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Death of mentally disabled Frederick County man sparks outrage

Robert Ethan Saylor died in custody after arrest in movie theater

By Carrie Wells, The Baltimore Sun

9:17 PM EST, February 21, 2013

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The movie was over, but Robert Ethan Saylor refused to leave the theater.

Soon after the developmentally disabled Frederick man was handcuffed by three off-duty sheriff's deputies, he was dead.

The unexplained death last month of Saylor, 26, who had Down syndrome, has thrust the Frederick County sheriff's office into the national spotlight, opening a debate over police treatment of people with mental disabilities.

"With proper training, these officers would have realized there was a better way to work with Robert," said Kate Fialkowski, executive director of the Arc of Maryland, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. "This is a moment for us not only to mourn, but we must also learn from this tragedy."

Frederick County Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins said he is frustrated by the discussion, which has taken place largely on social media.

"The misinformed comments, the negative comments, people really don't know the facts," Jenkins said. His office has forwarded its investigation of Saylor's death to the Frederick County state's attorney, and is conducting a separate, internal investigation of the deputies' role.

The parents of Saylor, who went by Ethan, declined through their attorney to comment. Attorney Joe Espo said Patti and Ron Saylor have not decided whether to file a lawsuit.

"The family is, in part, still looking for answers and trying to understand how a trip to the movies ended up in Ethan's death," Espo said.

Saylor went with a caregiver to the Regal Cinemas Westview Stadium 16 on Jan. 12 to see "Zero Dark Thirty."

When the movie ended, the sheriff's office says, Saylor insisted on watching it again. The three deputies, who were moonlighting as security guards at the theater, stepped in to remove him.

After Saylor cursed them, the sheriff's office says, they placed him in handcuffs.

Then he had what the sheriff's office has called a "medical emergency."

The deputies removed the handcuffs and called for an ambulance, the sheriff's office says. Saylor was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

After an autopsy, the office of the chief medical examiner in Baltimore ruled the death a homicide by asphyxia last week. The Frederick County state's attorney will determine whether criminal charges are warranted.

News of Saylor's death quickly spread across the country through social media. A Facebook post with a picture of Saylor and criticism of the way deputies handled the situation had been shared nearly 88,000 times and drew nearly 12,000 comments by Thursday. Most expressed outrage; some called for support for the deputies.

Dozens of people have decried the deputies' conduct on the Facebook page of the sheriff's office.

Espo said Saylor was "fascinated" by law enforcement and was known to both Frederick police and the sheriff's office because he would call 911 to speak with officers. Shortly before Saylor's death, the attorney said, his mother brought cookies to the sheriff's office to thank them for their patience.

Espo said the incident raises questions about the training officers receive in dealing with developmentally disabled people. "If those deputies had training on that issue, then it was clearly inadequate," Espo said. "This was a completely avoidable event."

The deputies were placed on paid administrative leave Monday after the homicide ruling by the medical examiner last Friday. Jenkins said he waited a couple of days to place them on leave because he wanted to speak to the Saylor family first.

He declined to comment on the deputies' actions, saying he did not have "the complete picture, either."

"It's totally unfair for the public to judge us without knowing all the facts," Jenkins said. He said more information would be released after the internal investigation is complete and the state's attorney makes a decision on criminal charges.

Amid the debate, Jenkins canceled a routine community meeting this week. In a news release, he said that "misinformation" had spread that the meeting was about the deputies' handling of Saylor, resulting in "overwhelming interest in attendance."

"This whole thing has been outrageously driven by social media, and I think it's ridiculous," Jenkins said.

Still, he has used the medium himself to respond.

"First, I do understand the negative outcry and frustration by those who have expressed their concerns about the death of Mr. Robert Saylor," Jenkins wrote Monday on Facebook. "The death of Mr. Saylor was very tragic, and I want to assure everyone that a thorough investigation is being conducted."

Thursday, he used Facebook to thank a local advocacy group for people with Down syndrome called F.R.I.E.N.D.S. The group had expressed support for the sheriff's office.

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