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Lawsuit Says Police Killed Down Syndrome Man For Wrongly Entering Movie Theater

Robert Ethan Saylor

Off-duty sheriff’s deputies, a sheriff’s department, a management company and a movie theater operator are to blame for the death of a man with Down syndrome, a lawsuit alleges.

Robert Ethan Saylor died on Jan. 12, 2013 after deputies moonlighting as security guards handcuffed and dragged him from a mall movie theater.

The deputies were called to remove Saylor from the Westview Regal Cinemas in Frederick, Maryland, because he had entered the theater without a ticket. Saylor, who weighed 294 pounds, had to use a wheelchair and required the services of a full time aide.

The deputies manhandled, Saylor wrestled him to the floor and fractured his larynx in the process, a federal lawsuit filed by Saylor’s parents alleges. The fracture to the larynx caused Saylor to die of asphyxiation at a nearby hospital.

“As a result of the actions of the theater, its manager, the three individual deputies and the Frederick County Sheriff’s Department, Robert Ethan Saylor died a violent, terrifying, and painful death,” the lawsuit filed in October claims.

Saylor’s case attracted national attention after the Maryland State Medical Examiner ruled that his death was a homicide. The case generated controversy when a Frederick County grand jury refused to indict the deputies.

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Allegations against deputies and others

Neither the lawsuit itself nor news organizations state how much money Patricia and Ronald Saylor are seeking. The suit names Regal Cinemas Inc., deputies: Scott Jewell, James Harris and Richard Rochford, Hill Management Services Inc. and the Frederick County Sheriff’s Departments as defendants. NBC News reported that the deputies in the incident have returned to duty.

Some of the claims made in the lawsuit include:

  • Robert Ethan Saylor had an IQ of 40.
  • From his physical appearance it was obvious that Saylor had Down Syndrome.
  • Saylor did not like to be touched and would “freak out” or throw a tantrum if strangers touched him.
  • Saylor had a history of violent outbursts and outrageous behavior.
  • Saylor’s aide, Mary Crosby, had accompanied him to the movie theater and told deputies about his behavior.
  • Saylor was actually well-known to the sheriff’s department. He had visited the agency and helped washed patrol cars. Saylor’s mother, Patricia, had given deputies cookies to thank them for their kindness to her son in the past.
  • Robert Ethan Saylor was a regular patron at the Westview Regal Cinemas in the Westview Promenade Mall. He had reportedly seen hundreds of movies there.
  • A coroner’s report in March stated that Crosby told deputies Saylor had Down Syndrome at the time of the arrest.
  • The coroner’s report stated that a witness said a deputy put a knee on Saylor’s back, according to the Associated Press.

Saylor’s death was really caused by paramedics who wrongly inserted a breathing tube into his throat, Daniel Karp, the sheriff’s department’s attorney, told the Associated Press. Karp claimed there is no evidence that deputies even touched Saylor’s neck.

The caretaker rejects the department’s explanation.

“I … said, ‘Please don’t touch him, he will freak out,'” the caretaker said. “Next thing I know, there are I think three or four cops holding Ethan, trying to put him in handcuffs.”

One witness said his last words were, “Mommy, it hurt!”

Saylor’s case spotlights the practice of using off-duty police officers to provide security at privately owned businesses. The deputies involved were not acting in an official capacity.

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