Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department investigators have concluded that Robert Fuller, a Black man whose body was found hanging from a tree in Palmdale last month, died by suicide, saying a thorough investigation found no signs of foul play and showed the 24-year-old had previously exhibited suicidal behavior.
The findings, announced Thursday, upheld the preliminary determination of suicide that Fuller's family and many residents of the Antelope Valley had called into question. Pointing to the region's history of racism toward Black people; the backdrop of unrest prompted by George Floyd's death; the hanging death a week earlier of another Black man, Malcolm Harsch, in nearby Victorville; and the setting where Fuller's body was found — hanging in a public square outside Palmdale's City Hall — they voiced a suspicion that Fuller had been lynched and demanded a more thorough investigation, monitored by outside agencies.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva complied, and on Thursday, Cmdr. Chris Marks laid out his detectives’ findings, culled from medical records and interviews with family and social workers. Fuller, Marks said, had a documented history of mental illness and self-harm, having been admitted to hospitals in California, Arizona and Nevada after expressing a desire — and on at least one occasion attempting — to hurt himself.
The Los Angeles County medical examiner-coroner ruled Fuller's death a suicide, with Matthew J. Miller, a deputy medical examiner, writing in a report that a lack of “significant trauma” to Fuller’s neck and limbs, “coupled with the existence of evidence of prior suicidal ideation and a history of mental health issues,” supported that conclusion.
Jamon Hicks, an attorney representing Fuller's family, said he would respond to the sheriff's and coroner's findings Friday. Hicks has commissioned an independent autopsy of Fuller's body, the results of which have yet to be released. A private investigator is also attempting to retrace Fuller's last steps.
Marks said Fuller's family was very cooperative, providing detectives with medical records and other "much-needed information." Detectives obtained other records by serving hospitals with search warrants.
In January 2017, Fuller was hospitalized in Arizona and diagnosed with auditory hallucinations after saying he wanted "to put a gun to his head," Marks said. In February 2019, he checked himself into a hospital in California and reported hearing voices telling him to kill himself. And in November of that year he was hospitalized in Nevada after saying he planned to harm himself, Marks said.
In February, Fuller tried to light himself on fire, Las Vegas police told sheriff's detectives. Fuller, who grew up on the west side of Palmdale, lived at various times in Nevada and Arizona; Marks said a coordinator at a Las Vegas shelter for homeless youths told detectives that Fuller was a "periodic resident" there from February 2019 to February of this year.
On May 14, someone using an EBT card registered to Fuller purchased a red rope from a Dollar Tree — a rope consistent with the one found at the scene of Fuller's death, Marks said. Because the purchase was made more than one month before detectives inquired about it, they could not recover video from the store showing Fuller buying the rope, Marks said, although he noted that investigators have found video from subsequent weeks showing Fuller using the same EBT card at various stores.
In the early morning hours of June 10, a homeless person walking through Poncitlán Square, near Palmdale's City Hall, found Fuller's body hanging from a tree, a coroner's report said. Judging by how and where the rope was tied to the tree limb, detectives determined Fuller "was not hoisted into that position," Marks said. His body showed no signs of a struggle or defensive wounds, although detectives noted scarring on his left wrist that indicated self-harm, Marks said. Investigators have found no video footage that shows the tree itself, he said.
It remained to be seen whether those who greeted the initial finding of suicide with skepticism would accept the Sheriff's Department's conclusion. When Robert Fuller's half-brother, Terron Boone, died in a shootout with sheriff's deputies one week after Fuller's body was found, rumors and speculation about a cover-up ricocheted through social media.
Villanueva praised his detectives' work and declared that "people should not translate a lack of information to a conspiracy," but he said the finding of suicide does not change the tragedy that is a young man's death.
"There are no winners or losers in this," he said.
Sheriff's officials declined Thursday to discuss the investigation of Boone's death. On June 17 plainclothes detectives trailed Boone to an apartment complex in Rosamond, a small Kern County community north of Palmdale. Los Angeles County prosecutors had charged Boone, 31, with assaulting, threatening and holding a former girlfriend against her will for six days, according to a complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court's Antelope Valley courthouse. The detectives were tasked with taking him into custody.
Outside the apartment complex, the detectives, whose cars weren't identified as police vehicles, tried to pull over a blue Jeep carrying Boone in the passenger seat, sheriff's officials have said. In their account, Boone came out of the car shooting, firing at least five rounds at the detectives and striking their car. They shot Boone in the chest, killing him.
A woman in the driver's seat was grazed by a bullet and struck with shrapnel, according to her attorney; the woman's 7-year-old daughter, sitting in the back seat, wasn't harmed.
Sheriff's Lt. Brandon Dean, who oversaw the Fuller death investigation, said there was no apparent connection between the deaths of Fuller and Boone, beyond the two being brothers.