LOS ANGELES — The attorney for the family of a Black man found hanging from a tree in a Southern California city park last month on Friday did not dispute investigators’ findings ruling the death a suicide.
The family of Robert Fuller was absorbing the news and grieving, their lawyer Jamon R. Hicks, said at a press conference.
“I have no information to suggest foul play. I have no information to suggest that anything was racially motivated,” Hicks said.
The manner of Fuller’s death on June 10 in Palmdale intensified the racial angst that already was at a boiling point following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Family members said they couldn’t imagine Fuller, 24, taking his own life and community activists noted the Antelope Valley area north of Los Angeles where the death occurred has a history of racist incidents.
At a news conference Thursday to announce the findings of a follow-up investigation, it was revealed that Fuller had a history of mental illness and suicidal tendencies.
Sheriff’s Cmdr. Chris Marks outlined three hospitalizations since 2017 where Fuller told doctors he was considering taking his life. The last was in November, when he was being treated for depression at a hospital in Nevada and “disclosed that he did have a plan to kill himself,” Marks said.
Marks also said Las Vegas police investigated an incident in February in which Fuller “allegedly tried to light himself on fire.”
No video of the death or witnesses to the suicide were found.
Marks said a red rope consistent with the one at the death site was purchased a month earlier at a Dollar Tree store with a public assistance benefits card registered to Fuller. There was no video of the transaction but detectives found videos showing Fuller made subsequent purchases with the card.
Fuller’s hands were not bound, his clothing and appearance were neat, he wore a hat and backpack, and had a knife in a pocket, Marks said. There were no signs of struggle or defensive wounds. Fuller’s left wrist had prominent scars consistent with “suicidal intent,” Marks said.
An initial autopsy was conducted the day after Fuller was found and homicide detectives requested a full autopsy, Marks said.
Marks said that on June 12 detectives had a brief interview with a family member who reported a possible prior mental health history, and the death was deemed a suicide.
DNA testing found the predominant contributor to samples from the ligature and Fuller’s fingernails were from Fuller, he said.
That determination of suicide outraged Fuller’s family. They hired an attorney who said an independent autopsy would be conducted, and the FBI and state attorney general’s office pledged to monitor the investigation.
His family and friends described him as a peacemaker who loved music and video games, and mostly stayed to himself. He went to a Black Lives Matter protest days before he died, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Racism has plagued Palmdale for years. Community members have described seeing Confederate flags in the desert city and wider Antelope Valley, and residents of color have been blamed for crime and gang problems.
The Sheriff’s Department has also contributed to racial tension: Five years ago, the county reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding accusations that deputies harassed and discriminated against Black people and Latinos there.
As recently as September, a photo circulated on social media of four elementary school teachers smiling and holding a noose. While an investigator concluded the teachers apparently were not motivated by racism, they were “ignorant, lacked judgment, and exhibited a gross disregard for professional decorum in a school setting.”
A week after Fuller’s death, his half-brother, Terron J. Boone, was fatally shot by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies. Police say Boone opened fire on deputies as they were about to arrest him on charges that he beat his girlfriend and held her captive. Authorities said detectives do not believe Boone’s case is related to Fuller’s death.
Fuller was the second Black man recently found hanged in Southern California. Malcolm Harsch, a 38-year-old homeless man, was found in a tree on May 31 in Victorville, a desert city in San Bernardino County east of Palmdale.
Publicity surrounding Fuller’s case prompted Harsch’s family to seek further investigation. Detectives found surveillance footage that “confirmed the absence of foul play,” authorities said. The family was shown the video and accepted the finding of suicide.
AP reporters Brian Melley and John Antczak contributed.