A 24-year-old black man was found hanging from a tree in Palmdale, California, this week, sparking a massive public outcry and demands for a more thorough investigation after officials almost immediately described it as a suicide.
Robert Fuller was found by a passerby at about 3:39 a.m. Wednesday near Palmdale City Hall in Poncitlán Square, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Homicide investigators said they had found “no signs of a struggle” and suggested Fuller had died by suicide—an assessment echoed by city officials who attributed the death to emotional despair caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Sadly, it is not the first such incident since the COVID-19 pandemic began,” city officials said in a statement offering their “sincere condolences and sympathies” to Fuller’s loved ones.
“Many people are suffering extreme mental anguish and the City wants everyone to know that help is available,” City Manager J.J. Murphy said in a statement on Fuller’s death.
But critics have questioned why authorities were so quick to deem Fuller’s death a suicide, especially when an autopsy has not yet been completed.
And at a Friday afternoon press conference, attendees literally shouted down city officials who reiterated their claim that Fuller was depressed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with many in the crowd noting that Fuller had marched in a Black Lives Matter protest shortly before he was found dead.
That claim could not immediately be verified by The Daily Beast.
“Remember what the first coroner said about George Floyd?” one woman shouted after officials noted the coroner’s preliminary conclusion was suicide. In the case of Floyd—an unarmed black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police officers last month—the initial report did not deem the case a homicide.
Residents have asked Palmdale city officials to check surveillance footage from the area where Fuller was found dead, expressing incredulity at the idea he would have hanged himself right in front of City Hall and there would be no video evidence of what happened.
Lt. Brandon Dean of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Homicide Bureau, who is supervising the investigation into Fuller’s death, told The Daily Beast investigators are “not officially saying that this is a suicide.”
But “early indications” point to that, he said, noting that there were no defensive wounds or signs of a physical assault.
There was “nothing that would indicate he was put up there against his will,” Dean said. “The rope wasn’t thrown over but tied to the branch, which means somebody had to get up there and tie it.”
After the initial autopsy report listed suicide as the cause of death, he said, the coroner has since conducted a full autopsy and the cause of death determination won’t be made until toxicology results are in.
“If the toxicology results were to show a high level of a chemical that might have poisoned him or knocked him unconscious and allowed someone to drag him up there, it would give a new direction to the case,” he said.
While there are no cameras around City Hall, Dean said investigators have been reviewing footage from businesses near the area to see if they can find video of Fuller and determine whether he was with anyone else.
A woman who identified herself as a friend of Fuller’s phoned into a local radio show on Friday to dispute authorities’ suggestion that he died by suicide.
“If you knew this young man, you would never get the thought of him having some type of mental illness. … He was always smiling,” the woman, identified only as Abby, said on Big Boy’s Neighborhood.
“They’re trying to cover it up as a suicide and it’s not a suicide,” she said.
A news report in the Antelope Valley Times also issued an editor’s note on their original story about Fuller’s death, noting that the paper had been “contacted by several readers not connected to this incident who strongly believe that the death was not a suicide and other suspicious factors are at play.”
Police have stressed that the investigation is still continuing and that any information released so far is preliminary. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has asked anyone with information to call (323) 890-5500.