Longform

Dismal House

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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."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast