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.

Many of the disagreements had to do with financial matters. Catto balked at Sylvester's increasing demands on the residents for special pre-payments and deposits, as well as his insistence that they put their savings into accounts that he would control until they left the house. "He constantly came up with new ways to get their money," Catto says. "The smarter ones would say, 'Yeah, but that's my money. I want to put it into an account and earn interest.' He wanted me to kick a guy out for getting his own savings account."

Catto also complained about the quality of the food, the house's aged, unreliable refrigerators ("I worried daily about salmonella") and the generally unhealthy state of the place. ("I finally told him I couldn't get people to cook in the kitchen with bugs crawling over the food. That's when he finally hired an exterminator.") She was sickened, too, to discover that Sylvester was charging residents more for RTD bus tokens than it cost Dismas to purchase them through a special discount program. Nobody was getting rich off the markup, but it angered Catto to think that Dismas House was gouging men who had so little of their own.

"His so-called rationale was that [the profit] allowed him to buy tokens for guys who'd just got there and give them out," Catto says. "But he never let me buy extra tokens to give away."

Last October Catto asked Sylvester what to do with the final paycheck of an ex-resident who'd skipped parole and left the house still owing rent. Sylvester endorsed the check with the inmate's name, Catto says, and put it in his bank bag to deposit with the other house receipts. "He looked up at me and said, 'Now you're learning,'" she says.

The final blowup between the two, though, had nothing to do with money. That fall Sylvester was working closely with a gay sex offender who'd moved into the house and was having trouble finding a job. Sylvester found the man work with a house painter and also arranged for him to do chores around his apartment house. Shortly after he arrived, Catto claims, the man told her that Sylvester had taken him out to dinner and cautioned him not to tell anyone about it. During the meal, the man said, Sylvester drank heavily and divulged his own homosexuality.

"I could care less if Bob told him he's gay," Catto says. "The part that got my interest was 'Don't tell anybody I did this.'"

Catto says she urged the man to avoid such awkward encounters in the future. By this point she was having bouts of what she called "pager panic" over Sylvester's frequent weekend phone calls concerning rent and other financial details. Early in January she decided to have a talk with the director about "drawing boundaries"--particularly after the same resident came to her again, telling her about how Sylvester invited him to his apartment on New Year's Eve.

Catto says the man told her that "Bob drank the entire night and opened up this drawer of videotapes: gay porno and things like that movie with Patrick Swayze, where they dress up like girls--a bunch of those. They watched gay flicks, he's telling me. I asked him if anything happened. He said no, but that he felt really uncomfortable."

A couple of days after that discussion, Catto says, Sylvester showed up at the house and told Catto that it was only a matter of time until a parolee went to his parole officer and complained that she had done something to him."

Catto was incensed. "I said, 'How can you say that to me, Bob? I think it is highly inappropriate, highly dangerous for Dismas House for you to be taking residents out to dinner.' And then he just flips on me. He's screaming in my face and throwing stuff at me--envelopes, papers, newspapers."

Catto walked out. In subsequent faxes, Sylvester instructed her to put her concerns in writing and told her not to attend the Dismas board meeting scheduled that week. The day after the meeting, she found out she'd been fired by special action of a three-member "personnel committee" on the board, supposedly for poor performance.

"They just accepted Bob's story without question," says St. Clair. "The reasons I got were bullshit--trivial reasons. You don't treat people that way."

Catto wrote a letter to the board protesting her termination and seeking money she claimed was still owed her. "I was not fired because of my performance," she wrote. "I let Bob know that I was aware of some things going on between him and a resident, and I believe I was fired because Bob became terrified at the thought that I might know something more."

The resident weighed in with his own letter, stating that Sylvester had been a supportive and compassionate friend and that he'd had a "good time" watching videos with him on New Year's Eve. "Never was Bob disrespectful or did he try anything sexual with me," he wrote.

Contacted by Westword, the resident, who asked not to be identified by name, disputes several points in Catto's account of his encounters with Sylvester. He says Sylvester did not drink excessively; that the videos in question were not porn but major-studio, gay-themed comedies, including The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything!; and that Catto was "just real nosey" and was "trying to use me to get dirt on Bob."

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