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Good works carry some concerns Halfway house for parolees now accepting sex offenders

Terry King walked out of prison in 1999 with a $40 check from the state and the clothes on his back, a born-again Christian eager to start a new life after spending four years behind bars for manslaughter.

King had hit bottom. He killed a Canisius College student, Jeffrey Brown, while driving drunk. He and a business partner also had been found liable in a civil suit for swindling $800,000 from elderly investors.

Eight years after he left prison, ordained at Elim Bible Institute, the Rev. Terry J. King, 49, runs Saving Grace Ministries, dedicated to helping other men survive the transition from prison to the outside world.

Saving Grace Ministries has a growing collection of halfway houses for parolees, with four houses on Bailey Avenue, another on Brinkman Street and others in Rochester and Erie, Pa.

"I think it's really neat to see a man come here with literally nothing and six months later be ready to move into his own apartment," said King, a friendly man with a ready smile. "He has nice clothes, a job, he's out of the criminal life. That's neat."

Grace House, the flagship of this faith-based organization at 1932 Bailey, was the home of convicted killer John Justice until he was sent back to jail in a dispute that had both sides accusing the other of wrongdoing.

Justice, the Kenmore man who spent 20 years in prison after killing his parents, his brother and a neighbor, claimed the house was a drug den filled with pedophiles.

He said a housemate tried to sell him a gun and claimed evangelical Christianity was forced on him.

King denied Justice's charges. He said parolees are regularly tested for drugs, that state parole officers conduct surprise searches of the residence and that religion remains a parolee's option, nothing is forced on anyone.

A parole judge is sorting out the claims after a recent hearing, but Justice isn't the only one who has questions about Grace House:

*Neighbors and others worry that King's growing complex might be getting too big for a residential neighborhood.

*A nun who directs a nearby women's home and the district Council member say King broke a promise to them by accepting parolees convicted of sexual crimes.

*Justice's attorney, Barry Dalgoff, wonders whether Grace House, with its evangelical focus, crosses the line in the traditional separation of church and state. It operates under a $1.1 million contract through 2012 with the state Division of Parole and another $144,000 state homeless grant.

>Medical facility planned

Grace House, which opened in 2001, now has 25 parolees and has plans to expand to 49 parolees, according to King. It also has a $2 million application before the city to build a 10-bed medical facility next to Grace House for infirm parolees.

Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana, who represents the area, said King runs a tight operation, and Fontana has few complaints about the day-to-day operations other than its size. But Fontana and neighbors say King has not been honest in explaining why those convicted of sexual crimes have been admitted to Grace House despite his promise not to accept them.

"First-degree murder, arson and sex offenders will be prohibited to live at Grace House," reads a statement on the agency's Web site.

Despite that pledge, five sex offenders live in Grace House, according to the New York State Sex Offender Registry.

The list includes Theodore Sypnier of the Town of Tonawanda, a 98-year-old convicted pedophile with a 40-year history of molesting young children.

Asked about these parolees and his promise not to accept them, King said the policy changed. He said he felt obliged to take in these men.

"It seems to be working well," he said. "We have a huge sexual offender problem in Erie County."

He also said he accepted Justice, although he was convicted of manslaughter and not murder, only at the request of the Parole Division.

In Sypnier's case, King said, he accepted the elderly man because he had nowhere else to go. "Here we have him under supervision," King said. "How would you like him to be at the City Mission? That's where he was headed. I look at this as an asset to the community."

>Sex offenders a concern

Sister Janet DiPasquale is the director of the TRY program for troubled young women on nearby Brinkman. She said King broke his promise on taking sex offenders.

She and others were instrumental last summer in killing a $200,000 proposal by King to buy the former Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church on Bailey, across from Grace House. The church property abuts the backyard of the TRY house.

"He isn't being honest, and that's the part that bothers me," she said. "In the meantime, I have young, vulnerable girls here."

Saving Grace Ministries recently bought a house at 244 Brinkman, near the TRY House, to house men who have completed the Grace House program but are not ready to live on their own, King said.

Pat Gauthier, a Brinkman resident and former block club president, said she rents to two of King's former parolees.

"He runs a good program," she said, adding that King is always quick to respond to any problem. She remains concerned about the parolees with sex crimes.

"I'm not too pleased with that, and neither is the community," she said.

Fontana has good things to say about Grace House, but he said it should not grow any bigger, and he, too, is concerned about the parolees with sex crimes.

"I said, 'Look, Terry, you promised when you first came in, there wouldn't be murderers or sex offenders.' I've seen sex offenders. I don't like it."

"I wouldn't have minded if he was up front on that one," Fontana said. "But he wasn't."

King said there is a serious need for supervision for parolees with sexual convictions, citing a boarding house in Buffalo with nearly two dozen men listed on the sex registry.

He said the problem will only grow as New York considers imprisoning incorrigible sexual criminals in civil confinements after their prison terms are over. "We are working with parole officials on a strategic plan for sex offenders and civil confinements," he said. "We are at the table with the stakeholders."

He said he would like to build a facility in an isolated section of the city as a long-term solution to the problem.

"I value their approval for us to even operate here," he said of the neighborhood.

>Religion not mandated

King, an evangelical Christian, said the Grace House program is based on the principles of his faith.

But he said religion is optional, that no parolee is forced to attend church or religious programming, and he said he has men of different faiths living in Grace House.

"We have Muslims, we have Rastafarians, we have atheists," said King. "I'm a pastor, but I'm not mandating anything at any time. That is my policy. However, I am obligated to live by my Christian practices."

On a tour of the well-maintained facility that King gave a reporter, a parolee named John, who described himself as a Muslim, called Grace House peaceful. He said he was never asked to compromise his religious beliefs.

Parole officers say Grace House does not force religion on parolees, according to a state Division of Parole spokesman. "The faith-based community has a prominent role in rehabilitating parolees and helping them to successfully re-enter the community," spokesman Mark Johnson said.

"We have a good working relationship with the Rev. Terry King," Johnson said. "They allow parole officers on site there. We do sweeps through the facility for drugs, alcohol, things like that. They've always seem to manage to run a tight ship. We think it's a good program."

King said his time in prison helps him relate to the parolees.

"What I say to the men is, 'My life was this. I went to prison, and if I ever go back to my old way of life, everything I have today, this opportunity, I lose."

He said he has dedicated his new life to those he wronged in the past.

"I pray about that every day, I pray for their forgiveness," he said. "My restitution is based on my commitment to building this agency. I pray that one day, they will forgive me."

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com

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Grace House at a glance

What it is: A halfway house for men paroled from prison, housed in a collection of four buildings on Bailey Avenue near Walden, and another on Brinkman Street. Twenty-five paroles now live at the house.

Who runs it: Saving Grace Ministries, a Christian evangelical ministry led by the Rev. Terry J. King and a six-member board.

How it is funded: Grace House operates under a $1.1 million contract through 2012 with the state Division for Parole, and another $144,000 grant from a state homeless program. King also engages in extensive fundraising. Who is barred: First-degree murderers, arsonists and those convicted of sex crimes, according to its Web site. But King said he changed the policy to admit a limited number of sex offenders; five are there now, irritating neighbors.

How the parolees live: Parolees are required to sign up with Erie County Social Services for monthly living expense grants, which range from $169 to $306 a month. Grace House gets its food from the Food Bank and donations.

How the parolees spend their time: Required programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, drug counseling, anger management, job skills and the like. They are finding jobs and places to live.

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