Netflix’s commitment to true crime documentaries can be extremely polarizing. On one hand, they are bringing to light several stories that warn us about the dark depths of the human psyche. However, is it worth shining the lime light on such unsavory individuals? Well, when you have a case this absurd and this preventable, perhaps its best to expose that for the whole world to learn from. Especially as it relates to the bubbles we surround ourselves in, which make us unprepared for the terrible people and events we may encounter in life. In the case of Abducted in Plain Sight, the documentary not only serves to indict the perpetrator, but also – even if unintentionally – condemns the adults that allowed such a crime to happen in the first place.
The feature covers the abduction and sexual assault of 12-year-old Jan Broberg, committed entirely by her 40-year-old neighbor Robert Berchtold. Berchtold is at first depicted as your typical joyful neighbor – he’s a family friend who at times feel as much apart of the family as anyone. But he has a strange fascination with the 3 Broberg children, with Jan attracting the vast majority of his attention. Joe Berchtold, Bob’s brother, is interviewed and reveals he knew Robert had a fascination with kids since Bob was 12 years old, referencing sexual encounters a young Bob had with their 6-year-old sister.
What follows from there is just as shocking, infuriating, and demoralizing. The doc goes into detail on how Bob, who Jan affectionately calls ‘B’, wormed his way into the lives of the Brobergs to get closer to Jan. He befriended her parents, opened up to them, goaded them into sexual encounters, and lowered their defenses until he had access to what he wanted. The Brobergs were so trusting of Bob, that they allowed him to take Jan on vacations and road trips with the rest of his family. This is where much of his sexual abuse begins, and it’s uncomfortable to listen to the story unfold knowing Jan is in no way prepared to deal with the insane circumstances she’s been placed in. We learn that Bob kidnaps her, drugs her repeatedly, and convinces her that she’s made contact with aliens in order to hide the fact that she’s been kidnapped (yes, really).
It is all quite sad to see, punctuated by the amount of love and trust Jan clearly has in Bob. She originally thinks of him as her friend – yet Bob’s sinister influence warps her mind into thinking of Bob as much more than a friend. Jan is interviewed throughout the doc, and her recollection of her thoughts during her relationship with Bob paints the picture of a sheltered, naive young girl who had the joy of life tainted for her by unspeakable circumstances. Yes, Bob is the monster that is most responsible for these crimes. But the Jan’s parents are next up in the list of blame.
The doc is littered with a Broberg family greatest hits of boneheaded actions: allowing Bob to sleep in the same bed with Jan for months on end, deciding not to press charges after the first kidnapping, buying into whatever BS Bob tries to spin after said kidnapping, etc. The light of sanity is first seen when Pete Welsh, the FBI agent assigned to the case, is introduced in the film. After the first kidnapping, Welsh quickly deduces what Bob has done and is perplexed at how delusional the Broberg family is. Throughout the feature, Welsh is the voice of reason contrasted against the nut jobs that enable Bob’s destructive behavior. The events covered take place in the 70s, which was quite a different time in regard to societal fears and the trust placed in your literal and figurative neighbor. But the way in which Bob crosses the line despite the climate of the time calls into question how the Broberg family could not see the signs. For a man to want to sleep in the same bed as a little girl, especially when that girl is not his daughter, should raise several red flags, but the Brobergs couldn’t solve this puzzle even if they were holding the last piece in their hands.
These events help to make Abducted in Plain Sight one of the most frustrating documentaries in existence. Couple that with the uncomfortable content, and it is a hard film to sit through. The film’s director, Skye Borgman, presents everything in a manner of fact tone, with no room for flash or style. This is for the best, given the content, but it does make it even more difficult to watch. The film’s pacing tires you out, relying on the same repetitive formula of each talking head sharing the next bizarre or disgusting detail about Bob, making you wish it was all over as quickly as possible. I don’t believe Borgman does a terrible job, as she does cover the timeline of events and their inner details with clarity. I just feel the material is so off-putting, so much so that Borgman has the unenviable challenge of making the events watchable. For many, the film will not be watchable, due to its horrific details combined with the plodding pace. But for those who can stomach it, the documentary is an illuminating example of how the shortcomings of society can allow a monster like Bob Berchtold to reach his goals.
Berchtold had severe mental issues dating all the way back to his childhood. Yet, when individuals in his life were given the opportunity to help him or at least prevent him from succumbing to his psychosis, they all failed. There is one encounter with a young girl, whose identity goes unmentioned, that results in Berchtold being reprimanded by the police. He’s forced to enter counseling after this incident, and it’s possible the counseling could help him considering this chapter occurs before his original abduction of Jan. Instead, he lies about the reasons behind these sessions to the Broberg family in order to justify his desires to get closer to Jan. Perhaps this is why this story matters – to illustrate the lengths the mentally ill will go to, and to provide ways we can detect these red flags. The Brobergs were an extremely religious, extremely forgiving middle class family vulnerable to naiveté in the 1970s. Perhaps the Brobergs wouldn’t have made the same mistakes in 2019.