Authorities said Monday that the cause of death of Robert Fuller, who was found hanging from a tree in Palmdale, has been deferred pending further investigation as the state attorney general sends investigators to assist in determining whether the young Black man died by suicide or was the victim of foul play.
Sheriff’s homicide investigators plan to survey the area for surveillance video, conduct a forensic analysis of the rope used in the man’s death and research his medical history locally, as well as in Arizona and Nevada, where he had lived in the past, Capt. Kent Wegener said.
Investigators are also working to interview Fuller’s case worker with the Department of Social Services, though they did not elaborate on why he had one, as well as his family and the witness who found him in the park.
“They’re gonna stick to it ’til they get to the truth of what happened,” Sheriff Alex Villanueva said at a news briefing.
County Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Jonathan Lucas said investigators initially thought Fuller’s death was consistent with a suicide, but “we felt it prudent to roll that back and continue to look deeper.” Coroner’s officials have ordered toxicology tests.
Meanwhile, Fuller’s family is requesting an independent autopsy, said their attorney Jamon Hicks.
The briefing was scheduled amid continuing questions and controversy over whether the death of Fuller was caused by suicide — as law enforcement officials originally indicated — or if foul play was involved.
An FBI spokeswoman said Monday that the agency would monitor the Palmdale investigation, as well as the death of a second Black man under similar circumstances in Victorville.
“The FBI, U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of California and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division are actively reviewing the investigations into the hanging deaths of two African American men in the cities of Palmdale and Victorville to determine whether there are violations of federal law,” she said.
Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra announced that his office was sending independent investigators to Palmdale to review the sheriff’s investigation and potentially conduct its own. He declined to say whether he believed local authorities were too quick to declare Fuller’s death a suicide, but said he had been approached by “a number of leaders in the southern California area” about the death. He also declined to say whether the Victorville hanging would also be investigated.
Becerra announced the probe as he called for law enforcement agencies around the state to embrace a series of use-of-force reforms approved by the Legislature last year, and set to go into effect next year. He urged agencies to move more quickly in putting those measures in place, which include a new use-of-force standard that restricts when police can use deadly force from when it is “reasonable” to when it is “necessary.”
Demonstrators and residents have called for an independent investigation, and elected officials representing the Antelope Valley have requested that Becerra investigate.
“I take my commitment to transparency very seriously,” Villanueva wrote Sunday on Twitter. “As such, I want to thank Attorney General Xavier Becerra … for agreeing to monitor our investigation into the death of Robert Fuller.”
The body of Fuller, 24, was found hanging from a tree in the 38300 block of 9th Street East early Wednesday.
While authorities originally said they suspected suicide, Fuller’s family and civic leaders pushed back, demanding an independent investigation and full autopsy.
“We want to find out the truth on what really happened,” Diamond Alexander, Fuller’s sister, said Saturday. “Everything they told us is not right. We just want the truth. My brother was not suicidal. He was a survivor.”
Villanueva also appeared at a virtual town hall for the Lancaster and Palmdale communities on Monday afternoon, where he and other executives fielded questions about Fuller’s death. During that meeting, Wegener said that the tree where Fuller was found was “very easily climbable” and that the rope was secured by someone in the tree, not from the ground.
There was no chair found at the scene. Investigators recovered a phone, items in Fuller’s pocket and a backpack he was wearing.
Lt. Kelly Yagerlener of the Los Angeles County medical examiner-coroner’s office said Friday that a decision on the cause of Fuller’s death has been deferred pending an investigation. A full autopsy is planned.
Ahead of Villanueva’s Monday news conference, a crowd of protesters — at times numbering about 70 — rallied outside City Hall. Among them was Imani Martin.
“As a community, I think we should continue to show up, let the family know that we’re there for them, but also let law enforcement and the city government know that we’re not going to let this be brushed aside or forgotten about,” the 23-year-old Lancaster resident said.
It’s frustrating, she added, that residents had to push for a thorough investigation into Fuller’s death.
“As government officials, you’re supposed to be here for us, and it shouldn’t take outcry for them to do what they were elected to do,” she said.
Palmdale city officials also have said they now support an independent investigation.
“We are all grieving the loss of this young man, and our hearts go out to his family and friends during this difficult time,” Mayor Steve Hofbauer said in a statement. “We also understand the community’s call for a full investigation into this death, and we are asking the same.”
Fuller’s death came amid nationwide protests rebuking the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The case also brought to light the death of 38-year-old Malcolm Harsch — a Black man who was found hanging from a tree on May 31 in Victorville, roughly 50 miles east of Palmdale.
While the investigation into his death is ongoing, “There were no indications at the scene that suggested foul play,” according to San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Jodi Miller.
“The cause and manner of death are pending,” she added Monday.
However, his family has said they were concerned it will be ruled a suicide to avoid further attention.