Kidnapped twice by the same man years apart – the staggering real-life story of Jan Broberg

A new Peacock drama is based on a mind-boggling 1970s kidnap case in Idaho when a trusted church member and father of five abducted an adolescent family friend twice. Victim Jan Broberg, who told her story to Sheila Flynn, appears onscreen before the first episode to warn viewers that similar crimes can happen anywhere

Thursday 06 October 2022 16:16 BST
Jan Broberg was kidnapped twice by family friend Bob Berchtold; they are pictured in 1974, the same year he first fled with the child to Mexico
Jan Broberg was kidnapped twice by family friend Bob Berchtold; they are pictured in 1974, the same year he first fled with the child to Mexico (Jan Broberg)

The first episode of Peacock’s new highly-touted true crime drama, A Friend of the Family, does not begin with its famous actors or the drama at all. Instead, the camera centres on a lone blonde woman sitting in a director’s chair.

“I’m Jan Broberg, and this series is based on my story,” she says. “I know it may seem unbelievable, but we lived in a different world back then.

“I want to tell my family’s story today because so many seem to think something like this could never happen to them, especially at the hands of someone they know and trust.

“But it did happen,” she says. “It happened to my family. It happened to me. Thank you for watching.”

Both Ms Broberg and her mother, Mary Ann, are producers on the show - and the story truly does “seem unbelievable.”

The first time Jan Broberg was kidnapped as a child, her parents and investigators in their tight-knit, conservative Idaho community barely knew how to define a pedophile. In the 1970s, FBI agents were out of their depth when it came to child molestation, according to one of the men on the case.

When it happened again two years later, the pitfalls of naivete and excessive trust became apparent. Jan was kidnapped by the same expert groomer, the same man who had insidiously infiltrated the Brobergs’ lives, twice.

“They were perfect childhood years, until the day I woke up in the back of that motorhome. I had such a good childhood,” Ms Broberg told The Independent in an exclusive interview.

The limited series, premiering Thursday in the US and Friday in the UK, charts how furniture owner Bob Berchtold groomed the entire Broberg clan to get access to young Jan – including having affairs with both her mother and father. It stars Colin Hanks, Jake Lacy and Anna Paquin and is produced by Jan Broberg and her mother.

No one ever wants to think their friend or relative might have nefarious intentions. No one ever wants to think that anything bad can happen in their beloved neighbourhood or congregation. But Jan, almost five decades later and a mother herself, wants people to know that this is exactly how the worst abuses go unnoticed or unpunished.

A Friend of the Family premieres on Peacock on 6 October

Ms Broberg, who grew up to become an actress and advocate, believes that even now, nearly five decades later, those same trusting qualities continue to place young people squarely in the sights of the most manipulative predators.

“As long as we adults are unwilling to talk about the fact that it is in our family, in our congregation, in our community center, our business community, that it is someone we know ... as difficult as it is to talk about and to tell those stories and then to do something about it, it will continue to happen because you cannot rely on a child,” she told The Independent.

Ms Broberg grew up in quintessential small-town America. The oldest of three girls, she was born to Bob Broberg, a florist, and Mary Ann, a chorister in their Mormon community in Pocatello, Idaho. Mr Broberg played the piano every day to wake up his daughters, who became close with another family in town who attended the same church: The Berchtolds.

Bob Berchtold and his wife, Gail, had five children. He was a furniture store owner and charismatic; Mary Ann was the first to introduce him to her family. The Berchtolds and the Brobergs had everything in common: They were members of the LDS faith, the fathers were both business owners, their children were similar ages.

Jan, left, readies for school with her younger sisters at their home in Pocatello, Idaho, in 1969 (Jan Broberg)

They became fast friends; there was a “best friend” for everyone, one of the Broberg girls says in a 2017 Netflix documentary about the families, Abducted in Plain Sight, directed by Skye Borgman. The wives became close as did the husbands and the girls fantasized about marrying the Berchtold boys. Berchtold, who picked up the nickname “B” during the family’s interactions – began picking up the Broberg girls and driving them to school.

“He even knew how to make sure that we became best friends with his kids and his wife,” Jan tells The Independent. “We learned how to paint ceramics at her house. And she taught us how to make the best chocolate chip cookies ... And then Gail had this recipe, and we still have recipe cards with her name on them in our recipe file. I found them for the series to use as real props.”

None of them had an inkling of what Berchtold was really doing.

His attentions always seemed particularly focused on Jan, but he was also working on her parents to get close to her. He finagled a sexual encounter with Mr Broberg, who teared up while admitting it in full detail publicly for the first time in the Netflix documentary.

Then he kidnapped Jan under the ruse of taking her horseback riding. Instead, he drugged the 12-year-old and brought her in his motorhome to Mexico. When Jan woke up, she was restrained and alone, but voices were coming through a speaker. They were named Zeta and Zethra; they were aliens, they told Jan, and so was she. They told her that her mother was her biological parent but her biological father was alien. She had been tasked with a mission to have children with a male they had chosen, they told her.

If she failed, her younger sister – who also allegedly was half alien – would be forced to replace her.

When Jan’s restraints were eventually removed, she walked into the main part of the motorhome and found “B” there; her young brain believed that he was the man chosen by the aliens. The Brobergs waited days to report her disappearance, not wanting to upset the Berchtold family and also giving “B” the benefit of the doubt.

“I never had an inkling that he had sexual designs on Jan,” Mr Broberg says in the documentary. “We weren’t really sure, even then, what a child molester was ... I don’t know how we could have been so gullible when there were so many red flags.”

Bob and Mary Ann Broberg raised their three girls in Idaho and were both also manipulated by Berchtold (Jan Broberg)

The Brobergs were “naïve,” FBI agent Pete Welsh, who worked the case, said in the Netflix show. “They don’t know things like that happen.”

Eventually, with the help of Berchtold’s brother, authorities tracked the pair to Mazatlan in Mexico. “B” had married Jan because there the age of consent was 12. The Brobergs flew to Mexico to retrieve their daughter and she was not the same girl they’d remembered.

Berchtold was also returned to Idaho. Upon their return, Jan swore nothing untoward had happened. A medical examination revealed her hymen intact, despite molestation the girl later revealed. Then Berchtold’s wife, Gail, turned up at the Brobergs’ house and said that, if they didn’t drop charges against her husband, his “dirty laundry” with Mr Broberg would be aired.

So Mr and Mrs Broberg signed affidavits claiming they believed Berchtold probably thought he had their permission to take their daughter – to the shock of prosecutors and the public, who had followed the case closely. The government still pursued Berchtold but he was let out on his own recognizance and moved to Utah.

That’s when his affair started with Jan’s mother. His manipulation was so strong that he convinced her to have an eight-month sexual relationship with him as he struggled to maintain connections with the family – to get to Jan.

Jan, meanwhile, still thought she had to complete her alien mission. She returned to school and life, despite being more standoffish, and “B” continued to secretly send her letters and still engineer meetings.

Between 1975 and 1976, Berchtold was having encounters with both Mrs Broberg and her daughter.

He later moved to Wyoming to run a recreation centre and two years after he fled with Jan to Mexico, she begged her parents to work there for the summer. When she threatened to hitchhike or run away, Mrs Broberg put her on a plane to Jackson Hole.

She stayed there for two weeks, living with “B,” and was miserable when she went home to Idaho. It wasn’t long before she disappeared, leaving a note to say she’d run away and hated her family’s religion and “screwed-up” morals.

In reality, she was taken again by Berchtold from her bedroom. Her parents did not report the disappearance for two weeks.

Jan, left, poses with her parents and sisters in 2015 (Jan Broberg)

“B,” who remained in contact with the family, kept up a charade, calling to say he’d heard from Jan. He claimed to be worried that she might be working as a prostitute and asked if her family had any updates.

When they finally contacted Agent Welsh, he “knew darn well that [Berchtold] was right in the middle of” it, he said in the documentary.

Berchtold was traced to a motorhome in Salt Lake City decorated with poster-size pictures of Jan. Tracking calls he made from a pay phone, investigators figured out he’d enrolled Jan in a Catholic girls’ school in California. He had been pretending he was a CIA agent whose wife had been killed and had to keep the identities of his daughter and himself secret.

“An investigation determined that Bob Berchtold had convinced two guys who were in jail with him, he would given them $1000 a month if they burned down” the florist shop Mr Broberg owned, Mr Welsh says in the documentary. “And they did. They not only did that, they burned down a whole half a block of Pocatello. They were convicted ... but we could not pin it on Berchtold.”

After the second abduction, Berchtold was charged with first degree kidnapping and other charges. But he was later acquitted by reason of mental defect and sentenced to a few months in a psychiatric facility. In recorded tapes, Berchtold blamed much of his behaviour on childhood abuse and experiences such as looking after his younger sister from a very early age.

Jan, meanwhile, still felt the mission was afoot. It wasn’t until she was 16 that she really began to shake that belief. The aliens had told her that, if she hadn’t borne Berchtold a child by that age, she’d be vaporized and they’d come for her little sister. But then she turned 16, and nothing happened.

The Brobergs picnic in the mountains in 1971, three years before family friend Bob “B” Berchtold kidnapped their oldest daughter (Jan Broberg)

However, the trauma was far from over. Jan was still processing her experience as time went on. One particular college assignment prompted her to ask her parents more questions about what happened to her and evaluate her abuse.

“I had a few brief moments of screaming at one or the other, or both of them, on the phone when I was writing that paper,” she tells The Independent. “Like, how come we don’t see this? What is wrong with all of us? Why are we so loving and trusting and nice? It was like that. And then it was over, I mean, any sort of blame.”

Jan went on to get married, have a son and stepchildren, and pursue a career as an actress. Berchtold went on to serve a year in jail for abusing another young girl.

He’d later come after the Berchtolds for speaking and writing about their story, even getting into physical altercations.

Jan and her mother worked on a self-published book, Stolen Innocence: The Jan Broberg Story, which was published in 2003. Berchtold continued to plague the family, decades later, turning up to speaking engagements and, at one point, even fighting with Jan’s Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA) protectors.

Jan got a life-long restraining order against Berchtold in 2004 after he confronted her in a courtroom -- their first face-to-face meeting in years. She stood her ground and pointedly told him she would continue to tell her family’s story to stop predators like him.

After that, Berchtold had little time afterwards to do more harm. He was found guilty in Utah of assaulting a BACA member protecting Jan and took his own life in 2005 before he could serve a jail sentence.

Jan was informed of his death by a prosecutor and told The Independent how receiving the information made her feel “so strange.”

“I sat there and I was stunned. I was relieved, I was sad, I was angry. He got out too easy,” she said. “I was also so sad for his children and the wife - that, for all of his gifts he had as this charismatic person, that this was not just me ... the others that he had harmed and the aftermath in our lives.

After wading through “so many emotions,” Ms Broberg ultimately felt “relief” that he could no longer hurt her or her family anymore.

Ms Broberg urges people to trust their instincts with the hope that other children will be saved from abuse at the hands of a skilled predator.

“it’s so important that we, as the adults, educate ourselves, listen to our spidey senses,” she tells The Independent. “We wait, when the hair comes up on the back of our neck because someone at church puts their hands on the bottom of their ... child’s back for 10 seconds too long - and we see our child do one little shoulder motion wiggle.”

That’s when everyone needs to act, she says.

Both of her parents were emotional in the 2017 documentary. Mr Broberg has since passed away, which his daughter believes may be a small blessing given some of the revelations in that programme.

Despite the gravity in his mind of his extramarital activity, he still wanted the incident to be included in the documentary, says Jan.

His thought process was: “If what happened to me is happening to someone else, maybe ... the result isn’t the same,” says Jan. “But if somebody is manipulating someone down the road of hell to doing something, that they will then be blackmailed for that, they will be held over a barrel for that ... I want them to know, these manipulators, these master manipulators, can get you to do something so terrible.”

The new show, produced by Jan and her mother, gives a realistic snapshot of how such grooming and abuse can happen, she hopes. She did what she could to help the actors and the production, even leaving handwritten letters for the cast, such as Jake Lacy who plays Berchtold.

“I just had this moment where I was like, I need to write them a letter, a handwritten letter,” she tells The Independent. “Because this has got to be so hard, for an actor to play these roles and to give them the creative license to, you know, bring your own person to it, but here’s some interesting things that I wanted to let you know about my mother, my father, about Berchtold.

“And [Lacy has] talked about that ... he’s like, ‘Jan is like this remarkable person, where she could write me a letter about this person and tell me all of his good qualities so that he wouldn’t be a stereotypical monster because that’s her message. It’s someone you love and trust’.”

A Friend of the Family will be available on Peacock on Sky and Now from 7 October in the UK.

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