Parents File Suit in Death of Down Syndrome Son in Movie Theater

The parents of Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old with Down syndrome, filed a lawsuit against three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies, alleging that the deputies violently forced him from the movie theater. They sue for negligence and deliberate actions of others.

The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court of Maryland, names the deputies, the movie theater, the shopping center’s property manager, the sheriff’s office and the county responsible for Saylor’s death on January 12th.  They are seeking unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.

Patti Saylor said the family filed the lawsuit to get answers and to hold those responsible for her son’s death accountable, something the family believes the criminal justice system failed to do.

In March, a Frederick grand jury determined that no charges were warranted against the deputies, Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy 1st Class James Harris, who were moonlighting as part time security officers at the shopping center. An internal affairs investigation also found no wrongdoing on their part.

The family’s lawsuit comes as the Justice Department investigates whether the civil rights of Saylor, who had an IQ of 40, were violated. Last month, after a meeting with the Saylor family, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley issued an executive order to create a commission aimed at improving training for first responders on how to deal with people who have disabilities.

It was reported that at the time of the incident, the sheriff’s office, as well as the county, did not offer any training or had “any policy, procedure manual, general order, or other guidance” for deputies on how they should handle situations involving individuals with developmental disabilities, according to the lawsuit.

On the night of Saylor’s death, he had gone to the Regal Cinemas Westview Stadium 16 with an aide to watch “Zero Dark Thirty.” After the movie ended, as the aide went to get the car, Saylor slipped back into the theater to watch the film a second time.  A theater manager approached him and told him that he needed to buy another ticket or leave, according to a statement the employee gave authorities.

According to the suit, Saylor’s full-time aide told investigators that she warned the theater manager and the first deputy who arrived, that 294-pound Saylor, who used a wheelchair, had Down syndrome and that they should wait out his refusal to leave and that he would “freak out” if touched.

Witnesses said he was screaming, “Mommy! Mommy! It hurts!” as he was forcibly removed.

Witnesses described seeing Saylor curse and resist as the deputies pulled him from his seat, told him that he was under arrest and dragged him toward the door. There, he ended up handcuffed on the ground, not breathing.

“As the deputies manhandled Mr. Saylor, they fractured his larynx, making it difficult for him to breathe,” the suit states. “Because this was apparent, the deputies rolled him to his side, removed his handcuffs, and called emergency medical technicians. It was too late—Mr. Saylor suffocated.”

The state medical examiner’s office ruled Saylor’s death a homicide as a result of asphyxia.

Saylor’s parents say the deputies caused his “violent, terrifying and painful death” as they tried to remove him from a movie theater.

Calls to Regal Cinema’s corporate headquarters were not immediately returned. Hill Management Services, the property manager of the Westview Promenade shopping center, which along with the theater employed the deputies as security guards, also did not return calls for comment.

The lawsuit requires a jury trial, and Patti Saylor said the family hopes to hear from the deputies during the course of it.

“We know it’s going to be a long process, and we’re completely committed to the process so that the truth of whatever occurred that night is known,” Saylor said. “My hope is that we get past all this litigation and the community of Frederick makes significant changes in how we see and act with people with disabilities. I have grand thoughts that Frederick will lead the state and the state will lead the country not only in training but in acceptance of people with disabilities.”

Would it really take three grown police officers to remove one man with obvious disabilities from a movie theater? Did they need to beat him to death? Was the price of the movie ticket worth Saylor’s life? They were warned that they should give him a few minutes and not to touch him.  Feel free to comment on this blog post. For more information, contact one of our Gacovino Lake attorneys at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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