Sundance co-founder pleads guilty to child sex abuse charge

Local News

AMERICAN FORK, Utah (ABC4 News) – A Utah filmmaker who co-founded the Sundance film festival pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of sexually abusing a child.

Sterling Van Wagenen now faces a prison sentence that will range from six years to life.

His attorney also said in court Tuesday that Van Wagenen plans to make another guilty plea in Salt Lake County later this week, where he faces another count of child sexual abuse.

The guilty plea stems from an incident that occurred when between 2013 and 2015, according to court documents, which also say the victim, a girl, was between 7 and 9 years old at the time. The alleged victim stated Van Wagenen touched her inappropriately on two occasions. 

Sean Escobar, who identified himself as “David” back in February, is now revealing his identity as one of Van Wagenen’s alleged victims. Escobar reached out to Sterling Van Wagenen in September of 2018 to get closure on an incident he claims occurred in the early 90s. He recorded their conversation, in which Van Wagenen admits to the abuse and apologizes for it. 

Escobar’s recording likely prompted the victim in Tuesday’s hearing to come forward, leading to the guilty plea. The statute of limitations already ran out for Escobar’s case, but he’s concerned about getting justice for other victims. 

“I believe I did a great service for this victim,” he said, getting emotional in his interview with ABC4 News Tuesday. “And that’s pretty humbling.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not comment on disciplinary matters, but Van Wagenen claims he did undergo Church discipline for the alleged molestation of Escobar. According to police reports, the incident was reported to Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office in July 1993. 

Van Wagenen did provide a statement to the Truth and Transparency Foundation, the group behind MormonLeaks and the website that released the audio recording, back in February.

“I went through the Church disciplinary process and was disfellowshipped for about two years. I repented and there were no further incidents. I reported the abuse to the police, as I was instructed to by my Stake President, and the parents elected not to press charges.”

Police reports indicate Escobar then claimed Van Wagenen touched his privates during a sleepover at Van Wagenen’s home. 

Escobar spoke to ABC4 News over the phone when this incident came to light, claiming Van Wagenen touched his penis while Escobar was asleep on Van Wagenen’s couch during a sleepover at the home. Escobar claimed Van Wagenen stopped touching him when he stirred awake, but he claimed he was “frozen” as the alleged abuse was occurring. 

Escobar said he hid in the bathroom at Van Wagenen’s home for the remainder of the night, until he called his mother to come and get him the next morning. When he told his mother what had happened he said she was petrified.

“She looked like she had seen a ghost,” Escobar told ABC4 News Monday. 

His mother contacted a local bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to report the alleged abuse, Escobar said.

“They told him and he said ‘well, I’m really close with Harold Brown, the stake president, and I will take care of this. Don’t worry. I will make sure it’s reported to the Church,'” he told ABC4 News. 

Escobar said the abuse was handled internally by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Police reports indicate his parents chose not to press charges. “The families are supportive of Mr. Van Wagenen in working out this problem,” a police report from July 26, 1993 indicates. 

“The way it was put to my parents was that it was appropriate to let the Church handle it,” said Escobar, who also indicated Van Wagenen underwent a disciplinary council for the alleged abuse. 

Escobar said with the current climate around sexual abuse and religious organizations, what happened to him is still a “hangup” in his life.

“It just keeps resurfacing for me. I never got any kind of counseling or therapy or anything of the sort from the Church, I never got to talk to any Church leaders about this. I don’t know what he told the [Church council],'” he said. 

He said he wished his parents had pressed charges at the time. He also said he wished the Church would have involved him in its investigation. 

“Looking back I wish that there would have been some kind of — I wish the Church would have corrobrated the story [with me],” he told ABC4 News. “I’d like the church to do their due diligence to make sure they’re getting the whole story from victims.”

“I want to make it safe. If there’s anybody else who’s had similar or worse done to them, I want to make sure they feel safe to come forward.”

“My only hope is that if there are other victims out there, I hope I can give them courage…,” he said in February. 

Van Wagenen also produced and directed many Utah-based films, including The Trip to Bountiful, The Work and the Glory and Latter-day Saint temple ceremony films. 

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