For months, Utahn Sean Escobar lived in what he describes as “pure hell.”
He was racked with guilt, second-guessing his decision to out the man who molested him as a young teen.
In February, he gave the Truth & Transparency Foundation, the nonprofit group behind the MormonLeaks website, permission to release a conversation he secretly recorded with Sterling Van Wagenen — a prominent Latter-day Saint filmmaker and co-founder of what would become the Sundance Film Festival. In that recording, Van Wagenen admitted to violating Escobar during a sleepover in 1993.
The fallout was swift: The Salt Lake Film Society severed ties with Van Wagenen and the University of Utah, where he worked as an instructor, and put him on administrative leave.
Escobar said in February that he came forward, in part, because he worried Van Wagenen may have abused others. But in the months after he made headlines, he began to doubt himself.
What if he had just ruined a man’s life? What if Van Wagenen had truly turned his life around, like he asserted in their recorded conversation?
Escobar questioned himself and his motivations: Was this just a way to extract revenge?
But then, in April, the news broke that someone else told police that Van Wagenen had sexually abused her. This time, it was a young girl who told authorities that she was abused between 2013 and 2015.
“When I learned [of her allegations], I just cried and cried and cried,” Escobar said Tuesday, “because I thought it all makes sense now, why I felt so moved to pursue this. I felt like this girl was a hero. She gave me a gift, and helped me understand why I felt so compelled.”
On Tuesday, Van Wagenen, 71, went to an American Fork courthouse and admitted to sexually abusing the girl. His attorney said he plans to plead guilty to a second sex abuse charge involving the same girl in Salt Lake County on Thursday, part of a plea deal that is expected to send him to prison for six years to life.
Escobar never got that justice for himself. While Van Wagenen went to the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office less than a week after the 1993 sleepover to confess he had inappropriately touched Escobar, the case never went to prosecutors.
A police report notes that when a detective contacted Escobar’s father, he said that his son, then 13, did not want to talk about what occurred. The case was closed, the report reads, because the “victim refused to pursue this complaint.”
But Escobar said Tuesday it felt good knowing there will be justice for that young girl. And he still wonders if Van Wagenen has other victims.
“I’m desperate for answers,” he said. “I’m desperate to know. I want to assign meaning to what happened to me, and I’ve been able to do that now. I want to use this as an opportunity to help others and encourage people to address sexual abuse.”
Escobar said the girl coming forward gave him the strength to reveal his identity publicly for the first time this week. In previous interviews, he went by the pseudonym David.
He now wants people to know his name.
“Now that I know that there’s others,” he said, “I feel obligated to come forward. If there’s other victims out there, I have to do what I can.”