Questions haunt family of man with Down syndrome who died in police custody

He was crying out for her.

“Mommy!” someone heard Ethan Saylor scream as three off-duty Frederick County deputies yanked the 26-year-old with Down syndrome from a movie theater seat and dragged him, struggling, toward the door.

Patti Saylor was already in the car on her way to the Regal Westview cinema after getting a call from her son’s 18-year-old aide, saying she was unsure what to do. They had just finished watching “Zero Dark Thirty,” and now Ethan didn’t want to go home. He had hit a Lenscrafter store’s window in protest.

Patti was maybe five minutes away when she called the aide, expecting to hear that Ethan had already calmed down, that the two were fine and eating at McDonald’s. Instead, she was told that Ethan was unconscious, not breathing and on his way to the hospital.

Only this week — after the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office released long-awaited documents detailing its investigation into Robert Ethan Saylor’s death Jan. 12 at the hands of its deputies — would his mother read the witness statements describing how her son had called out for her in his last moments.

“I have to stop myself and think he’s not experiencing that fear at this moment,” Patti said, crying in her New Market living room, where the Saylor family had gathered for their first sit-down interview since Ethan’s death. “That’s over. That’s done. He’s not feeling that now.”

For six months, the Saylor family has remained quiet, patiently waiting to learn how a young man fascinated with law enforcement died with handcuff marks on his wrists.

The most comprehensive picture yet came Monday when the sheriff’s office released a 98-page incident report and handwritten statements from 22 witnesses, including Saylor’s aide, the theater employee who called security that night, and moviegoers who suddenly found themselves watching an unexpected drama unfold off-screen.

The witnesses, whose names have all been redacted, give varying accounts of what happened. But taken together, their statements show that the exchange between Saylor and the officers went from verbal to physical quickly and, in the minutes it would have taken his mother to get to him, spiraled toward a devastating end.

‘I’m not leaving’

Sgt. Rich Rochford, 41, was the first deputy to approach Ethan that night .

He wasn’t in uniform; instead, he was moonlighting as a security guard. He was summoned to the theater by an associate manager who had noticed Ethan slip into Theater 9 and try to watch “Zero Dark Thirty” for a second time that evening.

“I said if you want to watch the movie again, you will have to purchase another ticket,” the theater employee wrote in his statement. He added that Ethan told him he didn’t have any money and walked out but then returned.

Ethan’s aide tried to defuse the situation.

“Yes, we are having a little issue, I’ll handle it,” she told the manager, according to her written statement. “We just have to be patient.”

When Rochford arrived, the aide warned him, too. She told him they should “wait it out” and that Ethan might curse at him and “freak out” if he was touched, she wrote.

By this point, moviegoers had already begun shuffling into their seats. Among them were a father and son sitting in the same row as Ethan, two male friends sitting about five rows behind him and a couple who had taken the aisle seats in front of Ethan because the woman had broken her ankle. All of them in their statements reported that Rochford calmly asked Ethan several times to leave. They also said that, in response, Ethan cursed and insisted, “I’m not leaving.”

A few minutes passed before Rochford was joined by Lt. Scott Jewell, 52, and Deputy 1st Class James Harris, 46, who were also working security jobs at the Westview Promenade shopping center. Together, the men pulled Ethan, who weighed 294 pounds, from his seat as he wailed and resisted.

He was “squalling like a child,” one witness said, “squalling, ‘No, no, no.’”

Several said they heard Ethan being told that he was going to jail. One heard him being read his Miranda rights.

The theater manager told authorities that he saw the deputies try to pin him to a wall so they could handcuff him. When he resisted, they moved him toward an inclined area that exits the theater, the manager wrote. That’s when they fell in a heap, with Ethan on the bottom.

Witnesses reported not being able to see Ethan but hearing the click of the handcuffs and Ethan “whine and cry” and say, “It hurt, call my mom.”

Then, nothing. Silence.

‘A tragic event’

In March, a Frederick grand jury reviewed the witnesses’ statements and heard from the three deputies before deciding that no criminal charges were warranted.

Ethan’s death was ruled a homicide by asphyxia by the state Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, which also noted that his weight, Down syndrome and heart disease made him “more susceptible to sudden death” in situations that compromised his breathing. The autopsy report would list among Ethan’s injuries unexplained damage to his larynx. None of the witnesses reported seeing the deputies touch his neck.

“This was a tragic event from the perspective of everyone involved, something that everyone obviously wishes didn’t occur,” said Daniel Karp, a Baltimore-based attorney for the sheriff’s department. But the deputies, he said, “did nothing wrong.”

In the report released this week, the deputies do not offer individual accounts of what happened that night. Karp said the officers chose to exercise their right as law enforcement officials to withhold statements for the criminal investigation, but he said each was interviewed for the internal affairs investigation, which usually is not publicly released.

Still, statements from investigators who responded to the scene and a “Use of Force” report signed by Rochford provide a general outline of what the officers said happened:

As they were walking down the ramp, Ethan started to lose his balance and the deputies “used that opportunity to take him to the ground” and place him in three sets of handcuffs strung together to accommodate his size.

When they tried to get him to stand up, they realized that he was unconscious. The men then removed the handcuffs and called for an ambulance. A short time later, he went into cardiac arrest.

Rochford, who traveled in the ambulance with Ethan, was “visibly shaken” by the time a fellow deputy, Cpl. David DeWees, saw him at the hospital, DeWees wrote in his statement. “He told me that they did nothing wrong and cannot understand how Mr. Saylor is deceased.”

‘A good big brother’

Ethan’s ashes now sit on the mantle in the Saylor living room, where his mother, father, sister and brother gathered this week to talk not only about Ethan’s death but his life.

His younger siblings, Emma, 23, and Adam, 21, recalled the frequent and lengthy voice mails he would leave them, sometimes singing his messages. “Love you more,” he’d tell them often.

“He was a good big brother,” Emma said.

With an IQ of 40, he still believed in Santa and would reach out to hold someone’s hand whenever he walked in the rain or on ice, said his mother, a 55-year-old nurse with a special education degree.

Once, when Ethan took a community college class geared toward special-needs students, he showed up with a laptop and beer in his backpack because he believed that’s what college kids did.

Ethan’s parents encouraged him to be independent, to go places and do things with his aides, whom he helped to hire.

They acknowledge he had a temper that sometimes led to outbursts like the one at the theater. Two weeks earlier, he and an aide had gone to a karaoke bar and had a great time, but Ethan didn’t want to leave at the end of the night In that instance, the bartender, waitresses, and Adam helped persuade him to go.

Patti and Ethan’s father, Ron, have both read through the documents, nearly 200 pages, and said many questions remain for them.

One of the most nagging: Did any of those officers know Ethan?

Ethan had a long-standing fascination with law enforcement. A photo shows him around the age of 9 dressed as a detective, complete with suit and sunglasses. He also had accumulated an impressive collection of badges and baseball caps emblazoned with titles such as “Police, “DEA,” and “Sheriff.”

“He would always say, ‘I am a good guy,’ ” his mother said.

At the same time, she knew that his obsession could be annoying to police. Ethan sometimes called 911 because he wanted one of his aides fired. Other times, he called to ask for a job application. Patti said officials at the sheriff’s department knew to call her back each time so she could assure them it wasn’t an emergency.

In his report about the incident, Sgt. Michael Easterday wrote that Jewell asked him to meet Rochford at the hospital. “He also informed me that the subject was Ethan Sailor (sic),” he wrote. “I was not familiar with Sailor (sic) by name, however, once it was explained where he lived, I was familiar with the history of calls for service at the residence.”

Since the death, four of the witnesses have contacted the family, including one who told them he keeps asking himself, “Why didn’t I intervene?”

In her statement, the witness with the broken ankle asked one of the deputies why “they didn’t just let him sit and watch the movie.”

He told her, she wrote, that the theater’s management wanted him out.

“I’m not a police basher,” said Patti, who took cookies to the sheriff’s office at the end of last year to thank the deputies for their patience with her son. “I don’t want revenge on these men. I don’t feel hatred for these men.”

But she said she wants answers — ones she doesn’t believe are in a report put together by the same agency that employs the deputies. Her family, along with national Down syndrome advocacy groups, have called for an independent investigation by Maryland officials into Ethan’s death.

“There’s a lot we don’t know, and if things continue on this present course, we never will,” Ron Saylor said.

Patti wants to know why the deputies didn’t listen to Ethan’s aide.

“I imagine that officer is asking himself the same thing: Why didn’t he wait?” she said. “There were many points along that entire process where they could have said, ‘A movie ticket isn’t worth this.’ ”

After Ethan’s death, sheriff officials returned to Theater 9 and stopped the movie that was playing. For the inconvenience, the report said, theater management gave patrons free movie passes.

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