Michelle Mann

Think “child kidnapping” and “getting ransom money from their wealthy parents” is the thought that comes first to my mind.

We tend to visualize creepy men with faces hidden grabbing victims and shoving them into the back of get-away cars before sending threatening ransom notes to their families.

But the reality is that kidnapping is many times less subtle. 

In 1974, then 12-year-old Jan Broberg was abducted from a small Idaho community by a trusted neighbor and family friend—kidnapped not just once but twice by the same man.

Broberg was the keynote speaker at the Medical Center Enterprise’s Healthy Women Banquet last week and to say that the crowd was stone-silent as she shared her story is an understatement.

It’s a surreal story now documented in a book and a movie on a streaming service but hearing this unbelievable story in person is still hard to digest.

The short version of her almost unbelievable story is that she was kidnapped by a family friend and neighbor that she considered “a second father.” 

That actually makes this a scarier story than if he was a monster that she didn’t know.

The perpetrator, Robert Berchtold, had so ingratiated himself with the Broberg family that when he first took off to Mexico with the 12 year old in August 1974, the family was unwilling to consider it a kidnapping. They chose instead to convince themselves that Berchtold had acted under a lot of “stress.”

Berchtold had told Broberg that they were going on a “special trip” alone to go horseback riding. He gave her what she thought were allergy pills before heading out. She says that she passed out in the car and woke up strapped to a bed in a strange place that she learned years later was Berchtold’s mobile home. 

Berchtold had convinced Broberg that she was the descendant of an ancient alien race, tasked with saving the species by procreating with him. Berchtold told her that should she ever reveal this secret, her sisters would be harmed.

The point Broberg drives home in her talk is that kidnapping is not just children of the rich and famous abducted for money.

It is sometimes that close family friend.

“He was the kind of guy that was just helpful,” Broberg said about her first impressions of Robert Berchtold. “Everybody loved him.” 

The world has changed a great deal since 1974 and increased electronic media sources are among the reasons that we are a much less naïve people. The fact that Broberg’s story seems so completely impossible is a sad commentary on how much less naïve we have become through the decades but that is a story for another day.

Berchtold killed himself in 2005 and Broberg continues to share her story as a caution-warning to others. “That’s because those parents don’t see what’s in front of them—and these kids don’t tell,” is the way she put it.

These many years later as Broberg has made it her mission to serve as a voice for the voiceless, security at schools and churches has increased and child protection laws are stronger.

AMBER Alerts—America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response—were created in 1996 as a partnership between law enforcement agencies, broadcasters, transportation agencies and wireless communications to activate urgent bulletins in the most serious child abduction cases. AMBER Alerts instantly galvanize the entire community to assist in the search for and the safe recovery of the child. 

In 2015 Attorney General Eric Holder announced a partnership between the Justice Department, Facebook and Bing to expand the reach of the AMBER Alert system. 

Those with information about missing children can call the Alabama Bureau of Investigation/Missing Children at 1-800-228-7688.

There are resources. We just have to use them. That is what Broberg wants people to know.


Michelle Mann is a staff writer for The Southeast Sun and Daleville Sun-Courier. The opinions of this writer are her own and not the opinion of the paper. She can be reached at (334) 393-2969 or by email at mmann@southeastsun.com.

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