Autopsy report gives details in death of man with Down syndrome at Md. theater


Robert Ethan Saylor (Associated Press)

Robert Ethan Saylor didn’t like to be touched, and suddenly an off-duty deputy had his hands on him. Within moments, two more deputies would grab him, the four men would fall in a heap on the floor, and Saylor, who had been shouting and resisting their attempts to restrain him, would grow quiet and still.

More than two months after a man with Down syndrome died at the hands of three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies, these details about his death emerged in an autopsy report released this week. The 11-page report, which offers the most comprehensive account yet on how the 26-year-old who went to see a movie ended up dead, was made available Tuesday, the same day local and national advocacy groups met with the U.S. Department of Justice to discuss the need for better police training.

Saylor, who loved the TV show “NCIS” and was so fascinated with the police that he would sometimes call 911 just to ask a question, had been watching “Zero Dark Thirty” at a movie theater last month. As soon as it ended, he wanted to watch it again. When he refused to leave, a theater employee called three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies who were working a security job at the Westview Promenade shopping center and told them that Saylor either needed to buy another ticket or be removed. Saylor had gone to the movies with his aide, but a lawyer for Saylor’s family said she was getting the car when the confrontation started.

The autopsy report says that Saylor, who was 5-foot-6 and 294 pounds, had a “medical history of Down’s syndrome with ‘anger issues’ (especially when confronted or touched).”

When one of the deputies asked Saylor to leave, he started yelling and cursing, the report says. As the three deputies tried to restrain him and lead him from the theater, the four fell “on a slightly inclined ramp at the side of the theater” and, during the struggle, the deputies placed three sets of handcuffs on Saylor, it says.

“At some point while restrained and prone, he stopped struggling and was noticed to be unresponsive by the deputies,” the report says. “At some point they rolled him over and could not find a pulse, took the handcuffs off and started chest compressions.”

Saylor was later pronounced dead at a hospital. In February, the state Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore ruled Saylor’s death a homicide as a result of asphyxia. Since then, the case has drawn national attention from parents of children with Down syndrome, and more than 1,000 angry messages fill the Facebook page of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office. One simply reads: “Murderer.” Another: “I will no longer teach my children that the police are their ‘friends.’ ”

The sheriff’s department conducted a criminal investigation into the actions of the deputies — Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy 1st Class James Harris — and turned over the findings to the Frederick County state’s attorney’s office. On Friday, State’s Attorney J. Charles Smith said a grand jury convened, hearing testimony from the three detectives and reading 17 witness statements. It concluded that no criminal charges were warranted.

As of Monday, the deputies, who had been placed on paid leave, were assigned to administrative duties pending the outcome of a separate internal investigation, a spokesman for the sheriff’s department said.

The autopsy report, which could not be released until the criminal investigation was closed, says Saylor “was already compromised by his Down’s syndrome, obesity, body habitus, and heart disease, making him more susceptible to sudden death in stressful conditions which would compromise his breathing.” It also details a series of cuts and bruises on Saylor’s body but does not discuss their origin. He had abrasions on his nose, back of the head, abdomen, back and left elbow. He also had bruising on his forehead.

“The bottom line for me is no matter what the mechanism of death was, they should have just walked away,” said Joseph Espo, an attorney for the Saylor family. “He wasn’t bothering anybody until they tried to do something.”

On Tuesday, four groups and representatives of the Saylor family met with the Justice Department for two hours. The discussion centered on the need for a training program for police departments across the country to “prevent another tragedy of this nature happening again in the future, in any town in the United States,” according to a news release from the National Down Syndrome Society on Wednesday.

“Ethan deserved to be a welcomed member of his community,” Sara Weir, a vice president with the organization, said in the release. “We join the rest of the Down syndrome community in their sadness and outrage as we act for positive change.”

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