PALMDALE, Calif. — A passerby walking on a downtown California street before dawn Wednesday got a nasty shock when he found the body of a black man hanging from a tree.
Now family members of 24-year-old Robert L. Fuller, along with thousands of people across the U.S., are demanding to know what led to his death in a park near Palmdale City Hall.
Just days before his death, Fuller attended a Black Lives Matter protest, his family and friends told the Times.
Fuller was the second black man found hanging from a tree in the span of under two weeks. Malcolm Harsch, 38, was found hanging May 31 from a tree at a homeless encampment near the Victorville City Library.
Victorville is about 50 miles east of Palmdale.
Los Angeles County law enforcement and fire officials said Fuller’s body was discovered around 3:39 a.m. Wednesday in Poncitlán Square, a park located in the heart of Palmdale. Firefighter paramedics from a fire station across the street from the park pronounced him dead.
“Although the investigation is ongoing, it appears Mr. Fuller, tragically, committed suicide,” a statement from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said Friday. “A full autopsy is anticipated in the immediate future.”
That autopsy was completed Friday, according to Dr. Jonathan Lucas, chief medical examiner-coroner for Los Angeles County. Lucas said Monday that his office is awaiting toxicology results in the case.
“(This is) a tragic, sad death and we are, as we do in all of our cases, taking this very seriously, and we’re doing all we can to find out what happened,” Lucas said during a Monday afternoon news conference.
Harsch’s autopsy was also completed Friday, 12 days after his death.
“Although there remains no sign of foul play, the forensic pathologist is waiting for toxicology results before assigning the cause and manner of death,” San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department officials said Monday.
See the spot where Malcolm Harsch died below, courtesy of the Victor Valley News.
In the deaths of both Harsch and Fuller, evidence points to suicide. Lucas indicated Monday, however, that he wanted to be as sure as possible before making a final determination in Fuller’s death.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Monday that scrutiny of Fuller’s death, which comes amid ongoing protests against police brutality and the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, was immense over the weekend.
According to The Associated Press, hundreds of people marched Friday from the spot where Fuller was found to a sheriff’s office substation. Many carried signs reading “Justice for Robert Fuller.”
That hashtag also began trending on Twitter, where people including celebrity Kim Kardashian West pleaded for a thorough investigation. Many on the social media platform called Fuller’s death a lynching.
“It has touched everyone’s heart because Robert Fuller was a young man in the prime of his life,” Villanueva said during the news conference. “His death is obviously painful for many people.”
The sheriff offered condolences to Fuller’s family and vowed to conduct a thorough investigation. Villanueva said he has asked California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to monitor the department’s investigation into Fuller’s death.
The FBI’s Civil Rights Division will also be monitoring the investigation.
“It is our interest to make sure that we leave no rock unturned,” Villanueva said.
Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby described firefighter paramedics’ discovery of Fuller’s body. No one else was on the scene when they arrived.
Once Fuller was pronounced dead, the case was turned over to the Sheriff’s Department.
Capt. Kent Wegener, head of the department’s homicide division, gave reporters and viewers of the news conference a rundown of the investigatory process, which includes forensic analysis of the rope from which Fuller was hanging, as well as physical analysis of Fuller’s body and blood analysis.
“We will also dissect the involved knot structure to determine how they were tied,” Wegener said.
Watch Monday’s news conference with Los Angeles County officials below.
Investigators are also canvassing the area in and around the park for any surveillance video that could show what took place the morning Fuller died. Wegener said his investigators will also be in touch with Fuller’s caseworker from the Department of Social Services.
Villanueva said the details of why Fuller had a caseworker were not yet known. Though the caseworker had been identified as of Monday, no interview had been conducted.
Fuller’s medical records are also being researched in California, as well as in Nevada and Arizona, where he lived for a time, Wegener said.
“We look to contact the witness who located him in the park and those who may have seen him in the past few days, prior to his death,” the captain said.
Analysis of Fuller’s cellphone is also underway.
Lucas said his office is also looking into “historical” records of Fuller to determine more about the man and his medical history.
“We don’t have much to release at this time other than we are going to continue to evaluate the evidence as it comes in (and) independently make an assessment as to the cause and manner of death,” Lucas said. “We will not do that until we have all the history and toxicology and evidence analysis that is currently pending.”
The City of Palmdale released multiple statements over the past several days regarding Fuller’s death. In a statement issued on Friday, Mayor Steve Hofbauer said the city would do everything it could to help Fuller’s family through the tragedy.
“We are all grieving the loss of this young man and our hearts go out to his family and friends during this difficult time,” Hofbauer said. “We also understand the community’s call for a full investigation into this death, and we are asking the same.”
By Saturday, Hofbauer, the city council and several other political figures, including state Sen. Scott Wilk, were supporting the call for an independent investigation and requesting that the attorney general, Becerra, step in and oversee an independent investigation.
“The City of Palmdale joined the family and the community’s call for justice, which includes a full investigation into his death,” the statement read. “The city will settle for nothing less than a thorough accounting of this matter.”
Following Villanueva’s news conference Monday, city officials said they were “gratified” that Lucas had withdrawn the initial preliminary assessment of suicide as the cause of Fuller’s death. Their statement said they were also encouraged by the sheriff’s “commitment to a clear and transparent process” in the investigation.
“The City of Palmdale will not rest until an exhaustive review of Mr. Fuller’s death has been completed and justice is given to him,” the latest statement read.
Victorville city officials are also working closely with investigators in Harsch’s death probe, San Bernardino authorities said. Becerra, the attorney general, has been apprised of the Victorville investigation.
Authorities said Harsch’s body was discovered shortly after 7 a.m. May 31 after his girlfriend called to say he had hanged himself. Both were apparently living in the homeless encampment.
The woman said she and Harsch had been together that morning but that she’d returned to her tent for a short time.
“She was alerted by others in the encampment that Mr. Harsch was found hanging from a tree and cut down. People in the encampment were performing CPR, attempting to revive Mr. Harsch,” a statement from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said. “Upon arrival, deputies immediately took over and continued CPR.”
Paramedics soon arrived and, after additional efforts to revive Harsch, pronounced him dead.
Like Fuller’s family, Harsch’s family is leery of a determination of suicide. The family said in a statement to the Victor Valley News that they feared his death would be ruled suicide strictly to avoid media attention.
The family, who mostly live in Ohio, said Harsch did not seem depressed prior to his death and that he’d spoken to his children about seeing them soon.
“The explanation of suicide does not seem plausible. There are many ways to die but considering the current racial tension, a black man hanging himself from a tree definitely doesn’t sit well with us right now,” the family’s statement to the newspaper read. “We want justice, not comfortable excuses.”
Victorville city officials, like their counterparts in Palmdale, called for a full and thorough investigation into Harsch’s death.
“We grieve for Malcolm’s family and extend our deepest condolences. We understand the gravity of this situation and the family’s desire for answers,” the city’s statement read. “We want the lines of communication to remain open with the family, particularly knowing that they live out of state.”
Sue Jones, a spokeswoman for the city, said city officials were closely watching the investigation and would make public the results of the probe when it is completed.
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