Disabled man killed in movie theater by police had inexplicable throat injury

Robert Ethan Saylor with his mom, whom he called out for as he was being killed. (Source: Family photo)

This article has been updated. See updates posted chronologically at the bottom of the text.

Robert Ethan Saylor idolized police, but was ultimately killed by them. (Source: Family photo)
Robert Ethan Saylor idolized police, but was ultimately killed by them. (Source: Family photo)

FREDERICK, MD — New details have emerged of the death of a mentally handicapped man, killed inside a movie theater in January while wearing police handcuffs.  The official cause of death was asphyxiation, and an autopsy has revealed that the man suffered a peculiar injury — fractured throat cartilage — which one expert says could only have been caused by force of some kind.  Force, which could have included a direct blow or manual strangulation.  The officers still remain on the force, and many questions remain.

On January 12, 2013, Robert Ethan Saylor was watching “Zero Dark Thirty” inside the Westview Promenade theater in Frederick, MD.  Saylor, age 26, was born with Down Syndrome and had an IQ of 40, and was in attendance to the theater with a caretaker.

At the end of the movie, Saylor had enjoyed the movie so much that he clapped. He wanted to watch it again.  His not understanding the concept of tickets, and the pair’s lack of money to purchase another viewing, left them in a dilemma.

Police were called to make sure that Saylor was removed from the theater unless he paid for a second ticket.

Robert Ethan Saylor with his mom, whom he called out for as he was being killed.  (Source: Family photo)
Robert Ethan Saylor with his mom, whom he called out for as he was being killed. (Source: Family photo)

Disputing over the price of a movie ticket, police began engaging the pair and demanding more money.

“I explained, ‘Yes, we are having a little issue, I’ll handle it. We just have to be patient,’ ” the aide wrote in her statement. “Then a sheriff came and said, ‘Another show is starting. I have to go get him out. I explained Ethan is (sic) Down syndrome.”

His caretaker pleaded with police to “wait it out,” as they had no more money to pay for another ticket. She warned police that he could not handle being touched and would “freak out.”

Police ignored the aide’s request and began to get physical wth Saylor in order to place him in handcuffs.  They wrestled with him as he writhed in pain and mental discomfort.

Several people heard the officers tell Saylor that he was going to jail, reported the Washington Post.

During the confrontation, 3 deputies fell into a heap on top of Saylor on an inclined ramp.  The deputies placed three sets of handcuffs on him, and was laid face down for several minutes. Saylor suddenly grew quiet and unresponsive, prompting the deputies to perform CPR.

Robert Ethan Saylor's pictures. (Source:  Katherine Frey / The Washington Post)
Robert Ethan Saylor’s pictures. (Source: Katherine Frey / The Washington Post)

“Next thing I know, there are I think three or four cops holding Ethan, trying to put him in handcuffs,” the aide told authorities, according to Sheriff’s Department documents. “I heard Ethan screaming, saying ‘ouch,’ ‘don’t touch me,’ ‘get off’ and crying. Next thing I hear is nothing.”

“Mommy! It hurt!” were his last words. He died of asphyxiation.

The death was ruled a homicide. The 3 deputies spent a month on paid vacation and were ultimately not charged with anything.  They resumed full duties in March, the Washington Post reported.

“Each of these professionals, devoted law enforcement officers, did what was necessary under the circumstances, and they did what their training dictated that they do,” said the officers’ attorney Patrick J. McAndrew.

Robert Ethan Saylor (Source: AP)
Robert Ethan Saylor (Source: AP)

“The deputies did nothing wrong,” said Daniel Karp, another attorney for the sheriff’s office.

A Grand Jury heard the case and dismissed the officers, but the Saylor family’s attorney points out the lack of objectivity at the hearing, according to Your4State.com.  The aide, nor any of the theater witnesses, were there to testify.

“It was a homegrown investigation done by the Sheriff’s department on the Sheriff’s department by the law enforcement going to a Grand  Jury,” says Joseph Espo, the Saylor family’s attorney. “It’s my understanding that the only witnesses [at the Grand Jury] were the investigating officer and the three deputies.”

The fractured cartilage was shown to have occurred while Saylor was still with a heartbeat.  “It can be seen in a manual strangulation, ” said expert witness Dr. John Hunsaker to Your4State.com. “But in and of itself, one would be difficult to diagnose without more information. And it can occur as a result of a direct blow.”

The exact cause of the fracture is unknown and may never be known.  But 3 deputies skirted through a biased Grand Jury and received several weeks of paid time off as their only reprimand for their unthinking enforcement techniques, lack of compassion, and ultimate killing of a handicapped man who idolized police.


UPDATE  (Feb. 2014) — Police Trained To Deal With Persons With Low IQ

Rather than discipline or criminal charges, the officers who strangled Ethan Saylor, along with two dozen other members of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Department have been sent to a 4-hour training class to learn how to interact with humans with intelligence lesser to their own.

Interestingly, neither Saylor’s mother nor the Sheriff were confident that the training would solve the problem.

“I think education is always key to understanding, so [the training] could not have hurt,” said Patti Saylor. “Whether or not the people involved would have heeded the training they had, I can’t comment on that.”

Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins says he is pretty sure his deputies would have still killed Saylor even if they had this training earlier.

“Based on what I’ve seen and what I know about what happened at that theater, I truly, honestly don’t believe anything would have been different as to the unfortunate outcome.”

The latest word is that the Justice Department is still looking into the incident, according to the Washington Post.


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