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Dismal House

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Sylvester has emphatically denied having any kind of sexual relationship with residents of Dismas House. Other than the inmate who claimed to have been pressured by Sylvester prior to his release, no victims of any alleged sexual advance by him have ever come forward. But Izor wasn't the only observer to come to the conclusion that Sylvester had an interest in some parolees that went beyond his professional position.

"I don't think the board of directors gave a shit about what was really going on in the house," says Jim Bullington, a Regis graduate who was one of the few students to participate in the program. During the three months Bullington lived in the house, working as the night manager, he was struck by how intensely some residents loathed Sylvester, while others seemed to receive exceptional favors and privileges.

Although Bullington never saw anything explicit, "you just knew that something was going on," he says. "Bob had special relationships with some of the members. I remember some guys would complain about the people getting into Dismas."

Such statements could, of course, be dismissed as the grousing of parolees who'd had a falling-out with Sylvester over rent or other issues. But Gil Gardner, who was also Bullington's professor, wasn't so sure. Gardner was troubled by the admittance of a parolee in his late teens who "didn't fit any of the criteria for getting into Dismas, like spending five years in prison." The teen later claimed that he was "being sexually exploited at the house," Gardner recalls, "but I didn't know by whom."

No charges resulted from the resident's claim, which Gardner acknowledges may have been fabricated. But, he adds, there was "a disproportionate number of gay men" hanging around Dismas House, serving as volunteers. One resident moved in with one of them after leaving Dismas. While Sylvester was adamant about Gardner's students keeping their distance from the parolees, apparently out of fear that some con might seduce a young coed, he didn't seem to have any problem with same-sex relationships between volunteers and residents, says Gardner.

"That kind of disturbed me as well," Gardner says. "It was a somewhat exploitive situation. These guys didn't have a place to live. A lot of guys in prison aren't homosexual by choice--they're victimized by other men."

During one of Gardner's classes, he saw how Sylvester himself could punch parolees' buttons. Sylvester introduced the students to a new arrival named Gordon. "Bob kind of used the guy as a demonstration," Gardner recalls. "He was talking about him as if he was an object, really humiliating him: 'Gordon has no self-esteem, he doesn't feel he can do anything, all he's got is this lousy pair of shoes'--it almost brought the guy to tears. Then he said, 'Okay, Gordon, you'll spend the first night at my apartment.' And off they went."

Sylvester supporters have suggested that many of the incidents cited as examples of his "improper" behavior could have been gestures of compassion. The most telling episode, though, may have been the firing of Anne Catto, a popular house manager--an event that triggered considerable turmoil on the Dismas board and came only days after she had confronted the executive director about his relationship with a particular resident.

Catto was hired as a full-time house manager last summer. She'd met Sylvester through her boyfriend, a former inmate who'd always spoken highly of him and his program. After six months on the job, the board was so impressed with her skills in managing the house and collecting rent that it awarded her with a bonus and a raise. Three weeks later the board abruptly fired her.

Catto insists that her termination was really the work of Sylvester, who manipulated the board into dismissing her over bogus charges. During her time on the job, she says, she had a series of escalating arguments with the executive director that made him "frantic" to get rid of her.

Many of the disagreements had to do with financial matters. Catto balked at Sylvester's increasing demands on the residents for special pre-payments and deposits, as well as his insistence that they put their savings into accounts that he would control until they left the house. "He constantly came up with new ways to get their money," Catto says. "The smarter ones would say, 'Yeah, but that's my money. I want to put it into an account and earn interest.' He wanted me to kick a guy out for getting his own savings account."

Catto also complained about the quality of the food, the house's aged, unreliable refrigerators ("I worried daily about salmonella") and the generally unhealthy state of the place. ("I finally told him I couldn't get people to cook in the kitchen with bugs crawling over the food. That's when he finally hired an exterminator.") She was sickened, too, to discover that Sylvester was charging residents more for RTD bus tokens than it cost Dismas to purchase them through a special discount program. Nobody was getting rich off the markup, but it angered Catto to think that Dismas House was gouging men who had so little of their own.

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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