A prominent Utah artist and film industry leader made an appearance in court on Thursday. And for the second time in a week, Sterling Van Wagenen, admitted to sexually abusing a child.

The 71-year-old was charged with two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child. Both counts stem from a complaint, from a girl, who told authorities that Van Wagenen inappropriately touched her when she was between the ages of seven and nine, between the years of 2013 and 2015. 

His attorney, Steven Shapiro, addressed the court first.

“We have discussed what the preliminary hearing is, what it means and what a waiver means,” he said. “I believe he (Van Wagenen) understands that and is ready to move forward today, waiving and entering the plea as described.”

Waiving his right to any preliminary hearings, Van Wagenen answered the judge’s questions about the process. He then was asked the critical question.

“How do you plea, that on January 1, 2013, in Salt Lake County, you committed an aggravated sexual abuse against a child? What’s your plea?” the judge asked.

“Guilty,” Van Wagenen responded.

With that, the once prominent filmmaker and co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival, had admitted to a second child sex abuse incident. Both of which were perpetrated against the same girl.

The girl was reportedly prompted to speak out when she heard a recording of a conversation, in which, Van Wagenen admitted to molesting another child in 1993.

That child, Sean Escobar, is now a man, living in St. George. Escobar confronted Van Wagenen last year and secretly recorded the conversation. Escobar told ABC4’s Andrew Reeser that he recorded the conversation in hopes of warning other people and finding out whether there were more victims.

“I still can’t get out of my mind…are there other victims?,” says Escobar. “That’s where my focus is and that’s where my attention is and I don’t really care how they sentence him.”

Escobar’s recorded conversation first went public on the website TruthandTransparency.org, the website of a group called the Truth and Transparency Foundation, headquartered in Las Vegas. The story quickly made national headlines, including being reported in a New York Times article.

Van Wagenen faces a sentence of six years to life in prison, on each count, to be served concurrently, according to an agreement between the county attorneys who prosecuted him. He is currently free on $75,000 bond, and in therapy, until his sentencing hearing, which is scheduled for July 2, 2019.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the toll-free Statewide 24-hour Sexual Violence Crisis and Information Hotline at Rape & Sexual Assault Crisis Line 1-888-421-1100. Click here for a list of Rape Crisis Resources in Utah.


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