News & Opinion | May 2, 2019 6:40 am

Sundance Co-Founder Pleads Guilty in Sexual Assault Case

The disgraced filmmaker faces six years to life in prison

Sterling Van Wagenen
Sterling Van Wagenen in 2015
Getty

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Sundance Film Festival founder and producer Sterling Van Wagenen has pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of a child.

The 71-year-old filmmaker entered the plea on Tuesday after he was charged with the crime last month. The guilty plea is part of an agreement that includes a sentence of six years to life, AP reported. Van Wagenen reportedly plans to plead guilty to a second charge involving the same victim, according to his attorney Steven Shapiro.

Van Wagenen was charged with inappropriately touching a young girl on two occasions between 2013 and 2015, when the victim was between the ages of seven and nine. Police were alerted to the case by child protective services after the girl told her parents about the abuse. A probable case statement detailing the charges was filed on April 4.

The disgraced filmmaker co-founded the Sundance Film Festival back in 1978 while serving as the head of Wildwood, Robert Redford’s production company. Van Wagenen later went on to produce the 1985 Oscar-winning film, The Trip to Bountiful. 

The sexual assault charges follow Van Wagenen’s recent resignation from his position as a part-time instructor at the University of Utah’s Film and Media Arts Department. The part-time university staffer had been placed on administrative leave after a man accused Van Wagenen of molestation.

The accuser, Utahn Sean Escobar, alleged Van Wagenen molested him as a child back in 1993. In February, Escobar released a recorded conversation to the Truth & Transparency Foundation in which Van Wagenen admitted to the abuse. Escobar, who had previously remained anonymous in his accusations, made his identity public this week.

“I want to assign meaning to what happened to me, and I’ve been able to do that now,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune. “I want to use this as an opportunity to help others and encourage people to address sexual abuse.”

Van Wagenen is scheduled to be formally sentenced in July.