Top

news

Stories

 

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.

The way he tells it, Robert Francis Sylvester became an instrument of God one day in the spring of 1988. He was sitting in a jail cell in Arapahoe County at the time, serving a sentence for check fraud and reading a brochure about a place in Vermont called Dismas House.

A salesman possessed of a certain blustery charm, Sylvester had been on a downward spiral for some time--a bad divorce, heavy drinking, then a series of fraud and traffic charges that had landed him in jail again and again and would soon send him to prison. In an effort to rekindle his lapsed Catholicism, he'd been hounding a local chaplain to bring him communion and reading material, anything to keep his mind "busy and focused" while waiting for the move to Canon City. That was how he learned about Dismas, a kind of ex-con boardinghouse, where parolees share meals and living space with college students and have a chance to build a stake in the community rather than shuffle aimlessly from prison to the street.

By the time Sylvester heard about it, there were several Dismas Houses operating around the country. The concept, which originated in Tennessee in the 1970s, is a sharp contrast to the hard-ass approach of most halfway houses; it claims a higher success rate in keeping men from going back to prison, too. Although technically not religious in nature, the nonprofit organization is named after a repentant thief crucified with Christ and has strong ties to Catholic and other Christian prison ministries. But there was nothing like it in Colorado. From that moment, Sylvester says, he had a "burning desire" to devote his post-prison existence to establishing such a house.

"I believe I became the instrument for God to see this project through," he wrote four years later in the Dismas of Colorado newsletter. "I believe Dismas of Colorado is God's work."

Whether it's God's work or not, the Dismas organization that sprang up in Denver has Sylvester's fingerprints all over it. From the time of his own transfer to a Denver halfway house in 1990, he's busied his mind with little else.

In 1993 Sylvester opened the state's first and only Dismas House on Capitol Hill, transforming a former crack house into a last-chance way station for the kind of parolee nobody wants, the career criminals and longtime convicts who are most likely to return to prison. Serving as the house's executive director--for many years an unpaid position--he put together a well-connected network of boardmembers and advisors, including respected clergy and academics, ex-cops, state legislators, even a former governor. He coaxed prison reformers to fundraisers (including one last year featuring Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking), collected accolades from community activists (the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless Program of the Year award) and preached a gospel of tough love and redemption through hard work to the hundreds of thieves, dopers, rapists and scammers who arrived on his doorstep, looking for a break.

Along the way, Sylvester became a major player in the debate over Colorado's booming prison industry, a vocal critic of the parole system and of for-profit halfway houses. He testified before the state legislature, doled out interviews to reporters, pushed for funding to open more Dismas Houses around the state. Last year the Department of Corrections entered into a $72,000 contract with Colorado Dismas, acknowledging the vital role that the Denver house has assumed in placing hardcore offenders.

But in recent weeks, Sylvester's handiwork has begun to unravel. The legislature didn't renew funding for the DOC contract this year, electing to spend its frugal allotment for parolee services elsewhere. Last month DOC officials abruptly removed all of its parolees from Dismas House, citing concerns over an ongoing investigation of Sylvester and his organization by the Denver District Attorney's Office. That investigation, which is being conducted by the economic-crimes unit, comes on the heels of an eight-month probe of Colorado Dismas by the DOC itself.

The DOC's own investigation apparently produced no actionable evidence of wrongdoing, and no charges have been filed by Denver prosecutors, who expect their inquiry to take several more weeks. But in the meantime, shorn of its rent-paying parolees as well as its state stipend, Dismas House is struggling to survive. Sylvester says he's in the dark about the nature of the probes and what relationship, if any, they might have to each other.

"No one has told us anything," he says. "In any case, we haven't done anything."

But former Dismas boardmembers and ex-staffers, several of whom have parted acrimoniously with Sylvester during the past year, have raised a raft of allegations about the group's executive director, many of which appear to be at the core of the recent round of investigations. They claim that Sylvester forged residents' signatures on paychecks; mistreated volunteers, residents and even boardmembers; and misled donors about the organization's tax status. Sylvester, they claim, created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in which gay volunteers--and, allegedly, Sylvester himself--cruised for sexual favors from beleaguered parolees.

"I came away with the impression that this place was illegal and immoral," says Maureen Owens, a former chaplain intern at Dismas who quit before her internship was completed. "At first Bob basically told me a story. But by the time I left, I saw him as a great manipulator and con man."

"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."

The Denver house diverged from the typical Dismas program in other ways, too. Despite stated intentions to recruit college students to stay in the house ("students usually commit for at least a semester," says one early fact sheet), only a handful of students ever stayed there, usually for a few weeks, before the concept was abandoned. Nor was the program coed, like other Dismas houses; the rambling, three-story Victorian on Twelfth Avenue required extensive renovation and never offered sufficient space for a women's program.

In fact, the notion of Dismas House as some kind of community, a place where parolees could find their feet and be welcomed back into society rather than ostracized, never truly took hold in Denver. Varying work shifts and ankle-bracelet monitoring requirements made communal meals infrequent. Some parolees saw little of one another--or of the volunteers who helped with the meals and housework--except at the weekly "community meetings," during which residents were upbraided over dirty dishes, unpaid rent or other infractions of the house rules.

In the early days, the rules were few: Pay rent. Do your chores. No violence, sex or drugs on the premises. It was simple, and that was one of the key elements that separated Dismas from all the restrictions and mandatory programs required by for-profit halfway houses ("Straight Time," September 7, 1994). But as time went on, Sylvester directed his house managers to implement more and more rules.

After the house was badly burned financially by parolees skipping or being rearrested before they'd paid their rent, Sylvester began to require residents to fork over three-fourths of their first paycheck; to cough up a $100 security deposit; to pay in advance for any drug testing he might require; to deposit money in savings accounts that he would administer for them. Residents also weren't allowed to drink alcohol at all, whether on the premises or off, whether their parole plan stipulated such a ban or not. New restrictions arrived sporadically, sometimes in the form of threatening, do-this-or-else notes posted around the house.

Several of the measures were undoubtedly necessary. Most of the residents had little experience with honest work, managing their money or the responsibilities of sharing a home, and at one point the house faced foreclosure because of unpaid bills. "I didn't think it was run efficiently enough," says former resident Tony Kerndt. "Getting the rent was always a problem, and we needed more rules the more crowded it got."

To several staffers and boardmembers, it appeared that Sylvester was transforming the house into something quite different from what they'd envisioned. "It was Sylvester House," says Gil Gardner, a criminal-justice professor at Regis University who served on the board for several years. "It started to turn into a halfway house. They started getting [house managers] whose major focus was to get the rent. The guys felt that all the house cared about was their money."

Gardner had first met Sylvester when he was running a college program for inmates through Regis; Sylvester took one of his classes. For several years he lived only a few blocks from Dismas House and visited frequently, bringing classes of students to meet with residents and learn firsthand about the criminal-justice system. But he disagreed with Sylvester on several policy issues and finally left the Dismas board after Sylvester insisted that Gardner's students sign a form stating that they'd have no contact with residents outside of their classes. "The guys in the house got really upset when they saw that they were being treated like pariahs," he recalls.

Bob St. Clair, who served as house manager for several months, says the operation lacked the "spirit of reconciliation" touted in Dismas literature. "The house meetings were mostly in-your-face harangues about breaking the rules--nothing healing about it," he says. "Bob Sylvester would come in and say he wanted five minutes to talk to the guys. He would spend 45 minutes in a diatribe against them, about what a bunch of scum they are for not kissing his ass for all the favors he's done for them."

Other boardmembers who visited the house regularly also noticed Sylvester's abrupt, even disdainful way of dealing with residents. "I was horrified at the way he spoke to them and treated them," says Richards, who served as the board's recording secretary for several years. "They did not get second chances. Anything they had to say, he couldn't hear."

But his backers were willing to give Sylvester a great deal of latitude. After all, as an ex-offender, he knew exactly the kind of people he was dealing with. "Bob is a very autocratic kind of person," says St. Clair. "He plays this card--'I've been to prison; I know what I'm talking about, and you don't.' It's his way or nothing. There's no negotiating."

Sylvester has always insisted that the board of directors made all the crucial policy decisions for the house; as executive director, he had no voting authority on the board. But Richards, St. Clair and other ex-boardmembers say that the board almost always deferred to Sylvester and that many of his strongest backers--such as board chairman Reverend Tony Wojcinski, a priest based in Pueblo, and board president Fred Carter, a retired Denver police officer--were among the least involved in the day-to-day operations. Those who challenged Sylvester, they say, were either shifted to the advisory board, a chiefly honorific body that rarely met, or simply asked to resign.

"What Bob wants, Bob gets," Richards says. "It's like a Mack truck going through. He had sole power, and he was abusing it."

Although the board had its own treasurer, some members claim that vital financial details were kept from them by Sylvester, resulting in a murky tax status that dragged on for years. After Colorado Dismas parted ways with the national organization, it operated for a time under the tax-exempt umbrella of Catholic Charities. But that relationship ended in mid-1994, after Sylvester was notified that Dismas had failed to reimburse Catholic Charities for more than $20,000 in payroll payments. For some time after that, Dismas continued to enjoy an informal arrangement with the Archdiocese of Denver--one official there has acknowledged that she was aware that Dismas House used the archdiocese's sales-tax exemption in making purchases--but Sylvester's group never got around to applying for its own not-for-profit status with the IRS until earlier this year.

Several individuals who've made loans or donations to Dismas over the years say that Sylvester personally assured them that it was a valid tax-exempt organization. Some of them have since received their money back, but not Bob St. Clair, who is now suing Sylvester and Dismas over $11,000 in loans he made to the group, claiming that Sylvester "fraudulently" represented to him that the organization was tax-exempt.

For months, St. Clair says, Sylvester concealed from him and other boardmembers the 1994 letter from Catholic Charities terminating the relationship. (Sylvester has denied this.) When St. Clair formally demanded repayment last spring and asked for copies of Dismas tax records, board president Fred Carter responded that the tax filings were "private and also not relevant to documenting our obligation to you." Actually, the IRS Form 990s for nonprofits are public records--but Colorado Dismas was not a legal nonprofit at the time and had never filed any tax returns.

Dismas House lawyer Howard Haenel says the organization obtained its tax-exempt status from the IRS last month and is seeking to make the exemption retroactive.

He says his own review of the situation has persuaded him that Sylvester and the board "had an honest belief that they were covered by Catholic Charities and then the archdiocese."

Haenel adds, "I don't think there was a deliberate attempt to mislead anybody. There wouldn't have been any advantage in that to anyone." He says he's satisfied that every dollar donated to Dismas "went to further the mission of the organization" and that no one was harmed by the four-year lag time in gaining a tax exemption, particularly since many of the donations came from other tax-exempt groups.

Others, though, see the tax problems as part of a larger pattern of deception by Sylvester. While in public the executive director was speaking passionately about parole reform and raising funds, they say, in private he was castigating residents, intimidating volunteers and turning Dismas House into his personal fiefdom.

"If the guys in the house didn't do things, he'd abuse them," says former chaplain intern Owens. "He would throw dishes, put up signs, harass them. Ultimately, I think Bob just wanted them to leave."

Gardner recalls that Sylvester told him once, "These guys are nice at first, but after two weeks they all become assholes." The comment distressed Gardner; he'd come to know many of the residents himself, and he'd seen some succeed against tall odds. But as the house became more crowded with parolees, it also became more like a halfway house--with Sylvester as the chief enforcer.

Owens recalls the lavish presentations of "gorgeous" food that would appear in the house at every fundraiser. But after the guests were gone, she says, the residents would be stuck with mystery meats and stale bread, damaged or distressed goods bought from discounters. "The stuff was almost garbage," she says. "Things had mold on them. They were told just to cut it off."

For Owens, the contrast seemed to capture what Denver's Dismas House was all about: It made a good first impression, but there was something malodorous and possibly rotten at the core. Sylvester boasted that the house had a success rate of around 75 percent, comparable to that of National Dismas, but he often neglected to mention that the rate excluded those residents who stayed in the house less than thirty days; many of those who absconded, reoffended or were sent back to prison on a parole violation did so within the first month. By contrast, the national organization's figures took into account all participants who lasted more than a week.

"It's not as successful as Bob Sylvester says it is," says St. Clair. "I wouldn't be surprised if the actual rate [of recidivism] is down within the range of a halfway house."

"If you stood up to Bob," says Owens, "you knew he was going to find a way to send you back."

Strictly speaking, Sylvester didn't have the power to send anyone back to prison. That authority rested with state parole officials, who also decided which parolees would be sent to Dismas House in the first place. But the relationship between Sylvester and parole and corrections officials is one of the strangest aspects of the rise and fall of his mission.

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.

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.

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."

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.

Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...