The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The unnecessary death of Ethan Saylor and what has changed in 10 years

The 26-year-old with Down syndrome who died after deputies tried to force him from a movie theater left a large legacy. It should be larger.

Photos of Ethan Saylor in his family's home. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
6 min

Ethan Saylor’s death changed me.

Of course, 10 years ago, I didn’t know yet that it would. I had just come off maternity leave and was working from home on the day my editor called and asked if I could look into an incident that happened on Jan. 12, 2013, in Frederick County, Maryland.

At the time, all we knew was that a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome had died after an encounter with sheriff’s deputies, and that his name was Robert Ethan Saylor. The early accounts from authorities, as is often the case with law enforcement-related deaths, didn’t offer many details.

I would later learn that the sheriff’s department had reason to want the media to lose interest. Saylor had suffered a fractured larynx and his death was ruled a homicide as a result of asphyxia.

I would also later learn that Saylor was called “Ethan” by those who knew him, loved reggae and looked up to law enforcement officers.

Md. man with Down syndrome who died in police custody loved law enforcement

The first story I wrote about him told of how he was a loyal viewer of the show “NCIS” and would sometimes call 911 just to ask dispatchers a question. It told of how he was thrilled to receive a Kevlar vest from a friend’s son, and it raised a question: How did a young man with Down syndrome die in an encounter with the very people he idolized?

The circumstances that led to three off-duty deputies approaching Saylor that night were never disputed. The deputies were working side security jobs and an employee at a movie theater had called them about Saylor. His offense? He had failed to buy a ticket for a second showing of a movie he had just watched.

The next story I wrote about Saylor came months later and detailed what happened between him and the deputies in that theater. That story was based on witness accounts, a 98-page incident report and interviews with Saylor’s family.

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

It told of how an aide who watched “Zero Dark Thirty” with Saylor that night asked the theater employee to be patient and warned the deputies against touching him. (She also called his mother, Patti Saylor, who started driving toward the theater.) It told of how fellow moviegoers watched the deputies talk to Saylor and then saw them forcibly try to remove him from the theater. It told of how those witnesses heard the click of handcuffs, Saylor crying out for “Mommy!” and “It hurt,” and then silence.

In several days, a decade will have passed since Saylor’s death. It is a grim milestone that could easily go unnoticed and unmarked. A decade is a long time and there are undoubtedly many people in the Washington region and across the country who have forgotten about the case or have never heard of Ethan Saylor.

If you are one of them, this is what you should know about him: He left a large legacy. But it should be larger.

You should know that the anniversary of his death matters, because in those 10 years, people have been working hard to make sure what happened to him doesn’t happen again.

“If one life has been saved or one negative interaction has been avoided, we’ve met our goals, and I think that has been true over and over again in the last 10 years,” his mother Patti Saylor said on a recent morning. “We have made an impact. I don’t want to minimize that. But I think all of us want something bigger and more systemic and more comprehensive. And we all thought we’d be there by now.”

By “there” she means seeing the country put in place measures on a federal level that would ensure law enforcement officers and first responders across the nation receive training on how to interact with people with visible and invisible disabilities.

I asked her if she believes what happened to her son could happen to another person with Down syndrome nowadays, given how the national conversation about policing has changed in recent years.

“Yes, I think the risk is still clearly there,” she said. “Good things have happened since he died. It’s just not enough.”

As a result of Saylor’s death, Maryland put in place requirements for law enforcement officials to receive training on how to interact with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Men and women with disabilities participate in that training. Several years ago, I sat in on a session led by two faculty members at Loyola University in Maryland and witnessed a powerful display of unscripted role playing and relationship building. The session offered officers a chance to consider how an autistic teenager might respond in a tense situation and it gave young people with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other disabilities a chance to serve as educators.

A man with Down syndrome pretended to be robbed — to help the police

Saylor said that training, which is funded through the Ethan Saylor Alliance, is still happening and that the pandemic showed it could be conducted successfully online. She also said that several people who train law enforcement officers and first responders in other states use Ethan’s story in their courses.

Those are all parts of his legacy. Another part is the Ethan Saylor Memorial Scholarship that is awarded through the National Down Syndrome Society. The organization gives $500 each year to an individual to pursue dreams that have nothing to do with academic subjects. One recipient used the money to get guitar lessons. Another used it to ride a pontoon.

“We’re thankful he has a legacy,” Patti Saylor said. “We’re thankful that his death led to something positive. I don’t know if it makes it easier. It might … But I will forever be somewhat angry that he was robbed of his life. We had so much to do. We had so much more to explore together. And we were just so robbed of that.”

A police department quietly hired a deputy involved in the death of a man with Down syndrome. Then one man decided to make noise.

The first time I spoke to Patti Saylor I had just become a mother. I had also just started realizing that many disability issues were going unseen.

I told you Ethan Saylor’s death changed me. It did. It made me look deeper at policing practices. It made me write more frequently about disability issues. It made me want to create a world in which no parent has to fear losing a child because of an unpaid movie ticket and a lack of training.