West Jordan • For the second time this month, Latter-day Saint filmmaker Sterling Van Wagenen was given a prison sentence for sexually assaulting a young girl.
Without a word from Van Wagenen, 3rd District Judge Katie Bernards-Goodman on Tuesday handed down a sentence of six years to life, one week after a Utah County judge did the same. The resolution was part of a plea deal in which Van Wagenen admitted earlier this year to two child sex abuse charges in two separate courtrooms.
Both guilty pleas involve the same victim, a young girl who reported that Van Wagenen abused her between 2013 and 2015, when she was between 7 and 9 years old. Charging documents say 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 72-year-old filmmaker, who has deep ties to Utah’s film industry, has been behind bars for a week now. He stood in the courtroom shackled, wearing a white Utah Department of Corrections shirt and pants. He made no statement.
He will serve both prison sentences at the same time, meaning he could get out in as soon as six years. But last week, 4th District Judge Roger Griffin urged the parole board to impose a long sentence. Griffin said that while Van Wagenen reported that he had suffered trauma as a child himself, he should have known better as an adult that what he was doing was harmful.
The young girl was not present in Bernards-Goodman’s courtroom in West Jordan. Her mother was, but did not speak.
Last week, the young victim stood in an American Fork courtroom next to her older sister, who read a statement she wrote. In the statement, the victim said Van Wagenen should have admitted wrongdoing earlier and told her parents that he had touched her inappropriately. She urged him to come clean if there were other victims and said that, if it were up to her, he would spend the rest of his life in prison.
“I believe with all my heart that there are others that you damaged,” she said in her statement.
She is the second person that Van Wagenen has admitted to molesting when they were children. She came forward earlier this year after another victim, Sean Escobar, released a secretly recorded conversation in which Van Wagenen admitted he molested Escobar during a 1993 sleepover at the Van Wagenen home when Escobar was 13.
The girl had read about Escobar’s story after he gave permission to the Truth & Transparency Foundation, the nonprofit group behind the MormonLeaks website, to publish the recording.
Van Wagenen admitted abusing Escobar back in 1993 to police and his lay leaders within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He never faced criminal charges for that abuse. Instead, he was disfellowshipped — a penalty short of excommunication — from the Utah-based faith.
Escobar was in the courtroom when Van Wagenen was sentenced last week and noted how brave the young girl was for coming forward. It took him 25 years to say he was abused, and she had the strength to stand before her abuser.
While he won't get the same chance to see Van Wagenen sentenced for abusing him, Escobar said he's grateful that the other victim will not have to grow up wondering if Van Wagenen is continuing to harm others.
“What a blessing,” he said. “She doesn’t have to spend the next 25 years wondering if he’s hurting other people, and if he’s being honest. That’s a gift. I would have loved to have that.”
The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse, but Escobar agreed to be named.
Van Wagenen’s movie resume is extensive. In 1978, he 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 by its founder, actor-filmmaker Robert Redford, who was married to Van Wagenen’s cousin at the time. 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. He directed the second and third installments of “The Work and the Glory” movies — based on author Gerald N. Lund’s fictionalized accounts of early Mormonism.
In 2013, the church began showing three films directed by Van Wagenen as part of Latter-day Saint temple rituals, according to the Truth & Transparency Foundation. Those rites are among the faith’s holiest ordinances, available only to devout members. Van Wagenen also 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.