Latter-day Saint filmmaker Sterling Van Wagenen pleads guilty to child sex abuse in a second courtroom
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) 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. Thursday, May 2, 2019.
West Jordan •
Sterling Van Wagenen, the a Latter-day Saint filmmaker who has
already pleaded guilty to one count of sexual abuse, entered another guilty plea Thursday in West Jordan.
It was the second half of a deal with prosecutors in two counties that is expected to send Van Wagenen to prison for six years to life. Third District Judge Katie Bernards-Goodman scheduled sentencing for July 9 — one week after Van Wagenen is to be sentenced in an American Fork courtroom.
Van Wagenen, 71, entered a guilty plea there on Tuesday. Like on Thursday, Van Wagenen admitted to a count of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony.
Defense attorney Steven Shapiro said again Thursday that the deal with prosecutors calls for Van Wagenen to be sentenced to concurrent prison terms of six years to life. Van Wagenen is free on $75,000 bond until the July 2 sentencing hearing.
Again on Thursday, Van Wagenen had a few supporters who hugged him outside the courtroom after the short hearing. But unlike Tuesday, there were about eight people who appeared to represent the victim. They sat on a different gallery bench in the West Jordan courtroom than Van Wagenen’s supporters and spoke with the prosecutor outside the courtroom. Neither set of supporters stopped to speak to reporters.
Charging documents have said Van Wagenen’s victim was a girl was between 7 and 9 years old when the abuse occurred between 2013 and 2015. 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.
Sterling Van Wagenen, left, pleads guilty during his initial appearance in American Fork, Utah, on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. Prosecutors charged Van Wagenen earlier this month on accusations that he inappropriately touched a young girl on two occasions between 2013 and 2015. The 71-year-old co-founded a Utah film festival that came to be known as Sundance Film Festival with Robert Redford, but hasn't been with the organization for more than two decades. (Rick Egan /The Salt Lake Tribune, via AP, Pool)
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.
(Courtesy photo) Sterling van Wagenen on the set of “The Work and the Glory: American Zion” in 2005.
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 Mormon founder Joseph Smith, and African American convert Jane Manning James.