Dismal House

Ex-con Bob Sylvester wanted to help parolees go straight. But angry former supporters say that what happened at his shelter was pretty twisted.

"I have seen miracles come out of Dismas," says Ann Wall Richards, a former boardmember who was terminated last spring after she refused to resign her position. "The other side of that is anger and frustration."

Richards adds that she has no personal knowledge of any criminal wrongdoing by Sylvester. "If there was, I would have reported it and resigned from the board," she says. "But Bob's behavior was unlike that of any executive director I've ever seen. His anger is unbelievable. He must have absolute power and authority."

Although he declined Westword's requests for comments on specific allegations, citing the pending investigation, Sylvester has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. He dismisses the complaints as "garbage" stirred up by personality conflicts. "What we have," he says, "is a bunch of vindictive people who are out to destroy this program and Bob Sylvester."

But why would so many people--dedicated, idealistic people, sharing a common conviction that even society's worst losers can be reclaimed--abruptly turn on Sylvester and his dream house? Whether the district attorney's office finds sufficient evidence to file charges or not, the fact that some of Dismas House's earliest and staunchest supporters have chosen to publicly denounce the program is dramatic evidence of the depth of their own sense of betrayal.

Beneath Sylvester's public persona as a crusader for rehabilitation, they say, was a short-fused dictator who ran Dismas House like a backwater boot camp; a control freak who exercised an extraordinary influence over the board of directors that was supposedly supervising him; a deceiver who fabricated his own credentials, withheld important financial information from his own board and made exaggerated claims about the program's success rate; and a bully who exploited men who couldn't fight back because they feared being sent back to prison.

Sylvester has his supporters, too, who say that such a monstrous portrait bears no resemblance to the man they know. "Bob is a very strong personality, and when you're totally committed to a goal, some people react negatively," says Glendale mayor Joe Rice, who served as a Dismas house manager for eighteen months. Although he once sued Dismas to collect back pay, Rice is now on the organization's advisory board and says he's never seen any hint of criminal activity. "Dismas is in a constant state of crisis, and the only reason it's held together is because of Bob."

"If it hadn't been for Dismas House," says parolee Jack Dubbs, who lived there ten months, "I would probably have gone back to crime." Disabled by an explosion while he was incarcerated, Dubbs says Sylvester helped him find work and ran a tough but fair operation: "The people who were doing most of the bitching were those who thought society owed them because they went to prison."

Yet the most troubling aspect of the story may have less to do with Sylvester's supposed actions than with others' inaction. Some of the most serious allegations about Bob Sylvester's divine mission were raised by a former Dismas boardmember five years ago, shortly before the house opened. She took her concerns to other members of the board and to the DOC, which had recently banned Sylvester from having any direct contact with its prisoners because of allegations that he was seeking to develop improper relationships with parolees. The board leadership ignored her, just as it has ignored subsequent accusations by disaffected staff and other boardmembers. And the state continued to do business with Dismas House; in fact, as the parole population soared and the need for beds became more acute, the relationship deepened.

No one wanted to look too closely at the former offender who'd become their anointed savior, the man who brought a ray of light to a dark and troubled system.

Several of the people who helped Sylvester launch Dismas House had first met him when he was still in prison. They were Catholic priests and volunteers, mostly, who were impressed by his keen interest in helping other inmates make the transition back to society. After his transfer to a Denver halfway house, Sylvester landed a job at Samaritan House, the homeless shelter downtown operated by Catholic Charities; he soon established a program there providing jobs and placement services for homeless parolees ("Gimme Shelter," January 8, 1992). Within a few months, he'd assembled the backers he needed and was looking for a property to turn into a Dismas House.

From the outset, though, the house that Bob built was different from other Dismas Houses. After some initial meetings with officials from National Dismas, the Nashville-based nonprofit that operates eleven houses around the country, the Denver group decided not to affiliate with the national organization. Severing the relationship removed the extensive oversight National Dismas exerts over its local chapters, including monthly financial reports and weekly staff reports.

"They voted to disaffiliate before they had the house," notes Terry Horgan, the executive director of National Dismas. "We want to make it clear that there is no linkage between our organization and theirs. That's their baby."

Former boardmember Bob St. Clair says the group was eager to make its own way and didn't want its property to be held in common with the other Dismas operations. "It's possible that I and the other boardmembers were on an ego trip," he says. "We wanted to have our own show."

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