Sterling Van Wagenen, Latter-day Saint filmmaker with old ties to Sundance, pleads guilty to sex abuse charge

American Fork • Sterling Van Wagenen, a Latter-day Saint filmmaker with deep ties to Utah’s movie industry, pleaded guilty Tuesday to a count of sexually abusing a child in an agreement that is expected to send him to prison for six years to life.

Van Wagenen’s attorney also revealed that his client will make another guilty plea Thursday in Salt Lake County to resolve another child sex abuse charge there. Both guilty pleas are part of deals with prosecutors in the two counties. Any prison time in the Salt Lake County case is expected to run concurrently with the life sentence, attorney Steven Shapiro said in court.

Tuesday’s plea was a surprise, given that it came in Van Wagenen’s first court appearance, and there was no hint of it on the docket. Shapiro explained to 4th District Judge Roger W. Griffin that he and prosecutors had been negotiating a resolution even before the charges were filed.

Shapiro told the judge that Van Wagenen wishes to “acknowledge wrongful conduct.”

Van Wagenen, 71, replied “guilty” when Griffin asked how he wished to plea. The filmmaker answered other standard questions for the judge but declined to speak with reporters after the hearing.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sterling Van Wagenen leaves the courtroom after his guilty plea, during his initial appearance in American Fork on Tuesday, April 30, 2019.

Griffin still needs to sentence Van Wagenen formally. That is scheduled for July 2. Van Wagenen is free on $75,000 bond until then.

Van Wagenen was charged with one count of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony, in Utah County and one count in Salt Lake County. The girl was between 7 and 9 years old when the abuse allegedly occurred between 2013 and 2015, according to a probable cause statement.

It said the girl told her parents that Van Wagenen inappropriately touched her twice, once in her home in Salt Lake County and once at a location in Utah County.

The charges come after Van Wagenen’s admission in an audio interview that was released in February by the Truth & Transparency Foundation, the nonprofit group behind the MormonLeaks website.

In that interview, Van Wagenen said he had reached under a 13-year-old boy’s pants in 1993, when the boy was at a sleepover with Van Wagenen’s son.

Van Wagenen said in the interview that he admitted to the abuse and told police and 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.

The audio interview was recorded in 2018 by Van Wagenen’s now-adult victim, 25 years after the fact. No charges have been filed in that episode.

In 1978, Van Wagenen co-founded the Utah/U.S. Film Festival, which grew to become the Sundance Film Festival. He was named the founding executive director of the Sundance Institute in 1981, hired by his cousin’s then-husband, actor-filmmaker Robert Redford.

Van Wagenen’s involvement with Sundance ended when he left the nonprofit’s Utah advisory board in 1993.

He was a producer of the 1985 film “The Trip to Bountiful,” for which Geraldine Page won a best-actress Oscar. His directing credits include “Alan & Naomi,” the second and third installments of “The Work and the Glory” — based on author Gerald N. Lund’s fictionalized accounts of early Mormonism — and an episode of the BYUtv series “Granite Flats.”

In 2013, the church began showing three films directed by Van Wagenen as part of Latter-day Saint temple rituals, according to the Truth and Transparency Foundation. Those rites are among the faith’s holiest ordinances, available only to devout members.

Van Wagenen was executive producer of the 2018 film “Jane and Emma” about the friendship between Emma Smith, wife of church founder Joseph Smith, and African American convert Jane Manning James.

After Tuesday’s hearing, Deputy Utah County Attorney David Sturgill said Shapiro contacted prosecutors before the charges were filed to negotiate a plea. As part of the discussions, Sturgill said, he shared the evidence with the defense.

“It’s not standard procedure," Sturgill said of the prefiling negotiations, "but it’s not the first time I’ve done it.”

Sturgill said in court that the victim and the victim’s family supported the resolution of the case. Griffin on Tuesday ordered Van Wagenen to stay away from the victim and the victim’s immediate family.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Steven Shapiro, attorney for Sterling Van Wagenen, talks to the media about Van Wagenen's guilty plea after his initial appearance in American Fork on Tuesday, April 30, 2019.

Outside the courtroom, Shapiro told reporters that Van Wagenen is receiving counseling to address pedophilia and plans to undergo counseling offered in prison.

As for why his client agreed to plead guilty, Shapiro explained: “He wants to make it as easy as he can on his family.”