Parents file lawsuit in movie-theater death of Maryland man with Down syndrome


The Saylor family from left, Patti, Ron, Emma and Adam, pose for a portrait this past summer in Mount Airy, Md. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The parents of Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old with Down syndrome who lost consciousness as three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies forced him from a movie theater, filed a lawsuit Thursday that describes his death as “violent, terrifying and painful” and blames it on the negligence and deliberate actions of others.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Maryland, names the deputies, the movie theater, the shopping center’s property manager, the sheriff’s office and the county as responsible for Saylor’s death on Jan. 12 and seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.

Patti Saylor said the family filed the suit to get answers and to hold those responsible for her son’s death accountable, something the family believes the criminal justice system failed to do. In March, a Frederick grand jury determined that no charges were warranted against the deputies — Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy 1st Class James Harris — who were working part-time security jobs at the shopping center. An internal affairs investigation also found no wrongdoing on their part.

Daniel Karp, a Baltimore-based lawyer who is representing the deputies, the sheriff’s office and the county in the case, described the language in the lawsuit as “the familiar hyperbole of a plaintiff that is suing for money.”

“We were under the impression that the family was not interested so much in money as in improving policies, procedures and training,” Karp said. “This lawsuit suggests that our presumptions were incorrect.”


Ethan Saylor is seen in this undated family photo. (Family Photo)

“There is not going to be any evidence, anything close to evidence, that these deputies did anything intentionally wrong,” Karp said. “It was a tragic accident, and the suggestion that they deliberately hurt him is unwarranted.”

The actions of the deputies, the suit says, were “undertaken deliberately and with actual malice.”

The family’s lawsuit comes as the Justice Department investigates whether the civil rights of Saylor, who had an IQ of 40, were violated. Last month, after a meeting with the Saylor family, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) issued an executive order to create a commission aimed at improving training for first responders on how to deal with people who have disabilities.

At the time of the incident, neither the county nor the sheriff’s office offered training or had “any policy, procedure, manual, general order, or other guidance” for deputies on how they should handle situations involving individuals with developmental disabilities, according to the lawsuit.

On the night of his death, Saylor had gone to the Regal Cinemas Westview Stadium 16 with an aide to watch “Zero Dark Thirty.” After it ended, as the aide went to get the car, Saylor slipped back into the theater to watch the film a second time. There, a theater manager approached him and told him that he needed to buy another ticket or leave, according to a statement the employee gave authorities.

Saylor’s aide, according to the suit, warned the theater manager and the first deputy who arrived that Saylor had Down syndrome, that they should wait out his refusal to leave and that he would “freak out” if touched.

Witnesses described seeing Saylor curse and resist as the deputies pulled him from his seat, told him that he was under arrest and dragged him toward the door. There, he ended up on the ground, in handcuffs, not breathing.

The state medical examiner’s office ruled Saylor’s death a homicide as a result of asphyxia.

Calls to Regal Cinema’s corporate headquarters were not returned Thursday. Hill Management Services, the property manager of the Westview Promenade shopping center, which along with the theater employed the deputies as security guards, also did not return calls for comment.

The lawsuit requests a jury trial, and Patti Saylor said the family hopes to hear from the deputies during the course of it.

“We know it’s going to be a long process, and we’re completely committed to the process so that the truth of whatever occurred that night is known,” Saylor said. “My hope is that we get past all this litigation and the community of Frederick makes significant changes in how we see and act with people with disabilities. I have grand thoughts that Frederick will lead the state and the state will lead the country not only in training but in acceptance of people with disabilities.”

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