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Down Syndrome Death: Death of Maryland Man Handcuffed Upon Refusing to Leave Movie Theater Ruled Homicide

Travelers Today       By    Amanda Woods

Updated: Feb 20, 2013 12:10 AM EST

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Robert Ethan Saylor, a Maryland man with Down Syndrome, died shortly after he was handcuffed for refusing to leave a movie theater.(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

When Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old man with Down Syndrome went to see "Zero Dark Thirty" with a health aide, his family never expected that he wouldn't return home.

Saylor, of New Market, Md., alone in a Regal Cinemas Westview Stadium 16 theater in Frederick when his aide went to move her car, refused to leave the theater or buy another ticket after having already finished his movie, The Frederick News Post reported. At this, an employee called the police, The Associated Press reported.

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The Sheriff's Office told Fox News that Saylor cursed and resisted arrest -- so he was handcuffed and led out. Before leaving the theater, Saylor began having what the Sheriff's Office told Fox News was a "medical emergency." At that point, the handcuffs were removed, and Saylor was taken to the hospital, where he died, Fox News reported.

The state medical examiner determined that Saylor died of asphyxia, the Associated Press reported. Cpl. Jennifer Bailey, the sheriff's office spokeswoman, told The Frederick News Post that the circumstances of his death are still under investigation.

Joseph B. Espo, a Baltimore attorney representing the family, told Fox News that sheriff's officials met with Saylor's family for about an hour Friday. He called Saylor's death "beyond [the family's] imagination."

"I think what they most want to see out of the investigation is a clear account of what happened and why it happened," Espo said.

The deputies who were with Saylor at the time of his death, identified as Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy First Class James Harris, continue to work their normal assignments during the investigation. The deputies were working secondary employment with Hill Management at the Westview Promenade, The Frederick News Post reported.

Bailey told The Frederick News Post that the deputies are still working their current duties because of uncertainty around Saylor's death. This case is different from an officer-involved shooting, for example, where the connection between the officers' actions and the resulting death is clear, she added to the paper.

Cpl. Gregg Warner, the sheriff's office's lead investigator in the case, told the newspaper that he awaits the final report from the medical examiner for additional information specifying how Saylor died. So far the agency has found out only the cause and manner of death.

"We want to make sure we have that before any more statements could be made," Warner told The Frederick News Post. "We have formally requested it, but there is a process they have to go through."
Bailey said investigators were not willing to release information about the investigation, including whether Saylor's caretaker or anyone else in the theater witnessed his death.

Once the investigation comes to a close, the results will be forwarded to the state's attorney's office for review, Bailey told the paper.

Frederick County State's Attorney Charlie Smith said his office will review the investigation report and determine whether it requires more evidence from the sheriff's office. After that, Smith said his office could bring the case before a grand jury or decide to either progress in issuing charges or issue a letter of declination.

"If there is sufficient evidence there, we will make that decision and notify the sheriff's office," Smith told the paper.

Smith added that he will not review any part of the case until the investigation is completed.

"It's not going to do us any good to review a partial file," Smith said. "We have an obligation to the victim, as well as to the police officers, to make sure our investigation is thorough and complete."

Dr. George Kirkham, a criminologist and former law enforcement officer, at the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University said Saylor's could have suffered positional asphyxia, which he said is often combined with something called sudden in-custody death syndrome. It's most common among people who are on drugs or suffer mental instability -- and Kirkham said Saylor's Down Syndrome could have contributed to its onset.

"It's a well-known phenomenon, and these people need to be trained about it," he said to The Frederick News Post. Bailey told the paper that these issues are addressed during use-of-force training.

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