AMERICAN FORK, Utah – A filmmaker who co-founded the Sundance Film Festival and produced an Oscar-winning movie in the mid-1980s pleaded guilty Tuesday to sexual abuse of a child.
Sterling Van Wagenen, 71, entered the plea as part of an agreement that includes a sentence of six years to life. He plans to plead guilty to a second charge involving the same victim later this week, his attorney Steven Shapiro said.
His acceptance of the plea deal was a surprise since he had just been charged earlier this month and it came during his first court appearance. Shapiro said his client decided to waive his right to other hearings to resolve the case quickly and avoid further harm to his family.
Van Wagenen wanted to “acknowledge wrongful conduct,” Shapiro said.
Prosecutors charged Van Wagenen with inappropriately touching a girl between the ages of 7 and 9 on two occasions between 2013 and 2015 in two northern Utah cities.
He is scheduled to be formally sentenced on July 2.
Van Wagenen co-founded a Utah film festival that came to be known as Sundance Film Festival with Robert Redford and was the Sundance Institute’s founding executive director, but hasn’t been with the organization for more than two decades.
He was a producer on the 1985 film “The Trip to Bountiful,” a story of an elderly woman who longs to return to her home that earned the late actress Geraldine Page an Academy Award for her starring performance.
He has worked over the years as a film instructor at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University and as a director and producer for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on a variety of projects, including temple videos.
Van Wagenen resigned from his part-time instructor position at the University of Utah’s Film and Media Arts Department on Feb. 15 after being put on administrative leave on Feb. 5, university spokesman Chris Nelson said.
Van Wagenen’s resignation came after a man came forward to accuse Van Wagenen of molesting him as a boy in 1993. No charges have been filed in that case, which was made public by a website that serves as a watchdog for The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church.
He was the executive director of the 2018 historical tale “Jane and Emma” about a black woman’s friendship with the wife of Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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