Nearly five months after a man with Down syndrome died in an encounter with three off-duty deputies in a movie theater, the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office has yet to release details of the criminal investigation into its officers.
A Frederick County grand jury in March determined no charges against the deputies were warranted, which should have marked the end of the investigation into a death that sparked a public outcry. But in the months that have passed, neither Robert Ethan Saylor’s family nor the media have been allowed to review witness testimony or evidence in the case, despite Freedom of Information Act requests.
“While the criminal investigation has been completed and the grand jury has finished its work, the internal affairs investigation has not yet been completed,” reads a letter from Daniel Karp, a Baltimore-based attorney representing the Sheriff’s Office. “Until the IA investigation is complete, we do not regard the criminal investigation as being fully complete either.”
Karp, who defends municipalities and public officials in civil lawsuits, said it is “conceivable” but “highly unlikely” that the internal investigation could lead to the reopening of the criminal investigation.
“We don’t anticipate it’s going to make any difference in the ultimate outcome, but all i’s must be dotted and t’s crossed,” Karp said. “It’s not unusual for an agency not to want to release information piecemeal before everything is done.”
Advocacy groups and an attorney for Saylor’s family describe the delay as baffling and point to it as a sign that the deputies should not have been investigated by the same department that employs them.
“When you do an internal investigation like that, you either have to be really transparent to give the family and the public assurance everything has been done, or you need to turn it over to outside authorities,” said David Tolleson, executive director of the National Down Syndrome Congress. “If we don’t recognize what happened here, what went wrong here, how can we keep it from happening again?”
His organization was among several to meet with the U.S. Department of Justice about the case and to call on Maryland officials to conduct an independent investigation.
“At the end of the day, we, and in particular the family, want to know what happened and why,” Tolleson said. “And we don’t have those answers.”
Frederick authorities said that on Jan. 12, the three deputies — Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy 1st Class James Harris — were working off-duty security jobs at the Westview Promenade shopping center when they were called to the theater. There, they encountered Saylor, a 26-year-old who was known for his fascination with police. He had just watched “Zero Dark Thirty” and wanted to watch it again.
Authorities said that an aide who had gone to the movie with Saylor was getting the car when a theater employee told the deputies that Saylor needed to buy another ticket or leave.
Frederick County State’s Attorney J. Charles Smith gave this account in March of what happened next: The deputies confronted Saylor, and he verbally and physically resisted their attempts to remove him. At one point, they restrained him with handcuffs and placed him on his stomach for “one to two minutes.” He began showing signs of distress. The deputies removed the handcuffs, called for help and administered CPR.
The Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore ruled Saylor’s death a homicide as a result of asphyxia. An autopsy found that Saylor “was already compromised by his Down’s syndrome, obesity, body habitus, and heart disease, making him more susceptible to sudden death in stressful conditions which would compromise his breathing.”
Smith said that his office presented the grand jury with 17 witness statements and testimony from the deputies.
An attorney for Saylor’s family, Joseph Espo, said he has not seen any of that evidence. Meanwhile, the deputies have returned to their full duties, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s department said.
“We don’t understand what there is left to do if the deputies are back to work,” Espo said.