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Sterling Van Wagenen, Sundance co-founder, ordered to prison for sex abuse of girl

Victim calls him 'coward' for not owning up to crime earlier

FILE - 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.
FILE - 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

AMERICAN FORK — In February, years after a Utah girl was touched inappropriately by an adult she had trusted, her older sister knew something was wrong.

She insisted her younger sibling disclose what happened, then immediately called their parents, who debated what to do as their horror set in.

Their mother confronted Sterling Van Wagenen, she recalled in an American Fork courtroom, where the Sundance Film Festival co-founder was ordered Tuesday to serve at least six years and up to life in prison.

"I don't remember that," she recalled Van Wagenen telling her. He would recall such behavior, she remembered him saying.

The opportunity was one of several he had to come clean and help his victim begin to heal, the girl, now a teenager, told him in a letter, standing next to her sister as she read it aloud.

"You've had at least four or five chances to do this, and you never took them. You lied to literally everyone. So don't apologize for the damage you could have addressed if you weren't a coward. I strongly believe the only thing you were actually torn up about is the fact that you got caught," she said.

Van Wagenen, a longtime filmmaker for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, co-founded the Sundance Film Festival with Robert Redford. He worked with Sundance until 1993 and later went on to teach at BYU, where he was director of content for BYUtv from 2007-2010. He resigned from a teaching position at the University of Utah earlier this year.

While Van Wagenen maintains he was abused as a child, 4th District Judge Roger Griffin said the filmmaker knew his actions were appalling and unjustified.

"The past does not justify the present," Griffin said.

He recommended that authorities keep Van Wagenen, 72, in the Utah State Prison for far longer than the minimum of six years.

“I want the victim to know you did the right thing and you’re not responsible for anything that happened and anything that will happen," the judge said, his voice thick with emotion. "You’re a brave young lady."

The girl came forward at the time when a years-old allegation of abuse against Van Wagenen surfaced from a childhood friend of his son, her mother said. Sean Escobar was 13 when he said Van Wagenen touched him inappropriately during a sleepover in 1993, according to police reports. His family chose not to pursue criminal charges at the time.

Escobar, now in his 30s, taped Van Wagenen apologizing for inappropriately touching him in a recording that surfaced in February.

On Tuesday, Van Wagenen sat with his hand covering his mouth at times during the hearing. At his turn to speak, he thanked Escobar and called him a "blessing."

"It's clear that any kind of apology I could make at this point is meaningless, so I’m not going to attempt one," Van Wagenen said.

"I do believe there is a door open for repentance and healing through Christ alone. And that’s my source of hope and I hope you can find your way to that place as well," he told the girl before he was handcuffed and led from the courtroom.

The Deseret News typically does not identify victims of sexual abuse, but Escobar previously agreed to be named. He and the girl, a relative of Van Wagenen's, embraced outside the courtroom, the first time they met.

"She doesn't have to live the life I lived, you know? What a blessing. What a blessing for her that she doesn't have to spend the next 25 years wondering if he's hurting other people and if he's being honest," Escobar said.

He said that when Van Wagenen praised him, "I couldn't help but think, ‘You're thanking me for catching you,’ which I just suppose that demonstrates how chronic and addictive and evasive he'd been around these issues all these years. … I just wish he would have done more of his own volition."

Van Wagenen's attorney, Steven Shapiro, argued that his client had taken responsibility on his own, in part by telling Shapiro he wanted to admit to the charge before the criminal investigation concluded.

Van Wagenen pleaded guilty in April to aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony, after prosecutors said he abused the girl at his home in Woodland Hills, Utah County, between 2013 and 2015.

Days later, he admitted to an identical charge in a West Jordan courtroom. He had touched the same child inappropriately as she sat on his lap on a stairway to her family's basement in Salt Lake County at another point in the two-year time frame, when she was between 7 and 9 years old. Sentencing in that case is July 9.

In exchange for his guilty pleas, prosecutors in both counties agreed to seek the sentence of at least six years and up to life in prison to run concurrently, or at the same time. Van Wagenen originally faced 15 years to life for each count.