June 14, 2013

My brother did not deserve to die over an unpaid $12 movie ticket.

That much is obvious to everyone about what happened on the January day that Ethan — Robert Ethan Saylor, as he was called in news accounts — went to Westview Promenade shopping center in Frederick to see the film “Zero Dark Thirty.” We also know Ethan died while in the custody of three off-duty sheriff’s deputies, who, for reasons that remain unfathomable to me, had been summoned to remove him from the theater.

But because of the continued refusal of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office to release details of its investigation of those officers, there are far too many things we still don’t know. All those who cared about him — and there are many of us — deserve answers.

For as long as I can remember, my family and I had been preparing for the time when my parents wouldn’t be able to look after my brother, who had Down syndrome. He would never be alone in this world. Over the years, our “family” grew from five of us to more than 20 people, as Ethan’s charming demeanor and unconditional love naturally caused his network of close friends and support staff to expand.

Ethan’s aides were dedicated to empowering him to be the “normal” 26-year-old he desired to be. They would help him navigate the grocery store and make healthy choices and color his hair when he was feeling a bit adventurous. They stayed up with him until the early hours of the morning, talking about the important things in life. He was the same as any other man his age. He just needed a bit more patience and understanding because of that extra chromosome.

As I walked up our driveway hours before he died, I never thought that it would be the last time I would hear “Emmy’s back!” shouted with so much enthusiasm it came through the closed windows. Never again will I be hugged so tightly that my feet are lifted off the floor. And on my wedding day, I will only dream of what it would have been like to see the joy on my brother’s face as he and my father walked me down the aisle, the way Ethan had talked about since we were children. My life is forever changed because of one night, one decision and one monumental lack of understanding.

With all of that said, I feel the most frustration over the common misconception that Ethan’s death was somehow a result of the fact that he had Down syndrome, which is a condition and not a disease. It has become my job as his sister to speak the truth about my brother and who he was. He never let his disability hold him back. Contrary to the conclusion of the Baltimore County medical examiner that his health was “compromised” by heart disease, Ethan never showed any symptom of heart issues, and he received regular health care with no evidence of cardiac issues. His death was ruled a homicide caused by asphyxia; according to the autopsy, his voice box was fractured, and there was blood in his lungs. Ethan was killed just as you or I would have been if we were improperly restrained and unable to breathe.

How could this happen?

My family and I, along with national advocacy organizations such as the National Down Syndrome Society and the National Down Syndrome Congress, are calling for an independent investigation to find out. The Frederick sheriff’s office has said that its investigation is complete. The officers involved have been back on active duty since April. Why is my family still unable to read the statements of those who sat yards away from our Ethan that day? It has been several months now, and questions remain unanswered. For what reason?