By Stefanie Dazio and Christopher Weber
The Associated Press

The death of a Black man found hanging from a tree in a Southern California city park last month was ruled a suicide July 9 following a police investigation prompted by outrage from the family who said authorities initially were too quick to rule out the possibility he was lynched.

The manner of 24-year-old Robert 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 taking his own life and community activities noted the Antelope Valley area north of Los Angeles where the death occurred has a history of racist incidents.

An image of Robert Fuller in undated photo provided by his family. Fuller was found dead June 10, 2020, hanging from a tree in Poncitlan Square in Palmdale, Calif. A police investigation confirmed suicide was the cause of death. (Courtesy of the Robert Fuller family/Najee Ali via AP)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva promised a thorough investigation and at a news conference to announce the findings it was revealed that Fuller had a history of mental illness and suicidal tendencies. 

Sheriff’s Commander 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 the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department investigated an incident in February in which Fuller “allegedly tried to light himself on fire.”

Last month, after Fuller’s body was reported by a passerby in the Palmdale park, deputies reported finding no evidence of a crime at the scene. An autopsy conducted the next day resulted in an initial finding of suicide. 

That determination outraged Fuller’s family, who said authorities were too quick to dismiss the possibility of a crime. 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. 

The Fuller case came in the midst of intense protests over police brutality following the police killing of death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Following Fuller’s death, more than 1,000 people attended a peaceful protest and memorial around the tree where his body was found. 

His family and friends described him as a peacemaker who loved music and video games, and mostly stayed to himself. He had gone to a Black Lives Matter protest days before he died, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Racism has plagued the desert city of Palmdale for years. Community members have described seeing Confederate flags in the 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 the racial tension: Five years ago, the county reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding accusations that deputies had harassed and discriminated against Black people and Latinos in Palmdale and nearby Lancaster.

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.” 

Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents Palmdale and had asked the attorney general to look into Fuller’s death, said she is now waiting for the state’s “completed assessment.”

The city of Palmdale and Rev. V. Jesse Smith, a co-founder of the Community Action League, also said they want to see Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s report.

Villanueva said the findings of the investigation and the final determination of suicide were shared with Fuller’s family and they were invited to attend the news conference but were out of town.

The sheriff acknowledged the outcry that transpired after Fuller’s death and called for county officials to fund more mental health initiatives and housing. 

“In the timing of it and in the wake of the civil unrest that’s transpired across the nation, it brought a lot of attention,” Villanueva said.

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 of his death. 

Police were able to obtain surveillance footage from a vacant building near where Harsch’s body was found that “confirmed the absence of foul play,” according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. The family was shown the video and said they accepted the finding of suicide.