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.

Yet even though the two participants were denying that anything unseemly had taken place, Catto's firing triggered a domino effect. When Ann Wall Richards began to ask pointed questions about the firing, board chairman Wojcinski informed her that she seemed "to lack an understanding of house problems" and that it was the unanimous decision of the board that Richards be asked to resign. When St. Clair protested Richards's dismissal--he'd been absent for the "unanimous" vote--and began to hector the board about being reimbursed for his loans, he was exiled to an advisory position, then dropped.

Last spring Sylvester learned that Dismas House was once again under investigation by the DOC. At the April board meeting he tried to shrug off questions about the organization's tax problems and decried the "backbiting" among boardmembers. "I don't have time for it," he snapped. "This is about offenders getting out of prison, not our own personalities."

The DOC probe had "gone away," Sylvester announced, adding that Denver parole boss Tom Maddock had told him that he was interested in seeing Colorado Dismas open more houses, including one for juveniles.

"When they figure out what we do and how little we do it with, they are going to be very happy," he predicted. "Dismas House is the best they've got. They refer to us as the Cadillac of the industry."

In reality, though, the DOC investigation had not gone away. It would drag on for several months, during which the number of residents at the house would dwindle from an over-capacity high of 31 the previous winter to the low teens. When state officials, reacting to the Denver district attorney's parallel investigation, came to withdraw their remaining parolees last month, there were only eleven men left in the place.

No charges had been filed against anyone, but the Cadillac of the industry was beginning to look like another dead clunker.

There are more than 4,000 offenders on parole in Colorado right now. That's a 25 percent increase over last year, and the parole population is expected to double in the next five years. A growing number of those coming out have no job skills, few or no family ties, no place to stay--and a very good chance of landing back in prison again.

The DOC is aware of the problem. The need for places to house parolees while they're finding jobs and adjusting to life on the street is critical, and corrections officials won't rule out turning to Dismas House again, should the organization emerge from the current investigation unscathed.

"It's a place that's been advantageous to us because there are people who come out with literally nowhere to go," says Brian Burnett, DOC's director of finance and administration. Pulling parolees out of the house, he adds, was a temporary response to the current situation: "We did not make that decision lightly, and it's not a permanent decision, either."

But many of Sylvester's opponents believe the shutdown should be permanent. Some of them, including Izor and Gardner, are exploring the idea of opening another Dismas House, entirely separate from the present one and under the aegis of the national organization. "We need to put energy into getting a program into place," says Izor, "that operates the way it's supposed to."

Sylvester isn't about to give up, though. He vows that the "whole story" of Dismas House will be told once the investigation is concluded and he's free to talk. If his organization defrauded or exploited anyone, he asks, "Where are the victims? Did they come forward? We have the truth on our side, and it will come out."

Izor believes there are victims. Some of them may be all but invisible, like the homeless parolees the DOC is now scrambling to find beds for, or the donors who might have seen Bob Sylvester on a local religious television program, House of the Lord, and sent in their widow's mite to a cause that they believed had a degree of financial accountability it did not have.

Then there are the people who devoted their time and energy to building Dismas House over the past eight years. They were people who believed in second chances, people eager to embrace the reformed sinner who wanted to do good. They may have been wary of parolees taking advantage of them, but they didn't expect to have their trust shattered by one of their own.

They forgot a hard truth about the work they do. Falling from grace is easy. Rehabilitation is a bitch.

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