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How an Abuse Victim’s Nerve and a Hidden iPhone Led to the Arrest of a Sundance Founder


According to the New York Times, Sean Escobar had been waiting for the moment for more than a quarter-century.


Over the course of an hour in September, Mr. Escobar sat at a dining room table with Sterling Van Wagenen, a founder of the Sundance Film Festival and a respected figure in the Mormon community, and asked him about a moment that had bothered Mr. Escobar since he was 13.

Why, he asked, had Mr. Van Wagenen touched his genitals?

Mr. Van Wagenen apologized and said that he had been going through difficulties in his career and his marriage, that he struggles with depression. He sounded sincere and penitent. He pledged, again and again, that he had never done anything like that before or since.

Mr. Escobar thanked him and showed him out. Then he walked over to a potted plant, retrieved the iPhone he had hidden there, and tapped the red button to stop the recording.

It is rare for a sex abuse victim to have the chance to directly confront an abuser, even in a court of law. But Mr. Escobar’s remarkable confrontation did not quiet his nagging questions:

Had the abuse, which was reported at the time to a local church official and the sheriff’s office, been appropriately dealt with? Mr. Van Wagenen admitted to a detective that he had touched the boy inappropriately, according to sheriff’s records, but he was not charged.

And could Mr. Escobar really have been the only victim?

“All my life this has bothered me about Sterling,” Mr. Escobar, 38, said in an interview this month. “It would haunt me.”

So he released his recording to the Truth & Transparency Foundation, an investigative website focused on religion, thinking it would encourage any other victims to come forward. It was published in February, and for the next few weeks, Mr. Escobar agonized over his decision.

“Oh my God, what have I done?” he said he thought to himself. “I’ve ruined this guy’s life.”

This month, Mr. Van Wagenen was charged with two counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, though not for anything he had done to Mr. Escobar. Prosecutors in Utah said he molested a girl younger than 10 on two occasions between 2013 and 2015.

A Nightmare Sleepover

Mr. Van Wagenen, 71, who declined to comment, has not entered a plea. He was released on $75,000 bail.

Though he never attained Hollywood prestige — one film he produced, “The Trip to Bountiful,” delivered a best actress Oscar in 1986 — he practically put Utah on the filmmaking map when he, along with others including the actor Robert Redford, began what became the Sundance Film Festival. (Mr. Redford’s wife at the time, Lola Van Wagenen, is a cousin of Mr. Van Wagenen’s.) A spokesman for the Sundance Institute said Mr. Van Wagenen has not had a role at the festival since 1993.

Mr. Escobar, the youngest of four children, lived three doors down from Mr. Van Wagenen in the Salt Lake City suburb of Holladay. He became friends with the two youngest Van Wagenen boys.

Mr. Escobar said he was sleeping over at the Van Wagenens’ house when the abuse happened. He was on a couch in the basement, with one of Mr. Van Wagenen’s sons on a different sofa. Another son slept on the floor.

In the middle of the night, Mr. Escobar said, he woke up to find Mr. Van Wagenen’s hand down his pants, stroking his genitals. Mr. Escobar stirred, hoping Mr. Van Wagenen would leave. Mr. Van Wagenen pulled his hand away, but a few minutes later, he resumed. The boy stirred again.

When Mr. Van Wagenen touched Mr. Escobar a third time, the boy jumped off the couch, ran to the bathroom and locked the door. Mr. Van Wagenen tried repeatedly to get the boy to come out, but he refused, saying he did not feel well.

Mr. Escobar stayed in that bathroom all night.

“There was this big orange cat that got locked in the bathroom with me,” Mr. Escobar said. “I just pet the cat all night.”

In the morning, he left the bathroom and went straight to the phone. He called his mother and asked her to pick him up right away. She took him to a drive-through for a breakfast sandwich. With his mother behind the wheel and his sister in the front seat, he told them what happened.

“I just remember my mom,” he said, “it just looked like she’d seen a ghost. She just turned white.”

Mr. Van Wagenen told a therapist what he had done, and because the therapist was mandated to report it to the authorities, Mr. Van Wagenen went to the sheriff’s office himself. According to a Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office report, he told a detective that he had touched Mr. Escobar “sexually, inappropriately,” though he added that he had not gone under the boy’s clothes. (Mr. Escobar said he had.)

But the case was dropped after Mr. Escobar’s father told the detective that the family did not want to pursue the complaint and that it was “supportive of Mr. Van Wagenen in working out this problem.”

The Greater Salt Lake Unified Police Department, which has absorbed the sheriff’s office, said sex crimes involving children “are handled very differently” today. A spokeswoman said such a case would now be submitted to the district attorney regardless of the parents’ wishes.

Mr. Escobar’s parents, Randi and Tony Escobar, said this month that they had been trying to protect their son from the stress of a trial, exposure in the news media and teasing at school.

“The only thing we could think about was, ‘We can’t drag our son through all this,’” they wrote in an email. “Today is a very different era, where the victims’ identities are somewhat protected.”

Mr. Escobar said he understood his parents’ decision, and they remain close. But he wishes they had let the sheriff’s office continue the case so Mr. Van Wagenen perhaps could have been stopped.

Instead, his life moved on. After Mr. Escobar’s parents reported what had happened to a local leader in the Mormon Church, where they were members, the church disciplined Mr. Van Wagenen with a two-year “disfellowship,” a partial exclusion from church life that is short of an excommunication.

But in 1993, the same year he went to the police, Mr. Van Wagenen went to work as an adjunct professor of film at Brigham Young University, which is closely affiliated with the church. He would later work as director of content for BYU Broadcasting, and then as an instructor at the University of Utah.

Mr. Van Wagenen also directed movies for the church, according to his Facebook page and other biographical materials. The church produces a variety of official films, used for educational purposes or in sacred ceremonies.

A spokesman for the church, formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said it had taken “appropriate disciplinary action in this case,” but he did not directly respond to a question about why Mr. Van Wagenen was permitted to have roles in the church after he was disciplined.

The spokesman, Eric Hawkins, said that at the time of the report, the church’s practice was to provide spiritual counseling to individuals, and that it was offered. (Both Mr. Escobar and Mr. Van Wagenen said during the recorded conversation that they recalled no counseling.) Mr. Hawkins added that two years later, the church enacted several new safeguards against child sexual abuse, including a 24-hour help line and rules requiring “annotation of the membership record of any individual who has confessed to or been found guilty of abusing a child.”

‘I Don’t Lie Very Well’

Today, Mr. Escobar lives in Salt Lake City and St. George, in southern Utah, with his wife, Crystal, and their four young children. He and his wife have done well selling nutritional supplements with a company called Isagenix. She has written a book on motherhood, and the couple host a self-help podcast.

The abuse did not derail his life, he said. But its effects have never gone away.

He started sleeping with a hunting knife underneath his pillow, and having dreams that adults were hurting him. He got in fights at school. He became distrustful of adults and church leaders.

As an adult, he said, he is compulsively protective of his children. He will not allow them to be alone with other men. He said that when his children were assigned male teachers, he demanded they be moved to different classes. When they had play dates, he called ahead to make sure a woman would be present at all times. After decades as a “rock-solid” Mormon, he said, he left the church last year.

And he could not shake the questions: What if there were other victims out there? What if the abuse was still going on? So in January of last year, he reached out to Mr. Van Wagenen’s wife on Facebook.

“I only want to make sure that there are strict provisions in place to keep something like that from ever happening again with grandchildren and so forth,” he wrote.

She did not respond.

Eight months later, he texted each of Mr. Van Wagenen’s children. He told them that their father had molested him. It was like ripping out his own heart.

“I’m so sorry,” said Mr. Escobar, wiping tears from his eyes, in a video message he sent to one of Mr. Van Wagenen’s children. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”

One of Mr. Van Wagenen’s daughters suggested that Mr. Escobar and her father meet. He could offer assurances that he had never inappropriately touched another child. Maybe, she said, it could bring Mr. Escobar some peace.

For days leading up to the meeting, Mr. Escobar said, he could barely eat, sleep or function.

“I kept telling my wife, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’” he said. “It was like sending me back to my childhood. I was terrified.”

Mr. Escobar did not want Mr. Van Wagenen to know where he lived, so they met at someone else’s home. He said he recorded the conversation in case Mr. Van Wagenen threatened him. He attached a microphone to his iPhone and stashed it in a plant. His wife sat on the stairs just outside the room where the two men spoke.

After Mr. Van Wagenen sat down, Mr. Escobar ran through an excruciating list of questions, which he had written in a red spiral notebook.

Have you ever watched child pornography? He said he had not.

How would you have felt if this happened to your own son? “Awful.”

“How can I be the only one?” Mr. Escobar asked.

“I’ve never considered myself a pedophile,” Mr. Van Wagenen said. “That one instance was so horrifying to me. And I’ve carried the awareness of that — not to the degree that you have, for sure — but I’ve carried the awareness of that.”

“I don’t lie very well,” he added later. “I don’t.”

Afterward, Mr. Escobar said, he thought Mr. Van Wagenen was probably telling the truth. But probably was not good enough.

Through a friend, he connected with Ryan McKnight at the Truth & Transparency Foundation and handed over the recording. In the article that accompanied the recording, he went by a pseudonym, David. He is identifying himself publicly for the first time in this article.

Mr. Escobar said he heard from the parents of the girl Mr. Van Wagenen is accused of abusing that the recording had motivated her to come forward. The girl is someone Mr. Van Wagenen knew.

 “This young girl, the other victim, is a hero to me,” Mr. Escobar said. “I helped her, and she helped me.”

He has not heard from Mr. Van Wagenen since he was charged.

“My heart goes out to Mr. Escobar. He suffered in silence and fear for decades before finding the courage to come forward. And, he inspired another brave victim to speak up,” said nationally recognized sex abuse attorney Jeff Herman.

“Despite the challenges that victims of sexual assault face when confronting men of power, the benefits of speaking up are clear. The best way to prevent future instances of sexual abuse is to expose predators – no matter who they are,” said Jeff.



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