De­po­si­tions filed in suit de­scribe death of man with Down syn­drome

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY THERESA VAR­GAS

of three Fred­er­ick County sher­iff’s deputies de­tailed their fa­tal con­fronta­tion with a 26-year-old man with Down syn­drome.

The lights in the movie the­ater hadn’t yet dimmed when Fred­er­ick County Sher­iff ’s Deputy Richard Rochford walked in and saw Robert Ethan Say­lor, a 26-yearold man with Down syn­drome, sit­ting in his seat, look­ing straight ahead.

He was not dis­turb­ing any­one, Rochford ac­knowl­edged in a de­po­si­tion that cap­tures his ac­count of that night.

A the­ater man­ager had told Rochford, who was work­ing part­time as a se­cu­rity guard, that Say­lor, of New Mar­ket, Md., had al­ready seen the movie and hadn’t bought a ticket for a sec­ond show­ing. Rochford said he de­cided to “try to rea­son” with Say­lor to leave, but Say­lor ig­nored him and cursed at him.

Rochford then threat­ened to ar­rest him.

“‘Look, you know it’s time to go. If you refuse to leave, you can be, you know, ar­rested and charged with tres­pass­ing, you can be banned from the prop­erty,’ ” Rochford re­called say­ing in the de­po­si­tion, which was filed as part of a law­suit. “I’m ex­plain­ing to him the ram­i­fi­ca­tions for not leav­ing. Again, you know, he said, at some point in time, ‘F--- you, I work for the CIA, you can leave now, I’m done, you know, I’m done talk­ing to you.’ ”

Rochford’s state­ments, along with those of two other off-duty deputies who forced Say­lor from the the­ater that night, pro­vide in­sight into the mo­ments that led up to his death in Jan­uary 2013. The in­ci­dent prompted a pub­lic outcry and changed how Mary­land trains law en­force­ment of­fi­cers.

The ac­counts from the deputies, who have not dis­cussed the in­ci­dent pub­licly, speak to what’s at stake as the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the 4th Cir­cuit, in Rich­mond, con­sid­ers whether the three men de­serve qual­i­fied im­mu­nity, which pro­tects of­fi­cers from civil li­a­bil­ity if they haven’t vi­o­lated “clearly es­tab­lished” con­sti­tu­tional rights.

The court heard ar­gu­ments Wed­nes­day. A de­ci­sion could take months.

The pro­ceed­ings come af­ter the deputies — Sgt. Rochford, Lt. Scott Jewell and Deputy 1st Class James Har­ris — ap­pealed a Septem­ber 2016 de­ci­sion by a fed­eral judge in Mary­land, who de­nied their mo­tion to dis­miss a wrong­ful-death law­suit filed by

Say­lor’s par­ents. The suit claims that the deputies used ex­ces­sive force.

Say­lor’s mother, Patti Say­lor, said she con­sid­ers the lat­est pro­ceed­ings just an­other le­gal de­lay to­ward a trial that will al­low a jury to hear what hap­pened when the deputies en­coun­tered her son. An in­ter­nal af­fairs in­ves­ti­ga­tion de­ter­mined that the three com­mit­ted no wrong­do­ing, and a county grand jury cleared them of crim­i­nal charges.

“They need to be held ac­count­able for what they did,” Patti Say­lor said. “They had other op­tions avail­able to them and didn’t use them. The op­tions they chose killed him.”

As the deputies forced Say­lor from the the­ater and hand­cuffed him, sev­eral movie­go­ers heard him scream­ing for his mother and then go silent, ac­cord­ing to wit­ness state­ments. Dur­ing a strug­gle with the deputies, Say­lor lost con­scious­ness, and his death was later ruled a homi­cide, with the cause listed as as­phyxia. The med­i­cal ex­am­iner found that his lar­ynx had been frac­tured.

Say­lor, who went by his mid­dle name, had gone to the movie that night to see “Zero Dark Thirty” with his aide, Mary Crosby. He ap­plauded af­ter the first show­ing, she told author­i­ties. She was get­ting the car when he slipped back into the the­ater and sat in his usual place, the first seat in the first row on the up­per level.

Crosby, in state­ments to author­i­ties, said she told the man­ager and deputy that Say­lor didn’t like to be touched and would curse at them if they ap­proached him. She asked them to wait him out.

“‘Bet­ter get the boys. We’re go­ing to have some trou­ble tonight,’ ” Crosby, in her de­po­si­tion, re­called Rochford say­ing. Not long af­ter, she said, she heard scream­ing com­ing from the the­ater and then, “‘Ouch. That hurts. Get off. Mom.’ ”

Wit­nesses de­scribed see­ing all three deputies pull Say­lor from his seat as he re­sisted and, at one point, stum­ble to the ground.

Jewell in his de­po­si­tion said that while Say­lor was on the ground, he and the other deputies used three sets of hand­cuffs, daisy chained to­gether, to re­strain the man, who was 5-foot-6 and weighed nearly 300 pounds. The in­stant the hand­cuffs were on, he said, Say­lor stopped strug­gling.

His skin had turned a “gray­ish color,” Har­ris said in his de­po­si­tion. “I checked the pulse on his neck with th­ese two fin­gers. I couldn’t find a pulse, so I went to his wrist and still no pulse.”

Rochford called for an am­bu­lance and did chest com­pres­sions un­til Say­lor be­gan rhyth­mi­cally snor­ing, he re­called. The deputy later rode in the am­bu­lance with Say­lor and was de­scribed in an­other of­fi­cer’s re­port as “vis­i­bly shaken.”

Patti Say­lor said she does not doubt that.

“He should have been shaken,” she said. “At that in­stant, he knew that some­thing hor­ri­ble had hap­pened and he was a part of it.”

Ethan Say­lor was fas­ci­nated with law en­force­ment and would some­times call 911 just to ask a ques­tion. Be­fore his death, his mother took cook­ies to the sher­iff ’s of­fice in thanks for un­nec­es­sary trips made to her house. As a re­sult of Say­lor’s death, Mary­land changed how it trains law en­force­ment of­fi­cers. They are now taught in the academy how best to in­ter­act with peo­ple with in­tel­lec­tual and de­vel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties, and a pro­gram cre­ated in Say­lor’s mem­ory teaches peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties to par­tic­i­pate in law en­force­ment train­ing.

“I hope the world at large is left with a truth­ful pic­ture of who Ethan was and that peo­ple un­der­stand he didn’t de­serve to die this way,” Patti Say­lor said. “Law en­force­ment of­fi­cers need to have an un­der­stand­ing that there are peo­ple who are un­able to com­ply with di­rect com­mands, and they aren’t criminals.”

The fam­ily’s at­tor­ney, Joseph B. Espo, said he feels strongly about the strength of the law­suit’s claims.

“We think the trial judge got it right that the law is clearly es­tab­lished that this level of force, given the cir­cum­stances of the case, was ex­ces­sive,” he said.

If the court grants the deputies qual­i­fied im­mu­nity for the con­sti­tu­tional claim, Espo said, the case will still go for­ward on the claims of gross neg­li­gence and bat­tery, which are cov­ered by state law. U.S. Dis­trict Judge Wil­liam M. Nick­er­son in his ear­lier rul­ing also de­ter­mined that there was enough ev­i­dence to sup­port claims against the state and Hill Man­age­ment Ser­vices, which man­ages the Fred­er­ick-area shop­ping cen­ter where the the­ater is lo­cated.

The deputies’ at­tor­ney, Daniel Karp, did not re­turn calls for com­ment.

A court doc­u­ment stat­ing the deputies’ po­si­tion on the ex­ces­sive-force charge reads: “Mr. Say­lor’s death at 26 years old is a tragedy. How­ever, there is no dis­pute as to the ma­te­rial facts, and un­der the undis­puted ma­te­rial facts, no rea­son­able jury could find that the ap­pro­pri­ate force used by the Deputies was ob­jec­tively un­rea­son­able.”

In their state­ments, all three deputies said they rec­og­nized that Say­lor ap­peared to have Down syn­drome.

“Know­ing that, well, at least be­liev­ing that there is a per­son with de­vel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties who you are deal­ing with and given the na­ture of any of­fense he might have been ar­rested for, did it ever oc­cur to you to say to your sub­or­di­nates, ‘ This just isn’t worth it, let’s stop?’ ” Jewell, the high­est-rank­ing deputy, was asked dur­ing his de­po­si­tion. “No,” he said. “What did you un­der­stand, if, if you had an un­der­stand­ing, of what . . . of­fense Mr. Say­lor was be­ing ar­rested for?”

“Theft,” he said.

“‘We’re go­ing to have some trou­ble tonight.’ ” Mary Crosby, Robert Ethan Say­lor’s aide, de­scrib­ing the words of a sher­iff’s deputy in her de­po­si­tion


Robert Ethan Say­lor, who had Down syn­drome, died of as­phyxia af­ter be­ing re­strained by Fred­er­ick County deputies af­ter re­fus­ing to leave a movie the­ater in Jan­uary 2013.

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