On Sunday, Patti Saylor kept thinking of Mother’s Day last year, the last one she spent with her son, Robert Ethan Saylor, before he died earlier this year while in the custody of three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies at a movie theater.
Saylor of New Market said she was in Frederick Memorial Hospital during Mother’s Day weekend last year to be checked out for possible heart trouble. Ethan, who had Down syndrome, wanted to stay with her because he was worried, she said.
She was glad for his company while waiting for the return of her test results. She began to doze off, and Ethan slipped into the bathroom of her hospital room. She heard the shower running.
As he often did when in the shower, Ethan sang, but this time his song was a heart-felt prayer, loud enough that his voice was heard throughout the second-floor cardiac wing, she said.
“‘Please have mercy on my mom’s soul, and please don’t let my mom die, because I love her so much,’” she recalled Sunday, her voice taking on a reggae lilt the way Ethan had sung it, during a vigil in her son’s memory at Pinecliff Park in Frederick.
The event was also intended to keep attention on the case.
An advocacy group is circulating a petition calling for an independent investigation into Ethan Saylor’s Jan. 12 death, while also sending letters to elected officials urging them to support such a probe.
Although a representative for Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said the office does not have jurisdiction on the matter, U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. told The Gazette that he is “deeply concerned” about the case.
Either way, the family just wants answers, Patti Saylor said.
“We don’t know what happened to him,” his mother said. “Our biggest questions still remain.”
The memorial and a balloon release Sunday was organized by Stephanie Holland, a friend of the Saylor family and former Frederick area resident, to remember Saylor and honor his mother.
“It just hit me that it was going to be the four-month anniversary since [the family] lost Ethan, and it would be the first Mother’s Day for Patti without him,” she said. “I felt like this was something I needed to do.”
Holland, who now lives in Tennessee, said Ethan Saylor and Holland’s son, Joshua, 26, who also has Down syndrome, both went to the same Frederick day care provider until the age of 3.
Saylor’s death at the Regal Cinema Westview Stadium 16 has drawn national attention and prompted the collaboration of the U.S. Justice Department and several advocacy groups to develop a national training program for law-enforcement officers and first responders.
Three off-duty Frederick County Sheriff’s Office deputies, Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy 1st Class James Harris, were working security jobs at the mall when an usher asked them to remove Saylor, who had watched a movie and wanted to see it again. The theater usher had said he needed to leave or buy another ticket.
While being removed, Saylor died of asphyxia, according to the autopsy report from the Maryland Office of Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore.
Among his injuries was a crushed trachea.
The family and numerous advocacy groups for the developmentally disabled have called for an independent investigation.
The three deputies were returned to duty following an internal investigation by the sheriff’s office, and a Frederick County grand jury did not return any charges against them in March.
Advocacy groups are asking people to sign a Change.org petition, created in late March, that urges Gansler to launch an independent investigation into Saylor’s death.
“We are still extremely outraged over what’s been happening,” Taina Karru-Olsen, co-founder of Down Syndrome Uprising, a grassroots advocacy group that created the petition, said during a telephone interview Friday. “Nobody deserves to die over a movie ticket, [and] Ethan’s family deserves some justice to come out of this.”
As of Monday, the petition had nearly 700 signatures.
However, representatives from Gansler’s office said that the case is under the jurisdiction of the Frederick County State’s Attorney Office, and outside the boundaries of what he is able to investigate.
“The Attorney General cannot second guess the local prosecutor’s or police department’s decision on any given case, nor are we legally entitled to,” Peggie McKee, citizens response coordinator for the office, said in a May 8 letter to the advocates.
In addition to the petition, Down Syndrome Uprising has also sent letters to other state and federal politicians, including Van Hollen (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington, asking them to support an independent investigation.
“We ask you to hold the Frederick County law enforcement community to a higher standard of conduct,” the letter said. “Without your action, an unarmed man will have died in Maryland’s 8th District over the price of a movie ticket without so much as a meaningful investigation.”
The advocacy groups, which have urged the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a federal probe into the case, met with members of the Civil Rights Division’s Disability Rights Section and Special Litigation Section in April.
The Special Litigation Section works to protect the rights of those who interact with state or local police and sheriff’s offices.
After the April meeting, representatives from the groups said that the section is reviewing the case to determine if Saylor’s civil rights were violated under the American Disabilities Act, although a formal investigation has not been launched.
“I’m deeply concerned about the circumstances surrounding Mr. Saylor’s death,” Van Hollen said in an emailed statement to The Gazette. “We must do everything we can to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future. I support the Department of Justice’s decision to review the case, and urge them to release the results of that review as soon as possible.”
During Sunday’s event, family and friends gathered around a pavilion where photos of Ethan at various stages of his life were displayed.
“We really should have balloons in reggae colors,” said Patti Saylor, noting that Ethan was a big fan of reggae singer Bob Marley.
Some 30 people gathered at the park held a wide variety of balloons in different colors and shapes.
“Ethan would say, ‘On your mark, get set, go,’” Patti Saylor said as she and the others released their balloons.
She watched them floating skyward on a bright blue afternoon. Then the smile she had kept throughout the day dropped, and she began to cry.
“These are for you, Ethan,” she said.