A Man of Convictions

Bob Sylvester threatened to send these men back to prison. Now they're sending him back.

Bob Sylvester doesn't want to go back to prison. He knows too much about prison and what it does to you.

On October 23, Sylvester will find out just how much prison time lies ahead when he appears in a Denver courtroom to be sentenced on charges of racketeering, extortion and sexual assault. The eleven charges, along with a possible habitual-offender classification, could earn him a sentence of up to 288 years.

"Anything I get is a life sentence; I'm 61 years old," says Sylvester, a blustery ex-con with a penchant for posing rhetorical questions and then answering them. "Do I have to get this overturned? You bet. Do I have to clear my name? You bet. Do I have to prove these men are lying? You bet."

Not so long ago, Sylvester was one of the most important figures in Colorado's corrections reform movement. A former salesman who'd done time for check fraud, he emerged from the Colorado Department of Corrections vowing to help other hard-to-place parolees. In 1993 he founded Dismas House, transforming a former Capitol Hill crackhouse into a home for the forgotten dregs of the penal system.

Operating outside the usual channels of DOC-sanctioned halfway houses, the program claimed a better-than-average success rate and attracted support from state legislators and the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver. In 1997 Dismas even won a $72,000 contract with DOC, thanks largely to Sylvester's tireless lobbying.

But then Sylvester's dream turned into a freak show. Former Dismas volunteers and boardmembers went to the DOC and the media with accusations of financial misconduct, filthy living conditions and suspected abuse and intimidation of residents ("Dismal House," September 3, 1998). In 1998 the house was abruptly closed. Last fall Sylvester was arrested and charged with extorting sexual favors from parolees, threatening to send them back to prison if they didn't comply. Six weeks ago, four former Dismas residents took the stand and testified that Sylvester had molested or raped them. The jury convicted him on all counts.

Sitting in a small visiting room at the Denver County Jail, talking to a reporter for the first time since the investigation made headlines two years ago, Sylvester still seems stunned at the verdict. "This all started from disgruntled boardmembers and a couple of former employees," he says. "Then these four bastards go and lie, and I don't know what went wrong in that courtroom. But I know we didn't present a very good case.

"I am not a sexual predator. I am not a sexual offender. I never went to that house and preyed on anyone. The people who worked there testified that there's no way anyone could get in that house and do those things."

The jury didn't believe Sylvester's witnesses. They believed the four men, who told similar stories of being berated by Sylvester, threatened by him -- and, finally, sexually assaulted by him. One of them was a one-armed man named Paul, who arrived at Dismas in the spring of 1998 with a string of drug and burglary convictions. He had been paroled from the Territorial Correctional Facility outside Cañon City, where he had been a marked man since testifying against another inmate in a murder case. Sylvester knew about his fear of going back to that prison, Paul testified, and soon used it against him:

"I was crying and begging and pleading not to be thrown out. [Sylvester] said that I was on thin ice, that he could get me put right back where I came from...He said, 'Do you want to go back to Territorial?'"

The four men are lying, Sylvester says. They were kicked out for owing rent or breaking the rules, and they're trying to get back at him. And maybe sue the DOC, collect a little cash for their trouble.

But investigators say they found other men who claim to have been abused by Sylvester; the four who took the stand were simply the most solid witnesses. Paul, for one, didn't seem particularly eager to testify about his own victimization. He barely glanced in Sylvester's direction, and prosecutor Valeria Spencer had to drag his story out of him, piece by painful piece:

"A few days later, the house manager told me to go see Bob Sylvester. I'd had an altercation the night before with another resident, and I had been drinking. [Sylvester] told me I didn't look sincere about changing. He said I didn't take the rules and regulations seriously.

"He asked me if I wanted to go and finish my sentence at Territorial. He started saying I owed him a roll of quarters he'd given me for laundry. He started rubbing my leg."

"What did he say?"

"'You want to go back to prison? You got any friends at Territorial?'"

It's all lies, Sylvester insists. He doesn't know how the men came up with such stories independently, unless the DOC investigator was prompting them. "Was I a taskmaster? Yes," he says. "Did I piss people off? Yes. Did I make enemies with guys who didn't follow the rules? Yes. But nothing ever happened between these men and me. They're lying. You have to understand the criminal mind."

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