A Los Angeles County supervisor, state senator and state assembly member have called on the state attorney general to investigate the death of a 24-year-old black man found hanging from a tree in a park near Palmdale City Hall.
“Today, I asked California State Attorney General Xavier Becerra to conduct an independent investigation into the death of Mr. Robert Fuller, who was discovered hanging from a tree in the city of Palmdale,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger said. “The attorney general, as the lead attorney and law enforcement official for the state of California, will lend additional expertise and oversight into this important investigation and provide the community with the answers they deserve.”
Barger added, “It is my hope that our collective efforts will help to support those struggling and grieving surrounding the circumstances of this tragedy.”
State Senator Scott Wilk and Assemblymember Tom Lackey, both Republicans from the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys, also called for Becerra to investigate the death.
Later Sunday, longtime activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, will call for a federal probe into Fuller’s death to determine whether it was a hate crime.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people gathered at Palmdale City Hall on Saturday to demand answers about Fuller’s death, which was discovered Wednesday.
“The city of Palmdale is joining the family (of Fuller) and the community’s call for justice, and we do support a full investigation into his death,” said Palmdale Public Information Officer John Mlynar. “We will settle for nothing less than a thorough accounting of this matter.”
“The city has already reached out to Mr. Fuller’s family, offering help and support, and will do everything possible to assist Mr. Fuller’s family during this difficult time as a complete vetting of his death is investigated,” Mlynar said. The city joined the Fuller family in the call for an independent investigation and autopsy, he said.
Saturday’s demonstration began outside City Hall, with the crowd eventually making its way several hundred feet to the tree where Fuller’s body was found with a rope around the neck just before 4 a.m. Wednesday in Poncitlan Square, across from City Hall.
Sheriff’s officials said Thursday that the death appeared to be a suicide, but investigators were waiting for full autopsy results and information from the man’s relatives before making a final determination, according to Lt. Brandon Dean of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
The Los Angeles County coroner’s office performed an autopsy Friday, but deferred the cause of death.
“When a cause of death is deferred, a deputy medical examiner is requesting additional investigation, including laboratory testing and witness statements, before providing a final determination on the cause and manner of death,” an official at the coroner’s office said.
Sheriff’s officials reiterated Saturday that the death appears to be a suicide, but the investigation is ongoing.
On May 31 in Victorville, which is about 50 miles east of Palmdale, the body of another black man was found hanging from a three.
Malcolm Harsch, 38, was found at 7 a.m., hanging from a tree near a homeless encampment.
The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department has made a preliminary determination that his death was also a suicide and that no foul play was involved although the case remains under investigation.
And like Fuller’s family, Harsch’s relatives are doubtful he took his own life.
“He didn’t seem to be depressed to anyone who truly knew him,” Harsch’s family told reporters. “Everyone who knew our brother was shocked to hear that he allegedly hung himself and don’t believe it to be true. The explanation of suicide does not seem plausible.”
In Palmdale on Friday afternoon, as many as 100 angry residents attended a march and rally in the area where Fuller’s body was found, some labeling his death a lynching. Dozens later attended a news conference at City Hall, shouting down local officials and blasting them for quickly issuing public statements labeling the death a suicide.
Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer worked to calm the crowd, which hurled expletives at him and sheriff’s Capt. Ron Shaffer.
“We’re working hard to try to figure out exactly what happened,” Hofbauer told the shouting crowd.
“I can’t pull it out of a crystal ball what the coroner and the sheriff’s department is going to find here,” Hofbauer said.
He said investigators were “trying to figure out what was going on with Mr. Fuller the last few weeks. Who were those people? Who was he with?”
Shaffer and Hofbauer said there is no video surveillance in the area where the body was found, even though it is across the street from City Hall — an assertion that drew angry and profane shouts from the disbelieving audience.
Both deaths come on the heels of a national conversation about racism in the United States in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the circumstances evoke the country’s sordid history of lynchings.
Nearly 5,000 lynchings occurred in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968, according to the NAACP. More than 70% of those lynched were black.
In 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death for African Americans ages 15 to 24, with men four times more likely to commit suicide than women, according to the federal Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.
Last week, Shaffer told the crowd that investigators have been in touch with Fuller’s family. He said the department is asking for the public’s help to learn about his whereabouts prior to his death.
“If anyone has information about Mr. Fuller or his recent travels, where he’s been or where he’s been staying, we encourage you to call law enforcement so we can get a complete picture of what happened,” Shaffer said.
Two of Fuller’s cousins told NBC4 they do not believe Fuller would have committed suicide.
Anyone with information about Fuller’s death was urged to call the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500.
A virtual town hall is scheduled from 2-4 p.m. Monday in which residents of Palmdale and Lancaster can discuss the death and the investigation. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva will co-host the event, along with captains from the two cities’ sheriff’s stations. To register, go to bit.ly/2XQ1JgF.