As Community Calls For Justice, Palmdale Officials Vow Full Investigation Into Robert Fuller's Death
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department says the initial results of a coroner's investigation indicate a 24-year-old man likely hanged himself in a Palmdale park this week. But scant details about the case — and the symbolism of a young Black man dying by hanging in the Antelope Valley — have some speculating that Robert Fuller was the victim of a hate crime.
A passerby walking near city hall around 4 a.m. Wednesday saw Fuller's body hanging from a tree in an area called Poncitlan Square and called 911, said Lt. Brandon Dean with the Palmdale sheriff's station. Homicide detectives responded, as did the coroner's office.
"From initial investigation of the scene and everything we've recovered, all signs right now lead us to believe this was a suicide," Dean told us Friday. "Without going into too much detail, it doesn't appear there was any sign of a fight or struggle."
[If you or a loved one needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Los Angeles County maintains a 24-hour bilingual hotline at 800-854-7771]
He said the investigation is ongoing, and the coroner's office will perform an autopsy.
Palmdale City Manager J.J. Murphy released a statement that repeated the coroner's early findings of death by suicide, adding,"[s]adly, it is not the first such incident since the COVID-19 pandemic began."
At a raucous news conference later Friday afternoon, angry community members denounced city and law enforcement officials for publicly saying that Fuller may have taken his own life before the investigation is completed.
Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer acknowledged that "we should have stated it better" that the finding is "preliminary," while adding, "but we were going off of what the coroner was telling the sheriff."
Hofbauer also said the only cameras in Poncitlan Square are low-resolution ones that follow traffic in real time but don't record.
The mayor and other officials stressed their desire to determine exactly what happened. Hofbauer said the city is reaching out to other investigative agencies to see if they can aid in the inquiry.
"We encourage anyone with information about this incident to call Sheriff's Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500," Hofbauer added.
City and sheriff's officials went from the news conference to meet privately with Fuller's family.
Fuller's sister, Diamond Alexander, posted a message on Facebook. "My little brother died here alone," she wrote, sharing an article about Fuller's death. "This s—t hurts, please keep us in prayers."
In another Facebook post around the same time, she urged people to share information. "If anyone seen anything please come forward," Alexander said.
Fuller was connected to addresses in Palmdale and Las Vegas, and Dean said the sheriff's department is "still talking to family members to see where he was laying his head at night."
On Twitter, speculation about what happened to Fuller drove the hashtag, "JusticeForRobertFuller," to trend nationally on Friday.
BLACK LIVES MATTER— StanceGrounded (@_SJPeace_) June 12, 2020
A young man was lynched in yesterday. His body was found hanging from a tree in Palmdale, CA. He was only 23 years old. His family is missing him. They want answers. They want JUSTICE. His name is Robert Fuller.
SAY HIS NAME 💔😭#JusticeForRobertFuller pic.twitter.com/UeHIsDS64L
Fuller's death happened the day before 61-year-old Michael Thomas, a Black man, was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies during a domestic violence call in the neighboring Antelope Valley city of Lancaster.
LASD issued a statement about Thursday's shooting:
"The suspect refused to comply with the deputy's orders, and an altercation between the deputies and the suspect ensued. During the altercation, the suspect reached down and attempted to gain control of one of the deputy's firearm. It was at that time when a deputy-involved shooting occurred."
But the Antelope Valley Times reports that Thomas' girlfriend, Kimberly Smith, disputes this claim, saying she did not see Thomas reach for a gun. "[F]our police officers came in and twisted his arm, no handcuffs no nothing," she said.
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva will hold a virtual town hall on June 15 at 2 p.m. to address "community concerns." Officials from the Lancaster and Palmdale Sheriff's stations will participate.
We hope you will join us on Mon, June 15, 2020 from 2-4 P.M. for a virtual town hall meeting for #Lancaster/#Palmdale residents, hosted by @LACoSheriff, @LANLASD Capt and @PalmdaleSheriff Capt.— LA County Sheriffs (@LASDHQ) June 12, 2020
To register for this FREE event, visit: https://t.co/wyQakp1v2z
More details below- pic.twitter.com/6wi8OHWf1i
By late Friday afternoon, nearly 5,000 people had donated to a GoFundMe page that Diamond Alexander created in Robert Fuller's memory.
"Words can't describe how my family is feeling," she wrote. "We grew up there in the Antelope Valley, we have so many friends, families that loved Robert. Please help with whatever you can. We greatly appreciate everyone. Thank you for standing with us during this difficult time."
Plans were circulating on social media Friday morning for a community rally on Saturday at 11 a.m. in the park where Fuller's body was found. One flier reads, "Robert was murdered in front of city hall. Hung in a tree & they are trying to cover it up."
In the statement he issued earlier Friday, City Manager Murphy said many "are suffering extreme mental anguish and the City wants everyone to know that help is available."
The city's statement also pointed residents to a series of virtual mental health-focused town halls offering coping tools:
The next session will take place Monday, June 15 at 10 am. To participate, simply send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and note "Mental Health Town Hall" in the subject line. City staff will then provide you with the meeting information and access code.
4:45 p.m. June 12: This article was updated with information from the news conference in Palmdale, and with updated numbers about contributors to the GoFundMe page.