Aide to man with Down syndrome who died in theater had warned police, report says


Saylor is seen in an undated family photo. (Family photo)

Moments before off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies tried to force a young man with Down syndrome out of a movie theater — a move that eventually led to his death — Robert Ethan Saylor’s 18-year-old aide warned them that he would “freak out” if they touched him.

“Next thing I know, there are I think three or four cops holding Ethan, trying to put him in handcuffs,” the aide told authorities, according to documents from the Frederick County Sheriff’s Department obtained Monday by the Associated Press. “I heard Ethan screaming, saying ‘ouch,’ ‘don’t touch me,’ ‘get off’ and crying. Next thing I hear is nothing.”

The aide’s statement about what happened the day Saylor died is among a package of documents released to the Saylor family’s attorney and the Associated Press by the sheriff’s department detailing its criminal investigation. The 98-page incident report and handwritten statements from 22 witnesses provide the most detailed account yet of how Saylor, 26, went from wanting to watch a movie he liked twice to dead from asphyxiation within minutes.

“I don’t understand why it has taken this long to produce,” Joseph Espo, an attorney for the family, said of the report Monday night. “We’re happy that we finally have it.”

Before the documents were released, only the most basic details of what happened that January day were known.

The three deputies — Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy 1st Class James Harris — were working off-duty security jobs at the Westview Promenade shopping center when they were called to the theater.

There, they encountered Saylor, who had just watched “Zero Dark Thirty” with his aide of three months and wanted to watch it again. He loved the movie, the aide told authorities in a written statement: “Ethan even clapped at the end.”

The aide, whose name was redacted from the documents, said Saylor had a history of angry outbursts and had lost his temper earlier that evening. As they stood outside the theater after the movie, he began cursing and punched a storefront window, frightening her, she wrote.

Advised over the phone by his mother and another caregiver to give him a few minutes to calm down, the aide went to get the car, leaving him in front of the theater, she told authorities. By the time she returned, Saylor was in the theater, seated, and a manager was telling her that he couldn’t watch the movie because he hadn’t paid for a ticket.

“I explained, ‘Yes, we are having a little issue, I’ll handle it. We just have to be patient,’ ” the aide wrote in her statement. “Then a sheriff came and said, ‘Another show is starting. I have to go get him out. I explained Ethan is (sic) Down syndrome.”

The aide said she advised the deputy to “wait it out.”

“Then the sheriff went in and started talking to Ethan and Ethan was cursing at him,” the woman wrote, adding that the officer threatened to arrest Saylor. “I then said, ‘Please don’t touch him, he will freak out.’ ”

An autopsy report said that Saylor did not like to be touched and suddenly the deputies had their hands on him. The 294-pound man flailed, cursed and cried for his mother, according to witness accounts.

As the deputies tried to restrain and lead Saylor from the theater, the four fell in a heap on a slightly inclined ramp and, during a struggle, the deputies placed three sets of handcuffs on him. When Saylor suddenly grew quiet and unresponsive, the deputies removed the handcuffs and administered CPR.

The Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore ruled Saylor’s death a homicide as a result of asphyxia. There was unexplained damage to his larynx.

A witness said one of the deputies had a knee on Saylor’s back, but no one reported seeing the deputies touch Saylor’s neck.

When the deputies couldn’t find a pulse, they removed the handcuffs and started chest compressions until Saylor started breathing again, snoring but unconscious, according to the documents. The aide was asked to help.

“I tapped him and said, ‘Wake up, Ethan,’ ” she wrote.

In March, a Frederick County grand jury determined no charges were warranted against the deputies, who have since returned to their full duties. Afterward, none of the evidence presented to the jury was made available to the family or public for months, despite Freedom of Information Act requests. Instead, Daniel Karp, an attorney for the sheriff’s office, said an internal affairs investigation first had to be completed.

For Saylor’s family, that meant not only did they have to mourn a young man who was known for his all-encompassing hugs and his fascination with the police — they were also left with more questions than answers.

“Why is my family still unable to read the statements of those who sat yards away from our Ethan that day?” Saylor’s sister, Emma Saylor, wrote in The Washington Post on June 14. “It has been several months now, and questions remain unanswered. For what reason?”

In the months following Saylor’s death, representatives from the family and advocacy groups met with the U.S. Department of Justice about the case and called on Maryland officials to conduct an independent investigation.

Karp said Monday that the internal affairs investigation has been completed but that he couldn’t comment on any specific findings.

“This matter has been investigated thoroughly,” said Karp, who defends municipalities and public officials in civil lawsuits. “It’s obviously a tragic and unfortunate incident, but the deputies did nothing wrong.”

Espo said it is too early to discuss whether a civil lawsuit will be filed.

“First we’re going to read the report and then decide what, if anything, to do,” he said.

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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