The hanging deaths of two Black men were initially dismissed. Now they are getting intense investigations
When Malcolm Harsch, a 38-year-old Black man, was found hanging from a tree in Victorville two weeks ago, authorities said they saw no evidence of foul play.
A week later, when Robert Fuller, another Black man, was discovered hanging from a tree in Palmdale, the initial cause of death was listed as suicide.
But after protests and questions in the two deaths, the FBI announced Monday that it was examining both cases.
Local authorities say both the Fuller and Harsch cases remain under investigation.
For some, the specter of two Black men found hanging in separate High Desert communities in such a short time seemed suspicious. Here is what we know:
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.”
Thousands protested this weekend at the park, with some describing racial incidents in the Antelope Valley and raising concerns over whether Fuller was lynched.
“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.”
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.
On Monday, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department offered more details about what happened, saying deputies were were called to a homeless encampment regarding Harsch.
“The caller said she and [her] boyfriend, later identified as Malcolm Harsch, had been together during the morning, but she had since returned to her tent for a short period of time. She was alerted by others in the encampment that Mr. Harsch was found hanging from a tree and cut down. People in the encampment were performing CPR, attempting to revive Mr. Harsch,” the statement said.
“Upon arrival, deputies immediately took over and continued CPR. Emergency medical personnel arrived on scene a short time later, and despite additional lifesaving efforts, pronounced Mr. Harsch deceased,” officials added.
An autopsy was conducted, and officials said they see no signs of foul play. But the investigation continues with help from the FBI.
In a statement sent to the Victor Valley News, Harsch’s family members 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.
Many at Saturday’s memorial expressed anger and frustration at Robert Fuller’s death and what they see as a rush by authorities to label it a suicide.
A wider investigation
An FBI spokeswoman said Monday that the agency would monitor both probes.
“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.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide investigators plan to survey the Palmdale area for surveillance video, conduct a forensic analysis of the rope used in Fuller’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 also are 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 till they get to the truth of what happened,” Sheriff Alex Villanueva said at a news briefing.
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