PALMDALE – Sheriff Alex Villanueva Monday vowed to conduct a thorough investigation — with cooperation from state and federal law enforcement — into the death of Robert Fuller, the 24-year-old Black man found hanging from a tree near Palmdale City Hall on June 10.
During a Monday news conference at the downtown Hall of Justice, Villanueva said he had called state Attorney General Xavier Becerra personally and also reached out to the FBI, whose civil rights division will also monitor the investigation. [View the news conference below.]
“It is in our interest to make sure that we leave no rock unturned,” the sheriff said, promising full access to outside investigators.
“This death investigation obviously is of great concern to the community, not only of Palmdale, but throughout the nation,” the sheriff told reporters. “Robert Fuller was a young man in the prime of his life, and his death obviously is painful for many people.”
Fuller was found with a rope around his neck about 3:40 a.m. on Wednesday, June 10, in Poncitlan Square, across from Palmdale City Hall. Authorities initially said the death appeared to be a suicide, although an official cause of death has not yet been made.
Hundreds of residents have taken part in vigils and protests in the days since, many condemning what they saw as a rush to judgment to suspect suicide without examining the possibility of foul play.
Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Jonathan Lucas told reporters Monday that an autopsy was conducted Friday, June 12, but the cause of death has been deferred pending further investigation and toxicology tests. He said the initial report was that the death was consistent with a suicide and there were no signs of foul play.
“Initially there wasn’t any evidence that lead us to believe there was anything other than a suicide,” Lucas said.
However, the coroner felt a deeper look was warranted and promised that no finding as to the cause of death would be made until all of the evidence is in hand.
“It is a tragic sad death … we are doing everything we can to find out what happened,” Lucas said.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Bureau Capt. Kent Wegener said forensic analysis would be performed on the rope used in the hanging and any video evidence closely reviewed, though he did not indicate whether any video had yet been found. City officials said last week there was none.
Fuller’s medical history, including during time living in Arizona and Nevada, will also be reviewed, Wegener said. A case manager with the Department of Public Social Services who was assigned to Fuller — for reasons that have not yet been revealed — will also be interviewed.
Lt. Brandon Dean said investigators had been planning for a meeting with Fuller’s family that had been delayed, but were hoping to sit down with all available relatives soon.
Fuller’s sister has rejected the idea that her brother might have taken his own life.
“We want to find out the truth on what really happened,” Diamond Alexander said Saturday, June 13. “Everything they told us is not right. We just want the truth. My brother was not suicidal. He was a survivor.”
Hundreds of people gathered at Palmdale City Hall on Saturday to demand answers about Fuller’s death.
“The city of Palmdale remains committed to a thorough and complete investigation into the death of Robert Fuller. We continue to request the State Attorney General and the FBI-Los Angeles Civil Rights division take an active role in the ongoing investigation,” Palmdale City officials said in a statement released Monday.
The statement continues: “On June 14, 2020, the city of Palmdale developed a coalition of legislators, including State Senator Scott Wilk, Assemblymember Tom Lackey and Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor Chair Kathryn Barger who joined the City of Palmdale in calling for the State Attorney General Xavier Becerra to oversee an independent and thorough investigation in the death of Robert Fuller. Together with our coalition of partners, the city of Palmdale will continue to demand a full accounting.” [View the complete statement here.]
On May 31 in Victorville, which is about 50 miles east of Palmdale, the body of another Black man — 38-year-old Malcolm Harsch — was found hanging from a tree.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has made a preliminary determination 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.”
The deaths of Fuller and Harsch 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.
Anyone with information about Fuller’s death is encouraged to call the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500.
UPDATE: During the Monday afternoon town hall hosted by the sheriff’s department, multiple residents pushed Villanueva on the issue of why investigators originally assumed Fuller’s death was a suicide. Pressed by a woman who said she visited the tree and didn’t see what she would expect at the scene of a suicide, Capt. Wegener offered additional details.
“What we noticed from the tree initially is … it was very easily climbable. We also noticed that the rope was secured in the tree up above, it wasn’t secured to a place on the ground … someone had to be up in the tree to secure that rope,” Wegener said. “All this is part of the investigation … which is ongoing.”
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