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.

For years Izor kept quiet about what she'd learned. The community of prisoner-rights activists is a small one, and she had no desire to stir up more trouble or shut down a badly needed house for parolees as long as there was a chance it could succeed. Other Sylvester critics felt much the same way.

"I thought of resigning several times before I left," says Gil Gardner, "but it always seemed to me that the good outweighed the bad. Even if these guys were getting exploited, at some level, the system is so bad that this was relatively positive."

Izor did write to Sylvester one last time in early 1994, hinting at what she knew or suspected and threatening to go public "if you do one more thing to hurt the Dismas House program, which I believe you almost single-handedly destroyed."

The four-page letter made accusations that stretched far beyond the relationship Maddock had questioned Sylvester about. "I was shocked when someone said you were the predator of young blond things, and I defended you," Izor wrote. "Until I stood in your apartment and heard the words of a young blond thing just released from prison. Until I stood in Dismas House and looked around at some of the young blond things...I believe it is only a matter of time before you fall...You will crash and burn in a very big blaze because, historically, people like you bring themselves down."

Sylvester has emphatically denied having any kind of sexual relationship with residents of Dismas House. Other than the inmate who claimed to have been pressured by Sylvester prior to his release, no victims of any alleged sexual advance by him have ever come forward. But Izor wasn't the only observer to come to the conclusion that Sylvester had an interest in some parolees that went beyond his professional position.

"I don't think the board of directors gave a shit about what was really going on in the house," says Jim Bullington, a Regis graduate who was one of the few students to participate in the program. During the three months Bullington lived in the house, working as the night manager, he was struck by how intensely some residents loathed Sylvester, while others seemed to receive exceptional favors and privileges.

Although Bullington never saw anything explicit, "you just knew that something was going on," he says. "Bob had special relationships with some of the members. I remember some guys would complain about the people getting into Dismas."

Such statements could, of course, be dismissed as the grousing of parolees who'd had a falling-out with Sylvester over rent or other issues. But Gil Gardner, who was also Bullington's professor, wasn't so sure. Gardner was troubled by the admittance of a parolee in his late teens who "didn't fit any of the criteria for getting into Dismas, like spending five years in prison." The teen later claimed that he was "being sexually exploited at the house," Gardner recalls, "but I didn't know by whom."

No charges resulted from the resident's claim, which Gardner acknowledges may have been fabricated. But, he adds, there was "a disproportionate number of gay men" hanging around Dismas House, serving as volunteers. One resident moved in with one of them after leaving Dismas. While Sylvester was adamant about Gardner's students keeping their distance from the parolees, apparently out of fear that some con might seduce a young coed, he didn't seem to have any problem with same-sex relationships between volunteers and residents, says Gardner.

"That kind of disturbed me as well," Gardner says. "It was a somewhat exploitive situation. These guys didn't have a place to live. A lot of guys in prison aren't homosexual by choice--they're victimized by other men."

During one of Gardner's classes, he saw how Sylvester himself could punch parolees' buttons. Sylvester introduced the students to a new arrival named Gordon. "Bob kind of used the guy as a demonstration," Gardner recalls. "He was talking about him as if he was an object, really humiliating him: 'Gordon has no self-esteem, he doesn't feel he can do anything, all he's got is this lousy pair of shoes'--it almost brought the guy to tears. Then he said, 'Okay, Gordon, you'll spend the first night at my apartment.' And off they went."

Sylvester supporters have suggested that many of the incidents cited as examples of his "improper" behavior could have been gestures of compassion. The most telling episode, though, may have been the firing of Anne Catto, a popular house manager--an event that triggered considerable turmoil on the Dismas board and came only days after she had confronted the executive director about his relationship with a particular resident.

Catto was hired as a full-time house manager last summer. She'd met Sylvester through her boyfriend, a former inmate who'd always spoken highly of him and his program. After six months on the job, the board was so impressed with her skills in managing the house and collecting rent that it awarded her with a bonus and a raise. Three weeks later the board abruptly fired her.

Catto insists that her termination was really the work of Sylvester, who manipulated the board into dismissing her over bogus charges. During her time on the job, she says, she had a series of escalating arguments with the executive director that made him "frantic" to get rid of her.

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