Suit filed in disabled Md. man's death in custody

Robert Ethan Saylor is shown in an undated family photo. Saylor, 26, of New Market, Md., died of asphyxia on Jan. 12, 2013, after three Frederick County sheriff's deputies tried to forcibly remove him from a movie theater. AP Photo/Saylor Family

HAGERSTOWN, Md. The parents of a man with Down syndrome who suffocated as three sheriff's deputies tried to remove him from a Maryland movie theater filed a federal lawsuit Thursday, alleging Robert Ethan Saylor "died a violent, terrifying, and painful death" due to negligence by the theater and deputies.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. It alleges the Frederick County deputies fractured Saylor's larynx during the struggle last January, making it difficult for the 26-year-old, 294-pound New Market man to breathe.

The damage to a piece of cartilage attached to Saylor's Adam's apple was not explained in the autopsy report. Attorney Daniel Karp, representing the Frederick County Sheriff's Office, speculated it may have occurred during the difficult insertion of a breathing tube by paramedics. Karp said there is no evidence the deputies applied force to Saylor's neck at the Frederick theater.

"This was an accident, but a tragic one," he said.

Besides the deputies, who were moonlighting as Westview Promenade security officers, the complaint targets Regal Cinemas Inc., of Knoxville, Tenn.; Hill Management Services Inc., the mall's Timonium-based operator; the sheriff's office and the county.

A theater manager summoned the deputies because Saylor hadn't paid for a second viewing of "Zero Dark Thirty." The deputies wrestled him from his seat and onto the floor despite warnings from his attendant that Saylor would "freak out" if they touched him, according to witness statements.

Attorney Patrick McAndrew, representing Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy First Class James Harris, declined to comment on the lawsuit. He stressed that the deputies were cleared by a Frederick County grand jury in March. Representatives of the other defendants did not immediately return calls from The Associated Press.

Critics have called for an independent investigation of the deputies' actions after the grand jury's decision not to indict them for what the state medical examiner's office had ruled a homicide.

The autopsy concluded Saylor would not have died had the officers not intervened. The autopsy also found that Saylor's developmental disability, obesity, atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and a heart abnormality contributed to the death.

The uproar over Saylor's death triggered a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. In September, after meeting with parents Patricia and Ronald Saylor, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley created a commission to recommend training standards for first responders in dealing with people with developmental disabilities.

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