A Man of Convictions

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

"He started fondling me. He took my penis out of my pants. He kept telling me, 'Do you want to go back to prison? I can make a phone call.' He told me if he sent me to a Breathalyzer, I could go back right away."

Bob Sylvester understands the criminal mind. He knows how hardened cons can lie about almost anything if they think they can get away with it. How they can cheat, steal, even rape, and then blandly go about their business. And when they are caught, how they refuse to own up to anything, fail to take any responsibility. Deny it all, and then deny some more.

"We couldn't get these guys to pay rent," he says, "and DOC wouldn't force them to pay rent. We didn't get the cooperation out of parole [officers] that we should have. Do I regret doing this? Yes. Boy, do I regret ever getting the idea for a Dismas House."

Bob Sylvester at Dismas House before the 1998 investigation began.
James Bludworth
Bob Sylvester at Dismas House before the 1998 investigation began.

"He started performing sex on me. I think I was crying. I didn't do anything."

"Why did you let him do that?"

"I don't know. I ask myself that every day. I told him I'm not gay, this isn't right. He said, 'This doesn't make you gay. Do you want to go back to prison?'"

The DOC knew about Sylvester's weakness for parolees from the start. In 1993, shortly before Dismas House opened, a parole official confronted Sylvester over his relationship with an inmate who had complained that Sylvester was pressuring him for sex in return for helping him with his parole. Sylvester at first denied that he was homosexual, then offered to "step aside" if his involvement jeopardized the future of the program. The DOC briefly banned Sylvester from visiting its facilities, but he and Dismas were soon in the department's good graces again. A Dismas boardmember who witnessed the confrontation was later instrumental in getting the DOC to look more closely at Sylvester's activities.

"I didn't see it as inappropriate," Sylvester says now of his relationship with the inmate. "Dismas wasn't open yet. He was paroling to me, yes, but he's the one who started the whole thing with me. He used me. He's a habitual liar. Was it a mistake? Yeah, it was. But I was in love."

"He said, 'It's my turn,' that I owed him [oral sex]. I stood up, put my penis in my pants and left. I was angry. I got on a bus and went to Golden. I called my parole officer two days later and told him I needed to find a new place to live."

Bob Sylvester is housed in a special management unit of the Denver jail. He's a "sep," short for "separation," which means there are concerns about his safety if he were to be put in general population. So he showers alone and spends a total of one hour a day outside his cell. He knows there are people inside the prison system who would like to hurt him. He knows, too, that there are people outside the system who feel betrayed by him -- donors and volunteers who think he perverted a promising program and set back the cause of parole reform by at least twenty years.

But he also has his small circle of supporters, people who believe in his innocence. He should have testified, he says. Maybe the jury would have believed him.

He's going to appeal. He's going to get his sentence overturned, he vows, or die trying.

"I'm having a hard time," he says. "This is testing my faith big time. I'm struggling with God, and God's struggling with me, I'm sure.

"I just knew the truth was going to set me free. It was the biggest shock of my life when I was found guilty. I didn't know how to react, whether to sit down or fall down or cry."

Bob Sylvester is going back to prison.

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