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.

From the start, the DOC had evidence of possible problems at Dismas House, the kind of problems that could drive the average halfway house out of business. Yet the agency proceeded to make considerable use of Sylvester's services before deciding last month--five years and thousands of public dollars later--to pull the plug.

In March 1993, just weeks before Dismas House was scheduled to open, Bob Sylvester was summoned to a meeting with Tom Maddock, head of the Denver parole office of the state DOC. Uncertain what Maddock wanted to talk about, Sylvester asked his friend Sandi Izor to go with him. That proved to be a mistake.

Izor, a Dismas boardmember and prisoner-rights activist, believed passionately in the Dismas concept. But the meeting in Maddock's office was, by her account, the rudest of awakenings.

"It made me sick to my stomach," she says now. "I have never felt so betrayed."

While Izor listened, Maddock asked Sylvester a series of pointed questions about whether he'd ever sent gifts or made any promises to inmates who were coming up for parole--if, for example, he'd assured anyone he could get them into Dismas House. Sylvester denied it. Maddock then produced photocopies of letters, money orders and receipts from Sylvester's correspondence with an inmate. The inmate had made a complaint against Sylvester, claiming that he was being promised a favorable parole situation in exchange for possible sexual favors.

According to Izor, Maddock told Sylvester that he was "through" with the DOC. He would not be allowed to set foot in any state prison again to interview any applicants for Dismas House; indeed, Izor was under the impression that the house might not open at all, since Maddock was loath to send any parolees there, pending an investigation of the inmate's charges.

After the meeting, Izor and Sylvester went to a coffee shop and began to argue. "He was saying, 'They're setting me up; this isn't true,'" Izor recalls. But she had seen and heard enough. "I was screaming at him that he'd lied to me, that he'd sandbagged me and lied to all of us. I walked out and resigned from the board that day."

Over the years, Sylvester has given different versions of what happened in Maddock's office that day. Key elements of Izor's account have been confirmed by DOC sources, though, and Bob St. Clair recalls seeing "a letter from Tom Maddock forbidding Bob to go back into the prisons. It's a mystery to me why Maddock ever reconciled with that."

Maddock referred questions about the meeting to DOC spokeswoman Liz McDonough, who says she was unable to locate any document such as St. Clair describes. However, the ban on Sylvester's access to prisoners lasted only a few months, possibly a year. Whether the inmate's charges were ultimately found to be false or simply unprovable is unclear, but the investigation soon became what one source describes as a "non-issue" in the DOC's dealings with Dismas House.

For her part, Izor had no doubts about the nature of the evidence Maddock had waved in Sylvester's face. She'd had previous suspicions about Sylvester's motives and had even confronted him about letting parolees stay in his apartment, only to be met with bland denials that anything improper was going on. Now the inmate's complaint seemed to confirm her worst fears. She would later discover that it wasn't the only complaint of its kind that Maddock had received about Sylvester.

She contacted board chairman Wojcinski, attorney Haenel (who was then doing legal work for Samaritan House but would later become the Dismas attorney) and Maddock himself about her concerns. Her alarm-ringing changed nothing; in fact, she soon learned that Sylvester was telling other boardmembers that she'd resigned because she hadn't been appointed president of Dismas, a position she says she'd never sought. When other comments began to drift back to her, comments that seemed to question her honesty or sanity, she decided to do some investigating of her own.

As it turned out, the claims Sylvester made about himself, like those he made about his program, didn't always square with the facts. He claimed to have a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland; the university had no record of him whatsoever. He claimed to be a past president and "founding member" of the Kiowa Chamber of Commerce; longtime residents of the small eastern plains town told Izor they'd never heard of him or of the organization. He claimed that his mother was helping to support him financially while he worked tirelessly on opening Dismas House; Izor contacted Sylvester's relatives and learned that his mother had died years before.

In interviews, Sylvester claimed to have been a "self-made millionaire" who made one wrong turn and ended up writing a couple of bad checks. Izor couldn't find any proof that Sylvester was ever that wealthy, but she did find a rap sheet that listed numerous charges for fraud, larceny, missed court dates, drunken driving and other traffic offenses stretching over five years before he was finally sent to prison.

When pressed, Sylvester usually had an explanation for the discrepancies--for example, that he'd obtained his degree through an extension service while serving in the Air Force, or that the woman he referred to as his mother was actually someone he considered his "adopted" mother. (At a Dismas board meeting last spring, Sylvester was still spinning the myth that he needed money to pay back his mother for all her assistance: "I might remind everyone, however, that the board also owes me a considerable amount of money...I have a great mother, but she's not stupid.") But the stories he told seemed to shift with the listener.

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