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Sundance co-founder Sterling Van Wagenen pleads guilty to a second abuse charge

WEST JORDAN — A founder of the Sundance Film Festival has admitted to sexually abusing a young girl a second time.

Sterling Van Wagenen, 71, pleaded guilty Thursday morning in West Jordan's 3rd District Court to another count of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony, part of an agreement with prosecutors expected to end in a prison term of at least six years.

Prosecutors say he touched the child inappropriately while she sat on his lap on a stairway to her family's basement in Salt Lake County between 2013 and 2015, when she was between 7 and 9 years old. He admitted Tuesday to abusing the girl another time at his own home in Woodland Hills, Utah County, during the same time period.

Sterling Van Wagenen stands next to his attorney Steven Shapiro, as he pleads guilty to a second charge of sex abuse at the West Jordan courthouse on Thursday, May 2, 2019.
Sterling Van Wagenen stands next to his attorney Steven Shapiro, as he pleads guilty to a second charge of sex abuse at the West Jordan courthouse on Thursday, May 2, 2019.
Rick Egan

"This is the first step in a number of steps that will hopefully allow the family to heal," his attorney, Steven Shapiro, said outside the courtroom.

In exchange for his guilty pleas, prosecutors in both counties have agreed to seek sentences of at least six years and up to life in prison that will run concurrently, Shapiro said. Van Wagenen originally faced 15 years to life for each count.

He appeared in a black suit and spoke very little, replying "guilty" when the judge asked how he would plead to the charge he inappropriately touched the child, a relative of his.

Van Wagenen made movies 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. Sean Escobar, now 38, told the Deseret News he recorded Van Wagenen apologizing for inappropriately touching him.

Van Wagenen told police he touched Escobar, a friend of his sons, during a sleepover at his home in July 1993, according to Salt Lake County sheriff's reports from that year. Escobar, now 38, told the Deseret News this week that his parents ultimately decided not to push for criminal charges.

Van Wagenen, who posted $75,000 bond, is set to be sentenced July 2 in American Fork and July 9 in West Jordan.