The lights in the movie theater hadn’t yet dimmed when Frederick County Sheriff’s Deputy Richard Rochford walked in and saw Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome, sitting in his seat, looking straight ahead.
He was not disturbing anyone, Rochford acknowledged in a deposition that captures his account of that night.
A theater manager had told Rochford, who was working part-time as a security guard, that Saylor, of New Market, Md., had already seen the movie and hadn’t bought a ticket for a second showing. Rochford said he decided to “try to reason” with Saylor to leave, but Saylor ignored him and cursed at him.
Rochford then threatened to arrest him.
“ ‘Look, you know it’s time to go. If you refuse to leave, you can be, you know, arrested and charged with trespassing, you can be banned from the property,’ ” Rochford recalled saying in the deposition, which was filed as part of a lawsuit. “I’m explaining to him the ramifications for not leaving. Again, you know, he said, at some point in time, ‘F--- you, I work for the CIA, you can leave now, I’m done, you know, I’m done talking to you.’ ”
Rochford’s statements, along with those of two other off-duty deputies who forced Saylor from the theater that night, provide insight into the moments that led up to his death in January 2013. The incident prompted a public outcry and changed how Maryland trains law enforcement officers.
The accounts from the deputies, who have not discussed the incident publicly, speak to what’s at stake as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, considers whether the three men deserve qualified immunity, which protects officers from civil liability if they haven’t violated “clearly established” constitutional rights.
The court heard arguments Wednesday. A decision could take months.
The proceedings come after the deputies — Sgt. Rochford, Lt. Scott Jewell and Deputy 1st Class James Harris — appealed a September 2016 decision by a federal judge in Maryland, who denied their motion to dismiss a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Saylor’s parents. The suit claims that the deputies used excessive force.
Saylor’s mother, Patti Saylor, said she considers the latest proceedings just another legal delay toward a trial that will allow a jury to hear what happened when the deputies encountered her son. An internal affairs investigation determined that the three committed no wrongdoing, and a county grand jury cleared them of criminal charges.
“They need to be held accountable for what they did,” Patti Saylor said. “They had other options available to them and didn’t use them. The options they chose killed him.”
As the deputies forced Saylor from the theater and handcuffed him, several moviegoers heard him screaming for his mother and then go silent, according to witness statements. During a struggle with the deputies, Saylor lost consciousness, and his death was later ruled a homicide, with the cause listed as asphyxia. The medical examiner found that his larynx had been fractured.
Saylor, who went by his middle name, had gone to the movie that night to see “Zero Dark Thirty” with his aide, Mary Crosby. He applauded after the first showing, she told authorities. She was getting the car when he slipped back into the theater and sat in his usual place, the first seat in the first row on the upper level.
Crosby, in statements to authorities, said she told the manager and Rochford that Saylor didn’t like to be touched and would curse at them if they approached him. She asked them to wait him out.
“ ‘Better get the boys. We’re going to have some trouble tonight,’ ” Crosby, in her deposition, recalled Rochford saying. Not long after, she said, she heard screaming coming from the theater and then, “ ‘Ouch. That hurts. Get off. Mom.’ ”
Witnesses described seeing all three deputies pull Saylor from his seat as he resisted and, at one point, stumble to the ground.
Jewell in his deposition said that while Saylor was on the ground, he and the other deputies used three sets of handcuffs, daisy chained together, to restrain the man, who was 5-foot-6 and weighed nearly 300 pounds. The instant the handcuffs were on, he said, Saylor stopped struggling.
His skin had turned a “grayish color,” Harris said in his deposition. “I checked the pulse on his neck with these two fingers. I couldn’t find a pulse, so I went to his wrist and still no pulse.”
Rochford called for an ambulance and did chest compressions until Saylor began rhythmically snoring, he recalled. The deputy later rode in the ambulance with Saylor and was described in another officer’s report as “visibly shaken.”
Patti Saylor said she does not doubt that.
“He should have been shaken,” she said. “At that instant, he knew that something horrible had happened and he was a part of it.”
Ethan Saylor was fascinated with law enforcement and would sometimes call 911 just to ask a question. Before his death, his mother took cookies to the sheriff’s office in thanks for unnecessary trips made to her house. As a result of Saylor’s death, Maryland changed how it trains law enforcement officers. They are now taught in the academy how best to interact with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and a program created in Saylor’s memory teaches people with disabilities to participate in law enforcement training.
“I hope the world at large is left with a truthful picture of who Ethan was and that people understand he didn’t deserve to die this way,” Patti Saylor said. “Law enforcement officers need to have an understanding that there are people who are unable to comply with direct commands, and they aren’t criminals.”
The family’s attorney, Joseph B. Espo, said he feels strongly about the strength of the lawsuit’s claims.
“We think the trial judge got it right that the law is clearly established that this level of force, given the circumstances of the case, was excessive,” he said.
If the court grants the deputies qualified immunity for the constitutional claim, Espo said, the case will still go forward on the claims of gross negligence and battery, which are covered by state law. U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson in his earlier ruling also determined that there was enough evidence to support claims against the state and Hill Management Services, which manages the Frederick-area shopping center where the theater is located.
The deputies’ attorney, Daniel Karp, did not return calls for comment.
A court document stating the deputies’ position on the excessive-force charge reads: “Mr. Saylor’s death at 26 years old is a tragedy. However, there is no dispute as to the material facts, and under the undisputed material facts, no reasonable jury could find that the appropriate force used by the Deputies was objectively unreasonable.”
In their statements, all three deputies said they recognized that Saylor appeared to have Down syndrome.
“Knowing that, well, at least believing that there is a person with developmental disabilities who you are dealing with and given the nature of any offense he might have been arrested for, did it ever occur to you to say to your subordinates, ‘This just isn’t worth it, let’s stop?’ ” Jewell, the highest-ranking deputy, was asked during his deposition.
“No,” he said.
“What did you understand, if, if you had an understanding, of what . . . offense Mr. Saylor was being arrested for?”
“Theft,” he said.