted in Plain Sight

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, March 15th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a Netflix film about a disturbing true story that peels back the many layers of sin.

Here’s Megan Basham.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: Thanks to the trail blazed by podcasts, true crime tales have become a major trend in entertainment. And one of the most buzzed about examples has to be Netflix’s documentary Abducted in Plain Sight.

Though Netflix rarely releases ratings information, since debuting on the streaming platform in January, media coverage suggests it’s drawing plenty of viewers. Vanity Fair, People, Forbes, and The Atlantic are among the many mainstream outlets running articles breathlessly promising new details not yet revealed. A cottage industry of memes has sprung up using images from the film. And plans for a sequel are reportedly already in works.

Director Skye Borgman draws on interviews, recordings from the time-period, and court and FBI records to build the story. It’s about the 1974 kidnapping and sexual assault of 12-year-old Jan Broberg by 40-year-old family friend Robert Berchtold. She then turns to the parental negligence that led to Jan being kidnapped again by the same man at age 14.

CLIP: And there on the little couch of the motor home was B. It was a person I so loved and so trusted and was familiar to me. I wasn’t alone anymore. It was like this huge relief.

Though it steers clear of profanity and salacious images, the film doesn’t make for pleasant viewing. Parents should take the TV-14 rating seriously.

Not only does the now-adult Jan Broberg describe the rapes she suffered with clinical specificity, we also hear from both her parents about their individual sexual encounters with Berchtold.

While prurient interest in the shocking twists no-doubt accounts for some of the movie’s viral status, Borgman handles these confessions responsibly. The facts of the Brobergs’ actions are repellent, yet we can’t help but pity what weakness and fear led them to.

And a lot of painful truth comes from watching Bob and Mary Ann Broberg crumple into tears as they recount their guilt, not least of which is the escalating nature of sin.

CLIP: It was on Christmas eve when Gail Berchtold came to the door and asked to talk to Bob alone. The two of them went back to the den and chatted for quite some time. Gail came out, went on her way and Bob said to me, ‘Gail wants us to drop all the charges against her husband.’ She asked us to sign some affidavits. All Bob said was, ‘If we don’t sign the affidavits they’re going to expose the dirty laundry between me and Berchtold.’

After the Brobergs betray their marriage vows, Berchtold has an easy job manipulating them to gain further access to Jan. Once he threatens to expose their shameful actions, they decide not to press charges. Instead they file false affidavits with the FBI in an effort to cover their tracks.

Again and again the Brobergs make the cowardly choice to prioritize their own reputations as good church-going Mormons instead.

CLIP: Two or three days went by and it was indescribable agony. We just told people that she was with her grandmother. And of course it just went on and on and on. We were so afraid that the word would be out that she was gone once again. Kidnapped. We just didn’t want that out in the press at this point. The Brobergs waited two weeks before they called me after she was gone this time.

In some ways, it’s a shame the Brobergs story wasn’t explored through a longer form medium like a podcast serial. Especially since a deeper exploration of Mormon theology would have helped viewers understand why Jan would believe some of Berchtold’s most outrageous deceptions involving aliens.

We similarly get little information about how the LDS leaders—who evidently knew that Berchtold was a predator—handled the situation. Other families in the church had complained about his unsettling interest in their daughters.

While the so-called LDS High Council reportedly reprimanded him at some point for his involvement with another young girl, they don’t appear to have done anything to warn families or restrain Berchtold’s access to children.

As in other widespread pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church and the entertainment industry, Abducted in Plain Sight sounds strong warning notes about grooming tactics. Years before he committed his crimes, Berchtold ingratiated himself to the entire Broberg family.

It’s easy to scream in outrage at the Broberg’s selfishness and naiveté, but then we remember how many similar stories are still playing out today. Including in evangelical contexts. A close friend you see every week at church, a trusted youth pastor—the wolves know the best places to hide amongst the sheep. Especially when the sheep are so often willing to cover their tracks for them.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.


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