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

A Man of Convictions

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."

"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."

"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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