LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The deaths of two black men found hanged from trees 10 days and 50 miles (80 km) apart in California, one in a municipal park, gained deeper scrutiny on Monday amid a public outcry that authorities were ready to prematurely rule both cases suicides.
Law enforcement officials acknowledged on Monday facing a furor of suspicion from community members surrounding the two hangings in light of heightened discontent with racial injustice aroused by George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis last month.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villenueva and his counterpart in neighboring San Bernardino County, John McMahon, said separately they would work in cooperation with investigators from the California attorney general’s office.
Villenueva said the FBI would provide additional oversight of his department’s probe – constituting the more recent and highly visible of the two cases.
The body of Robert Fuller, 24, was found hanging from a tree by a rope around his neck before dawn last Wednesday by paramedics called to Poncitlan Square, a park about a block from City Hall in the high-desert town of Palmdale, some 30 miles (48 km) north of Los Angeles.
During a televised community meeting two days later, officials said it appeared Fuller had taken his own life – drawing an angry response and chants of “Speak the truth” and “No peace.” Villanueva said his office had since been flooded with phone calls and email queries.
The social media hashtag #JusticeforRobertFuller was trending on Twitter last week, with users calling for a full investigation of what some speculated was a cover-up of a lynching.
At news conference on Monday with the sheriff, the county’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, said the preliminary assessment of apparent suicide had been based on a lack of any immediate evidence pointing to foul play.
“But we felt it prudent to roll that back and continue to look deeper,” Lucas said.
Adding to the mystery was the lack of anything near the body, such as a ladder, stool or chair, that could have been used to elevate Fuller before a hanging, authorities said.
“There was nothing else found at the scene, other than the rope which was used to hang the victim and the contents of his pocket as well as a backpack that he was wearing,” Captain Kent Wegener, head of the sheriff’s homicide squad, told reporters.
Villanueva said his investigators would confer with the San Bernardino County sheriff’s office on the death of Malcolm Harsch, 37, who was found hanged from a tree at a homeless encampment about 50 miles east of Palmdale in Victorville, California, on May 31.
Officials there said Harsch’s death likewise appeared to be a suicide. But authorities are continuing an investigation.
Separate autopsies of the two men were performed on Friday, but final conclusions were awaiting toxicology results and further inquiry by homicide detectives, officials from both counties said.
Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney