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


Sean Escobar had been ready for the second for greater than a quarter-century.

Over the course of an hour in September, Mr. Escobar sat at a eating room desk with Sterling Van Wagenen, a founding father of the Sundance Movie Pageant and a revered determine within the Mormon group, and requested him a few second that had bothered Mr. Escobar since he was 13.

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

Mr. Van Wagenen apologized and stated that he had been going by means of difficulties in his profession and his marriage, that he struggles with melancholy. He sounded honest and penitent. He pledged, repeatedly, that he had by no means carried out something like that earlier than or since.

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

It’s uncommon for a intercourse abuse sufferer to have the prospect to straight confront an abuser, even in a courtroom of legislation. However Mr. Escobar’s exceptional confrontation didn’t quiet his nagging questions:

Had the abuse, which was reported on the time to an area church official and the sheriff’s workplace, been appropriately handled? Mr. Van Wagenen admitted to a detective that he had touched the boy inappropriately, in accordance with sheriff’s data, however he was not charged.

And will Mr. Escobar actually have been the one sufferer?

“All my life this has bothered me about Sterling,” Mr. Escobar, 38, stated in an interview this month. “It could hang-out me.”

So he launched his recording to The Reality & Transparency Basis, an investigative web site targeted on faith, considering it might encourage another victims to return ahead. It was printed in February, and for the following few weeks, Mr. Escobar agonized over his determination.

“Oh my God, what have I carried out?” he stated he thought to himself. “I’ve ruined this man’s life.”

This month, Mr. Van Wagenen was charged with two counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a kid, although not for something he had carried out to Mr. Escobar. Prosecutors in Utah stated he molested a lady youthful than 10 on two events between 2013 and 2015.

Mr. Van Wagenen, 71, who declined to remark, has not entered a plea. He was launched on $75,00zero bail.

Although he by no means attained Hollywood status — one movie he produced, “The Journey to Bountiful,” delivered a greatest actress Oscar in 1986 — he virtually put Utah on the filmmaking map when he, together with others together with the actor Robert Redford, started what grew to become the Sundance Movie Pageant. (Mr. Redford’s spouse on the time, Lola Van Wagenen, is a cousin of Mr. Van Wagenen’s.) A spokesman for the Sundance Institute stated Mr. Van Wagenen has not had a job on the pageant since 1993.

Mr. Escobar, the youngest of 4 kids, lived three doorways down from Mr. Van Wagenen within the Salt Lake Metropolis suburb of Holladay. He grew to become buddies with the 2 youngest Van Wagenen boys.

Mr. Escobar stated he was sleeping over on the Van Wagenens’ home when the abuse occurred. He was on a sofa within the basement, with one in every of Mr. Van Wagenen’s sons on a unique couch. One other son slept on the ground.

Sterling Van Wagenen, who apologized to Mr. Escobar in September, was a founding father of what grew to become the Sundance Movie Pageant and was a revered determine within the Mormon church.Credit scoreDustin Finkelstein/Getty Photos

In the midst of the evening, Mr. Escobar stated, he woke as much as discover Mr. Van Wagenen’s hand down his pants, stroking his genitals. Mr. Escobar stirred, hoping Mr. Van Wagenen would go away. Mr. Van Wagenen pulled his hand away, however a couple of minutes later, he resumed. The boy stirred once more.

When Mr. Van Wagenen touched Mr. Escobar a 3rd time, the boy jumped off the sofa, ran to the lavatory and locked the door. Mr. Van Wagenen tried repeatedly to get the boy to return out, however he refused, saying he didn’t really feel properly.

Mr. Escobar stayed in that rest room all evening.

“There was this massive orange cat that acquired locked within the lavatory with me,” Mr. Escobar stated. “I simply pet the cat all evening.”

Within the morning, he left the lavatory and went straight to the telephone. He referred to as his mom and requested her to choose him up straight away. She took him to a drive-through for a breakfast sandwich. Together with his mom behind the wheel and his sister within the entrance seat, he instructed them what occurred.

“I simply keep in mind my mother,” he stated, “it simply seemed like she’d seen a ghost. She simply turned white.”

Mr. Van Wagenen instructed a therapist what he had carried out, and since the therapist was mandated to report it to the authorities, Mr. Van Wagenen went to the sheriff’s workplace himself. In response to a Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Workplace report, he instructed a detective that he had touched Mr. Escobar “sexually, inappropriately,” although he added that he had not gone underneath the boy’s garments. (Mr. Escobar stated he had.)

However the case was dropped after Mr. Escobar’s father instructed the detective that the household didn’t wish to pursue the grievance and that it was “supportive of Mr. Van Wagenen in understanding this downside.”

The Better Salt Lake Unified Police Division, which has absorbed the sheriff’s workplace, stated intercourse crimes involving kids “are dealt with very in a different way” at the moment. A spokeswoman stated such a case would now be submitted to the district legal professional whatever the dad and mom’ needs.

Mr. Escobar’s dad and mom, Randi and Tony Escobar, stated this month that they’d been making an attempt to guard their son from the stress of a trial, publicity within the information media and teasing in school.

“The one factor we might take into consideration was, ‘We will’t drag our son by means of all this,’” they wrote in an electronic mail. “At present is a really completely different period, the place the victims’ identities are considerably protected.”

Mr. Escobar stated he understood his dad and mom’ determination, they usually stay shut. However he needs they’d let the sheriff’s workplace proceed the case so Mr. Van Wagenen maybe might have been stopped.

As a substitute, his life moved on. After Mr. Escobar’s dad and mom reported what had occurred to an area chief within the Mormon Church, the place they had been members, the church disciplined Mr. Van Wagenen with a two-year “disfellowship,” a partial exclusion from church life that’s in need of an excommunication.

However in 1993, the identical yr he went to the police, Mr. Van Wagenen went to work as an adjunct professor of movie at Brigham Younger College, which is intently affiliated with the church. He would later work as director of content material for BYU Broadcasting, after which as an teacher on the College of Utah.

Mr. Van Wagenen additionally directed motion pictures for the church, in accordance with his Fb web page and different biographical supplies. The church produces quite a lot of official movies, used for academic functions or in sacred ceremonies.

A spokesman for the church, formally referred to as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stated it had taken “acceptable disciplinary motion on this case,” however he didn’t straight reply to a query about why Mr. Van Wagenen was permitted to have roles within the church after he was disciplined.

The spokesman, Eric Hawkins, stated that on the time of the report, the church’s observe was to offer religious counseling to people, and that it was supplied. (Each Mr. Escobar and Mr. Van Wagenen stated throughout the recorded dialog that they recalled no counseling.) Mr. Hawkins added that two years later, the church enacted a number of new safeguards in opposition to little one sexual abuse, together with a 24-hour assist line and guidelines requiring “annotation of the membership document of any particular person who has confessed to or been discovered responsible of abusing a toddler.”

At present, Mr. Escobar lives in Salt Lake Metropolis and St. George, in southern Utah, together with his spouse, Crystal, and their 4 younger kids. He and his spouse have carried out properly promoting dietary dietary supplements with an organization referred to as Isagenix. She has written a e-book on motherhood, and the couple hosts a self-help podcast.

The abuse didn’t derail his life, he stated. However its results have by no means gone away.

He began sleeping with a searching knife beneath his pillow, and having goals that adults had been hurting him. He acquired in fights in school. He grew to become distrustful of adults and church leaders.

As an grownup, he stated, he’s compulsively protecting of his kids. He won’t permit them to be alone with different males. He stated that when his kids had been assigned male lecturers, he demanded they be moved to completely different courses. After they had play dates, he referred to as forward to verify a girl could be current always. After a long time as a “rock-solid” Mormon, he stated, he left the church final yr.

And he couldn’t shake the questions: What if there have been different victims on the market? What if the abuse was nonetheless occurring? So in January of final yr, he reached out to Mr. Van Wagenen’s spouse on Fb.

“I solely wish to make it possible for there are strict provisions in place to maintain one thing like that from ever taking place once more with grandchildren and so forth,” he wrote.

She didn’t reply.

Eight months later, he texted every of Mr. Van Wagenen’s kids. He instructed them that their father had molested him. It was like ripping out his personal coronary heart.

“I’m so sorry,” stated Mr. Escobar, wiping tears from his eyes, in a video message he despatched to 1 Mr. Van Wagenen’s kids. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”

One among Mr. Van Wagenen’s daughters advised that Mr. Escobar and her father meet. He might provide assurances that he had by no means inappropriately touched one other little one. Possibly, she stated, it might deliver Mr. Escobar some peace.

For days main as much as the assembly, Mr. Escobar stated, he might barely eat, sleep or perform.

“I stored telling my spouse, ‘I don’t assume I can do that,’” he stated. “It was like sending me again to my childhood. I used to be terrified.”

Mr. Escobar didn’t need Mr. Van Wagenen to know the place he lived, so that they met at another person’s dwelling. He stated he recorded the dialog in case Mr. Van Wagenen threatened him. He connected a microphone to his iPhone and stashed it in a plant. His spouse sat on the steps simply outdoors the room the place the 2 males spoke.

After Mr. Van Wagenen sat down, Mr. Escobar ran by means of an excruciating listing of questions, which he had written in a pink spiral pocket book.

Have you ever ever watched little one pornography? He stated he had not.

How would you’ve gotten felt if this occurred to your personal son? “Terrible.”

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

“I’ve by no means thought-about myself a pedophile,” Mr. Van Wagenen stated. “That one occasion was so horrifying to me. And I’ve carried the attention of that — to not the diploma that you’ve, for positive — however I’ve carried the attention of that.”

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

Afterward, Mr. Escobar stated, he thought Mr. Van Wagenen was most likely telling the reality. However most likely was not ok.

By means of a buddy, he related with Ryan McKnight at The Reality & Transparency Basis and handed over the recording. Within the article that accompanied the recording, he glided by a pseudonym, David. He’s figuring out himself publicly for the primary time on this article.

Mr. Escobar stated he heard from the dad and mom of the lady Mr. Van Wagenen is accused of abusing that the recording had motivated her to return ahead. The lady is somebody Mr. Van Wagenen knew.

“This younger lady, the opposite sufferer, is a hero to me,” Mr. Escobar stated. “I helped her, and she or he helped me.”

He has not heard from Mr. Van Wagenen since he was charged. However after the recording went public in February, Mr. Van Wagenen’s spouse, Marilee, despatched Mr. Escobar a message on Fb.

“It’s all public now,” she wrote. “We’re not offended and perceive. I nonetheless love you and need therapeutic for you and all one of the best for your loved ones.”


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