Sundance Co-Founder Admits To Sexually Abusing Girl

Apr 30, 2019, 9:58 PM | Updated: 10:35 pm

AMERICAN FORK, Utah — A co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival has admitted to sexually abusing a young girl at his home.

Sterling Van Wagenen, 71, of Woodland Hills, Utah County, pleaded guilty as charged to aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony, Tuesday in 4th District Court.

The admission comes amid new attention to a report accusing him of abusing a 13-year-old boy two decades earlier, when Van Wagenen told police he touched the teen inappropriately but was never criminally charged.

On Tuesday, the filmmaker admitted he touched a girl inappropriately between 2013 and 2015 when she was 7 to 9 years old. It was the first time he answered the charge in court.

“His wish is to acknowledge his wrongful and illegal conduct,” said his attorney Steven Shapiro.

In exchange for his guilty plea, Utah County prosecutors have agreed to seek a sentence of at least six years and up to life in prison. Van Wagenen originally faced 15 years and up to life.

Shapiro said his client will likely plead guilty to an identical charge in Salt Lake County, where prosecutors say the same girl, a relative of his, had told her parents he touched her inappropriately while she sat on his lap on a stairway to her family’s basement. Shapiro anticipates the state will pursue a similar sentence there and ask a judge to have it run concurrent, or at the same time, as the other charge.

Shapiro said his client has expressed regret and decided to forgo a trial with his victim in mind.

“He wanted to waive those rights so that he could spare her and her family the trauma associated with doing that,” the attorney said.

Van Wagenen co-produced the 1985 film “The Trip to Bountiful.” Geraldine Page won an Academy Award for best actress for her role, and the movie was nominated for best screenplay. He also made films for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and co-founded the Sundance Film Festival with Robert Redford.

He is a former professor at Brigham Young University and at the University of Utah, where he resigned earlier this year after an allegation that he abused a 13-year-old boy in 1993 surfaced. The alleged victim, Sean Escobar, said he recorded Van Wagenen confessing and apologizing for touching him over his clothing in 1993, but Escobar said the touching happened underneath his clothes. Shapiro declined to comment on that allegation.

Police records show Van Wagenen told a Salt Lake County sheriff’s deputy he touched Escobar, a friend of his sons, during a sleepover in the family room of Van Wagenen’s home in July 1993, according to sheriff’s reports.

Escobar said he told his mom about the abuse the next morning, but the incident continued to affect him. He said he began having nightmares and slept with a hunting knife. He refused to go outside at night and developed a distrust of adults, especially men, he recalled.

The teen’s father told an officer that they were “supportive of Mr. Van Wagenen in working out this problem,” a deputy wrote, concluding that “the victim refused to pursue this complaint.”

Escobar, now 38, said Tuesday that his parents at the time wanted to avoid forcing him to give repeated testimony in a drawn-out court case that could possibly have identified him.

“Times have changed and victims are much more protected in this day and age,” he said. The Deseret News does not typically name victims of sexual abuse, but Escobar agreed to be identified.

When prosecutors charged Van Wagenen with abusing the girl, Escobar said, “I’ve been able to assign meaning to why this happened to me. I know that I was supposed to make it safe for this girl to come forward.”

He urged those who learn about abuse to insist that abusers get proper treatment.

“I don’t think anybody gets caught the first time,” he said.

In a Tuesday statement, Sundance Institute officers emphasized Van Wagenen has not had a role in the festival since he left its advisory board in 1993.

“Sundance Institute categorically denounces his behavior as described in recent reports, and we stand in solidarity with those whose brave truth-telling shines light on abusive behavior,” the statement said.

“That’s the difficult aspect of sexual abuse, is it can occur over decades,” said Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, whose office prosecuted the American Fork case. “It can go undetected over decades. And it very often includes more victims than the victim that came forward.”

Sentencing is set for July 2 in American Fork. Van Wagenen is next due in court in Salt Lake County on Thursday.


KSL TV’s Felicia Martinez contributed to this report

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Sundance Co-Founder Admits To Sexually Abusing Girl