Sundance Founder Sterling Van Wagenen Charged With Sexual Abuse of a Child, Alleged Second Victim Speaks Out

The festival has "denounced" the filmmaker and producer who helped start the annual event with Robert Redford in 1978.
Park City, Utah during Sundance 2019
George Loch for IndieWire

Earlier this month, Sundance Film Festival co-founder Sterling Van Wagenen was charged with two counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, though a heartbreaking New York Times article alleges that the filmmaker previously sexually abused another child decades earlier. The April charges allege that Van Wagenen molested a girl younger than 10 on two occasions between 2013 and 2015.

The charges come on the tail of recent allegations made against the former Sundance Institute founding executive director that were first made public in February when the Truth & Transparency Foundation released an audio interview in which Van Wagenen admits to touching a then-13-year-old boy underneath his pants. The crimes that Van Wagenen admitted to in the audio interview, which was recorded by his alleged victim, occurred in 1993. The interview took place in 2018.

The Salt Lake City Tribune reports that, during the audio interview, Van Wagenen said “he admitted to the [1993] abuse then to police and to his lay leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He never faced criminal charges but was disfellowshipped — a penalty short of excommunication — from his faith.”

During the audio interview, Van Wagenen also told his alleged victim that he “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.” The new charges contradict Van Wagenen’s statement that there “were no further incidents.”

When the Truth & Transparency Foundation released the audio interview earlier this year, the alleged victim chose to use an alias. In the New York Times article, he’s now come forward to share more about his story, including using his own name and likeness. Now 38, Sean Escobar detailed the process by which he reached out to Van Wagenen and went about interviewing him about his alleged crimes.

While Van Wagenen claimed to Escobar that no other crimes were committed, after the release of the audio interview, another victim came forward, leading to the new charges against Van Wagenen. The New York Times reports that Escobar “said he heard from the parents of the girl Mr. Van Wagenen is accused of abusing that the recording had motivated her to come forward. The girl is someone Mr. Van Wagenen knew.”

“This young girl, the other victim, is a hero to me,” Escobar told the Times. “I helped her, and she helped me.”

In 1978, Van Wagenen (then the head of Robert Redford’s production company, Wildwood) and Utah Film Commission member John Earle founded the Utah/US Film Festival, which would become the Sundance Film Festival in 1984. In 1979, Van Wagenen left the fledgling festival to lead the first-year pilot program of what would become the Sundance Institute. Still led by Van Wagenen, the Institute took over management of the festival the same year it rebranded as “Sundance,” moved to Park City, and changed its event dates to early January.

Van Wagenen has reportedly not been involved with the yearly event since he left the festival’s advisory board in 1993. It is not known if the filmmaker and producer left his post with the festival because of the alleged crimes against Escobar, which took place that same year.

After Van Wagenen was charged in early April, a representative from the Sundance Institute provided The Wrap with a statement regarding Van Wagenen, which reads: “Recent reports in the press have made us aware of allegations of sexual abuse by Sterling Van Wagenen, who played a role in founding both the Festival and the Institute. He has no current connection to either entity, and hasn’t since he left our Utah 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.”

You can read the full NYT piece right here.

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