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As the head of a halfway house for hard-to-place parolees, Bob Sylvester devoted a great deal of time and energy to teaching hardcore felons how to stay out of jail. But this week Sylvester himself was in the dock, accused of exploiting and sexually violating the men he was supposed to help.
Last week a Denver grand jury returned an indictment against Sylvester, charging him with one count of racketeering, six counts of sexual assault and four counts of criminal extortion. The indictment was the culmination of months of investigation of the sixty-year-old ex-con's conduct as executive director of Dismas House, a nonprofit refuge for homeless parolees on Capitol Hill that opened in 1993 and closed last year amid allegations of questionable financial dealings, abuse and intimidation of residents ("Dismal House," September 3, 1998).
Arrested last Thursday at his home, Sylvester made his first court appearance Monday morning. Handcuffed and dressed in jailhouse grays, he said little other than to confirm that he was indigent and in need of a court-appointed attorney. His subdued manner was in marked contrast to his emphatic denials of misconduct last year, when he told Westword that the allegations against him were "garbage" stirred up by "a bunch of vindictive people out to destroy this program."
A former salesman who served time for check fraud, Sylvester emerged from prison with what he described as a "burning desire" to help other parolees find jobs and a stake in the community. He established a job-placement service at a homeless shelter in 1991 and went on to help launch Dismas House two years later, turning a former crackhouse into a home for ex-cons who had nowhere else to go. The program claimed a better-than-average rate of success, won a $72,000 contract with the Department of Corrections in 1997 -- and made Sylvester a leading figure in parole reform efforts in Colorado.
Behind the scenes, though, many volunteers involved in the program had serious questions about Sylvester's dictatorial manner and his alleged "favoritism" toward certain residents. Some concerns date back to 1993, when Sandi Gostin Izor, then a Dismas boardmember, witnessed a confrontation between Sylvester and a DOC official over his alleged promises to get inmates placed at Dismas in return for sexual favors. Izor resigned from the board after the encounter and was instrumental in getting the DOC to undertake a subsequent investigation of the Dismas operation. Last year, after that investigation did not produce any charges, Izor and other former supporters -- including various boardmembers and former house managers -- went to the Denver District Attorney's Office for help.
The indictment claims that Sylvester "used his position of authority to extort sexual acts from parolees" and threatened to send Dismas residents back to prison if they didn't cooperate. Deputy District Attorney Valeria Spencer told Judge Larry Naves that her office will be amending the charges to include a habitual criminal count; other charges dealing with Dismas's financial affairs may follow.
Sandi Izor was in court on Monday for Sylvester's appearance. Although she believes that Sylvester did great damage to prison reform movements by abusing his position, she says she felt "incredibly sad" to see him in chains.
"I've spent the last 25 years trying to help people get out of prison and stay out," Izor says. "This is the first time I tried to put someone away. But we felt he was so evil that the only way to stop the victimization was for him to be locked up."
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