Federal authorities are assisting in the investigation into the death of Malcolm Harsch, one of two black men found hanging from a tree in the high desert in recent weeks, officials said Monday.
The FBI and state attorney general’s office are working with investigators in Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County to determine if there’s a link between Harsch’s death in Victorville and Robert Fuller’s death in Palmdale, according to Jodi Miller, a San Bernardino County sheriff’s spokesperson.
Deputies responded to a report that 38-year-old Harsch hanged himself at a homeless encampment the morning of May 31. But detectives have yet to speak with anyone who actually saw that happen, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said in a news release.
Others at the camp on a vacant dirt lot between Circle Drive and Victor Street found Harsch hanging from a tree, cut him down and attempted to revive him, investigators said.
His girlfriend is the person who called 911 shortly after 7 a.m., stating Harsch had hanged himself. She said she was with him earlier that morning, but had returned to her tent for a short time when others alerted her to the situation, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
It’s unclear how long Harsch’s body had been hanging before it was found. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Deputies say an autopsy conducted last Friday found no signs of foul play, but the forensic pathologist is awaiting toxicology results before determining his cause and manner of death.
Investigators say they also found no evidence of foul play upon searching the encampment.
Family members say they were told Harsch’s death is being ruled a suicide when coroner’s officials made contact with his legal next of kin, his wife, on June 1.
Those who knew Harsch were “shocked” and don’t believe he took his own life, relatives said in a statement. They noted that his body was found the morning after a racial justice protest in Victorville.
“The explanation of suicide does not seem plausible,” they 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.”
The family says a deputy told them Harsch was hanging with a USB cord. Others who were at the encampment told them there was blood on his shirt and his body — 6 feet, 3 inches tall — “wasn’t even dangling from the tree.”
Less than two weeks after Harsch died, 24-year-old Fuller was found hanging from a tree at a park in Palmdale on June 10. On Monday, sheriff’s officials vowed a broader investigation after initially determining no foul play was involved.
“Initially, there wasn’t any evidence or information that led us to believe that there was anything other than a suicide,” said Dr. Jonathan Lucas, the L.A. County medical examiner. “We felt better that we should look a little more deeply and carefully just considering all the circumstances at play.”
Both Harsch and Fuller’s deaths have sparked protests, with activists saying authorities failed to conduct comprehensive investigations before determining they took their own lives. Both incidents come as racial justice demonstrations continue nationwide in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
State and federal authorities began assisting in the investigations Monday after hundreds of people signed a Change.org petition demanding more oversight.
San Bernardino County sheriff’s detectives say they’re continuing to investigate the circumstances surrounding Harsch’s death and have interviewed several people who were in the area when he died.