A monthlong investigation has confirmed suicide was the cause of death for Robert Fuller, the 24-year-old Black man found hanging in a park near Palmdale City Hall, officials said Thursday.
Detectives determined Fuller had a history of mental health struggles, and over the course of the past year had been admitted to two hospitals where he expressed suicidal ideation, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Cmdr. Chris Marks said at a news briefing.
The young man appeared to have purchased the rope used in his hanging at a local Dollar Tree store in May, Marks said.
The county coroner’s office ruled the case a suicide by hanging in a final autopsy report issued Thursday.
Marks said Fuller’s family has cooperated throughout the investigation and “provided much-needed information.”
“They indicated that they would let the investigation take its course, and were open-minded about his cause of death, not really speculating one way or the other,” he said.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva said the family was out of state Thursday, but he offered his condolences to them and “all the families who have loved ones that suffer from mental illnesses.”
Fuller’s death sparked protests after his body was found hanging from a tree at Poncitlán Square in the early morning hours of June 10, amid a wave of racial uprising across the nation.
Authorities were quick to declare the incident was being investigated as a suicide, but promised a broader probe after receiving pushback from the community and Fuller’s family. The FBI and state Attorney General’s Office have since been overseeing the investigation.
Deputies find no evidence of a crime
Fuller’s body was suspended from a braided rope and cloth fabric, which was tied around his neck and attached to the tree in more than one spot accessible only from up in the tree, “indicating that the victim was not hoisted into that position,” Marks said.
The commander said there were no signs of a struggle, defensive wounds or other trauma to Fuller’s body, and his hands were not bound.
“There were no signs that he attempted to remove the ligature from his neck,” he said.
Investigators also found several prominent linear scars on Fuller’s left wrist that were consistent with suicidal intent, according to Marks.
No one else was seen in the park area by either the passerby who found Fuller’s body or the paramedics who responded to the scene, officials said.
It’s still unclear how long his body had been there, but first responders pronounced Fuller dead at 3:39 a.m.
No suicide note was found. Investigators also canvassed the area in search of surveillance video, but found no cameras covering the park.
Authorities originally deemed Fuller’s death a suicide two days after his body was found, after they say they spoke with relatives who reported prior mental health treatment. But on June 15, state and federal authorities joined the expanded investigation.
In the ensuing probe, detectives found an EBT card registered to Fuller was used to purchase a red rope, consistent with the one used in the hanging, from a local Dollar Tree store on May 14.
By the time the transaction was discovered, surveillance video from the store was no longer available. But other footage from after that date showed Fuller using the same card, indicating it remained in his possession, Marks said.
Detectives purchased the same type of rope from the same store for comparison in their crime lab, the commander added.
3 hospitalizations show Fuller contemplated suicide, investigators say
Officials say Fuller moved from place to place, and was in Arizona up until about June 2. The director of a homeless youth center in Las Vegas said Fuller had lived there periodically between February of last year and this February.
“The family was in touch with him off and on through the years,” Marks said. “He had recently visited them about two weeks prior to his death. And that was the last time they saw him, at the beginning of June.”
Las Vegas metropolitan police said they investigated an incident this year on Feb. 16, in which Fuller allegedly tried to light himself on fire.
Documents obtained from a hospital in Arizona show Fuller was diagnosed with auditory hallucinations in January 2017, and he stated he wanted to put a gun to his head, according to Marks.
In February 2019, Fuller admitted himself to a hospital in California, saying he heard voices “telling himself to kill himself.” And last November, he was treated for suicidal depression at a hospital in Nevada and “disclosed that he did have a plan to kill himself,” Marks said.
Villanueva called on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to provide better funding for mental health services, which he said would take some burden off the Sheriff’s Department.
“There’s no winners and losers in this,” Villanueva said. “It’s just a sad commentary on the state of mental health, mental health awareness and the ability to get help to people that desperately need it.”
History of racism fueled suspicion over SoCal hanging deaths
In the wake of Fuller’s death, more than 1,000 people turned out for a peaceful protest and memorial at the tree where he was found. He was formally laid to rest at a ceremony in Littlerock on June 30, where loved ones remembered him as a peacemaker who loved music, video games and his family.
Fuller had gone to a Black Lives Matter protest days before he died, the Los Angeles Times reported.
A week after Fuller’s death, his half-brother, Terron J. Boone, was fatally shot by sheriff’s deputies. Officials say Boone opened fire on deputies as they were about to arrest him on charges that he beat his girlfriend and held her captive for nearly a week. He died at the scene, where a handgun was found.
Marks said his investigation was focused on Fuller, but he found “no indicators of connection” between Fuller’s homicide investigation and deputies’ killing of his half-brother.
Interviews with relatives indicated Fuller and Boone “spoke periodically, but they weren’t extremely close,” Marks said.
Fuller was the second Black man recently found hanged in the high desert. Malcolm Harsch, a 38-year-old homeless man, was found in a tree on May 31 in Victorville. 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.
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 family’s attorney, Jamon Hicks, plans to hold a news conference Friday to respond to the determination.