Robert Fuller’s family mourns a ‘survivor,’ demands truth over his hanging death
Three Mylar balloons, tethered near the top of a thin tree, stirred in the breeze outside Palmdale City Hall on Saturday. At the base lay bouquets of flowers wrapped in plastic and more than two dozen votive candles, their flames flickering.
The tree, which stands on the edge of a 2-acre courtyard known as Poncitlán Square, is now a memorial, one an angry, frustrated but mainly heartbroken crowd of nearly 2,000 dedicated to the memory of a 24-year-old Black man found hanging from its branches early Wednesday morning.
“This is Robert Fuller Memorial Park from this day forward,” Pharaoh Mitchell of the Community Action League shouted into a microphone. “We want justice.”
The Los Angeles County medical examiner-coroner’s office initially called the death a suicide. Fuller’s family and civic leaders quickly pushed back, insisting that it be investigated as a homicide and demanding an independent probe and autopsy, something the city also has requested.
On June 10, Robert Fuller’s body was found hanging from a tree outside Palmdale City Hall. His death came in the middle of the George Floyd protests and a week after Malcolm Harsch, another Black man, was found hanging from a tree in Victorville, less than 50 miles away. Their deaths shed light on the concerning rise in suicides among Black Americans.
“The City of Palmdale is joining the family and the community’s call for justice and we do support a full investigation into his death,” the city said in a statement, reversing a release issued Thursday in which City Manager J.J. Murphy labeled the death a suicide. Murphy’s claim was repeated Friday by Capt. Ron Shaffer of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.
“This is really crazy to all of us,” Fuller’s sister Diamond Alexander said. “We want to find out the truth of what really happened. Everything that they’ve been telling us has not been right.
“To be here, staring at this tree, it don’t make no sense,” Alexander added. “My brother was not suicidal. My brother was a survivor.”
Fuller’s family and friends described him as a peacemaker, a street-smart man with shoulder-length dreadlocks and a bright smile who loved music, anime and video games and mostly stayed to himself. Days before he died, he attended a Black Lives Matter protest.
His body was found by a passerby at 3:39 a.m. Wednesday, a time when Fuller would never have been out, said Tommie Anderson, 21, a close friend since high school.
“For my best friend to be gone, it’s hurting me,” said Anderson, who was wearing a T-shirt depicting one of Fuller’s favorite characters from the Japanese anime TV series “Dragon Ball Z.”
Fuller was too large and too muscular for the thin tree to support his weight for long, she said. And he was too tall to hang from its lowest branches.
“For people to say he did this, this wasn’t Robert,” Anderson said. “For him to tie himself to that tree, it’s not possible.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger on Saturday requested that state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra conduct an independent investigation into Fuller’s death.
Najee Ali, a community organizer and activist from South L.A., has also called for an independent investigation.
“Based on what I’ve seen, that does not add up,” he said of the suicide claim, adding that Fuller’s family is right to doubt what they’ve been told.
“Historically the Palmdale-Lancaster area has had many complaints from Black residents who feel they’ve been the victim of racism and destruction. It’s been problematic for decades,” he said. “They said their family member had no history of mental illness, is not depressed. So we have grave concerns, especially with the rise of hate crimes in recent years.”
The Antelope Valley has a substantial Black population. There have been repeated allegations of racist policies, including a U.S. Justice Department finding that officials worked to drive Black people out of public housing.
Five years ago, the Los Angeles County Housing Authority agreed to pay $2 million to victims of alleged discrimination, and some families who lost their housing assistance will have the chance to get it back.
At the same time, the Sheriff’s Department agreed to pay $700,000 and implement policies aimed at preventing racial bias. The Justice Department launched an investigation in 2011 into allegations that people of color — particularly Black people — living in federally subsidized housing in Lancaster and Palmdale were being harassed and discriminated against by sheriff’s deputies and county housing agency officials.
On Saturday, Ali led the crowd in a peaceful march from the site of Fuller’s death to the Sheriff’s Department station half a mile away. The protesters, whose ranks swelled during the short journey, filled the northbound lanes of Sierra Highway, shutting down traffic.
Once they arrived, the marchers crowded around the entrance to the building, chanting Fuller’s name and requesting a dialogue with the watch commander as a dozen officers, clad in riot gear, clustered behind tinted glass doors, which remained closed. After a half-hour wait, Lt. Derrick Ballentine came out of a side door and told Ali and the crowd that the department’s investigation into Fuller’s death was continuing and that he had no updates.
Asked if he, too, backed calls for an independent probe, Ballentine said yes. The crowd then turned around and, beneath the whirl of a Sheriff’s Department helicopter, marched back to City Hall and the tree where Fuller’s body was found.
Directly beneath the tree, a short poem was etched into the concrete seven years ago. The winning entry in a local poetry contest, it speaks of the “smart black crows” and the “rainbow” that “led us here.”
The question Fuller’s family wants answered is what led him here in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Meanwhile, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said Saturday that foul play was not suspected in the death of a Black man found hanging from a tree near the Victorville City Library two weeks ago.
But the department said that the investigation into the death of Malcolm Harsch, 38, is ongoing, according to a report in the Victor Valley News.
“There were no indications at the scene that suggested foul play; however, the cause and manner of death are still pending,” Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Jodi Miller told the news outlet.
The Victorville Fire Department discovered Harsch’s body May 31 after receiving a dispatch call around 7 a.m., officials said. When firefighters arrived at the library, they found Harsch hanging from a nearby tree.
In a statement sent to the Victor Valley News, Harsch’s family in Ohio said they find it hard to accept that his death was a suicide. They said that Harsch had recent conversations with his children about seeing them soon and that he did not seem to be depressed to anyone who knew him.
“The explanation of suicide does not seem plausible,” the family wrote. “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.
“We want justice, not comfortable excuses,” they wrote.
Times staff writers Deborah Netburn, Matt Hamilton and Kiera Feldman contributed to this report.
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