Fascinated with law enforcement, Robert Ethan Saylor would sometimes call 911 just to ask the dispatchers a question. He loved talking to police officers and was a loyal follower of the TV show “NCIS.”
Now, his death at age 26 is the subject of a criminal investigation that has left those who knew him in his Frederick County community and those who didn’t around the country wondering: How did a young man with Down syndrome die in an encounter with the very people he idolized?
As officials tell it, Saylor had been watching “Zero Dark Thirty” at a Frederick movie theater last month and, as soon as it ended, wanted to watch it again. When he refused to leave, a theater employee called three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies who were working a security job at the Westview Promenade shopping center and told them that Saylor either needed to buy another ticket or be removed.
What happened next is the subject of a probe by the Frederick County Bureau of Investigation. The findings are expected to go to the Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office for review this week.
Cpl. Jennifer Bailey, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said Saylor cursed at the deputies, who weren’t wearing uniforms, and began hitting and kicking them. The deputies restrained him using three sets of handcuffs linked together and escorted him from the theater. At some point, Saylor ended up on the ground and began showing signs of medical distress. A short while later, he was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Late last week, the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore ruled Saylor’s death a homicide as a result of asphyxia. Since then, the case has ignited the fears of parents of children with Down syndrome, caught the attention of advocacy groups and left one family questioning how a young man who loved learning about criminal investigations could become the subject of one.
“Ethan was developmentally disabled, not a criminal,” said Joseph Espo, a lawyer who spoke on behalf of Saylor’s parents, Patti and Ron Saylor. “He was entranced by police and police departments and liked communicating with them to the extent that, if there was ever a complaint, it was that he’d call so they could come to the house so he could talk to them.”
Saylor’s mother took cookies to the sheriff’s office at the end of last year to thank the deputies for all the unnecessary trips they made to the house, Espo said.
Espo said the family has not seen the autopsy but believes that the incident was handled the wrong way from beginning to end. Saylor was in the theater with an aide, and his mother could have been called.
“Clearly it highlights a need for training, if there was none, or more and better training if there was some,” Espo said.
Bailey said that deputies receive annual training on the use of force and that all sworn and civilian staff members got training in dealing with people with mental health issues from the Frederick County Health Department in 2011.
Since the homicide determination, Bailey said, the sheriff’s office has been receiving calls from concerned residents, including parents of children with Down syndrome, and Sheriff Charles Jenkins has talked to some residents personally. Jenkins grew up with Saylor’s father, Ron.
“We want people to know we are very concerned about this case, and we’re taking it very seriously,” Bailey said. “This is a terrible loss for the Saylor family but also for the community and our agency as well.”
The three deputies — Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy 1st Class James Harris — were placed on paid administrative leave as of Monday. Bailey said the deputies have so far exercised their right as law enforcement officers not to give statements to investigators.
Denny Weikert, president of the Frederick-based Family Resource, Information & Education Network for Down Syndrome, said his organization has not previously encountered problems with law enforcement agencies. But since Saylor’s death, he said, he has been fielding calls from concerned organizations across the nation asking for guidance. Weikert said board members plan to meet and will issue a statement this week.
Julie B. Cevallos of the National Down Syndrome Society said, “This incident is of course scary and upsetting to our community,” adding: “With law enforcement, any misunderstandings are particularly risky, and we certainly hope that abuse is not tolerated. “
Meanwhile, those who knew Saylor remember his love of music, reggae in particular, and the way he would greet them.
“He would regularly come up to me and give me a hug and put his head on my shoulder,” said Paul Foss, a leader at Damascus Road Community Church, which Saylor attended. “He would stay in that hug as long as I was willing to stay in that hug.”
Each Sunday, Saylor — who went by his middle name, Ethan — would sit in the same chair at the front of the church through two services. Foss said sometimes he would fall asleep and other times would sip a soda, but he’d remain in that spot from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., getting up only to greet his many friends.
When Foss learned of Saylor’s death, he said, he informed about 60 members of the church that night. The following Sunday, they brought bouquets to fill Saylor’s empty chair. The flowers overflowed onto the floor and an adjoining seat.
Cam Overs has a son Saylor’s age and has been friends with his family for 30 years. He remembered how Saylor would run curiously toward whatever caught his eye and was a pro at hide and seek because he had the endurance to stay in the same spot until he was found.
Saylor would get breakfast with Overs every Sunday at McDonald’s. Both scoffed at change, and so their orders were always the same: a No. 1 for Overs and a No. 7 for Saylor.
“Now I don’t have my buddy for breakfast every Sunday morning,” Overs said. “There’s a void that nobody expected.”
Overs said Saylor knew how to spell “satellite” because of his fascination with satellite photos and was thrilled when Overs’s son Jonathan, who is in the military, brought him a Kevlar vest. Overs said Saylor didn’t understand that he could call a non-emergency number for the police and dialed 911 so often that he was known to members of the law enforcement community.
On the day of Saylor’s funeral, two law enforcement officers sent a text that was read aloud; it said they, too, would miss him.
“What a fitting memorial it would be if a training module was created in his name,” Overs said, “so no other family or police force would have to suffer this pain.”