FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — Police tried to forcibly remove a man with Down syndrome from a Maryland theater with tragic results, despite warnings from his caretaker that her client would “freak out” if they touched or spoke to him, according to her statement contained in an investigative file released Monday.
Robert Ethan Saylor, 26, died of asphyxia minutes later, after three Frederick County Sheriff’s deputies handcuffed the flailing, 294-pound man as he screamed, cursed and cried for his mother, witnesses say. Saylor’s offense, according to the file documents: He had not purchased a ticket for a repeat viewing of the movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”
The 98-page incident report and handwritten statements from 22 witnesses add new details to a case that remains in the spotlight six months after Saylor’s death on Jan. 12. Critics continue to call for an independent investigation of the deputies’ actions after a grand jury’s decision in March not to indict them for what the state medical examiner’s office has ruled a homicide.
The 18-year-old caretaker, whose name is redacted from the documents, wrote that she had been Saylor’s caretaker for three months before he died.
She said Saylor, known to his family as Ethan, had a history of angry outbursts, including one earlier that night. They had already seen the movie once and were outside the Frederick theater when she asked Saylor if he was ready to go home. Saylor began cursing and punched a storefront window, she told police.
Somewhat frightened, the caretaker called Saylor’s mother, Patti Saylor, of New Market.
“Patti told her to just wait him out and his attitude will change,” an investigator wrote in a follow-up interview report.
The caretaker then spoke by phone with another of Saylor’s caretakers. He advised her to leave Saylor in front of the theater while she got the car, giving him a few minutes alone to calm himself. But by the time she returned, Saylor had gone back into the theater and seated himself. As she walked in, a manager was telling Saylor he had to leave the auditorium.
“I explained, ‘Yes, we are having a little issue, I’ll handle it. We just have to be patient,” the caretaker wrote.
The manager then summoned one of the three deputies, Sgt. Rich Rochford. All of the deputies were moonlighting as mall security officers.
“Then a sheriff came and said, ‘Another show is starting. I have to go get him out,’” the caretaker wrote. “I explained Ethan is Down syndrome.”
She said she told the officer that if he spoke to Saylor, “he will curse.” She advised him to “wait it out.”
“Then the sheriff went in and started talking to Ethan and Ethan was cursing at him,” the woman wrote.
She said the officer threatened to arrest Saylor, a statement corroborated by other witnesses.
“I then said, ‘Please don’t touch him, he will freak out,’” the caretaker wrote. “Next thing I know, there are I think three or four cops holding Ethan, trying to put him in handcuffs.”
As the officers pulled the struggling Saylor from his seat and down an exit ramp, they went down out of view of most witnesses. One customer told police an officer had his knee on Saylor’s lower back while the other deputies held Saylor’s shoulders. At least two witnesses said the kneeling officer’s knee was on the floor. Nobody reported seeing the officers touch Saylor’s neck.
Saylor became unconscious, so the deputies rolled him over, by all accounts. The deputies couldn’t find a pulse, so they removed the handcuffs and started chest compressions until he started breathing again, snoring but unconscious, according to all accounts. They asked the caretaker if she could wake him.
“I tapped him and said, ‘Wake up, Ethan,’” she wrote.
Saylor never regained consciousness, despite the efforts of ambulance workers who arrived soon afterward.
The state medical examiner’s office found signs of “positional” asphyxia, or having been in a position in which he couldn’t breathe. There was also unexplained damage to Saylor’s larynx. The autopsy concluded Saylor would not have died had the officers not intervened. The autopsy also found that Saylor’s developmental disability, obesity, atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and a heart abnormality contributed to the death.
A family lawyer, Joseph Espo, said had not yet read the report and could not comment.
Attorneys for the deputies and the sheriff’s office didn’t immediately return calls from The Associated Press.