Federal and California authorities, as well as the FBI, will monitor ongoing investigations into the hanging deaths of two black men, Robert Fuller and Malcolm Harsch, in towns outside of Los Angeles, The Associated Press reports.
Harsch and Fuller’s bodies were found within weeks of each other, in towns separated by about 50 miles. Harsch, 38, was found hanged from a tree on May 31st in Victorville, California, while Fuller, 24, was found June 10th in Palmdale, California. Local officials in both towns initially said there was no indication of foul play in both cases, but the families of both men, as well as protesters, have demanded more thorough investigations, especially since the violent nature of their deaths recalls the long history of lynching black people in the United States.
Fuller’s death drew more attention at first, especially after his family disputed a preliminary investigation that claimed he died by suicide. Fuller’s sister, Diamond Alexander, told the Los Angeles Times, “My brother was not suicidal. He was a survivor.” The paper also reported that Fuller attended a Black Lives Matter protest days before he died.
Soon, others in the Palmdale community were calling for a more thorough investigation, and on Saturday, a protest and memorial service by the tree where Fuller’s body was found drew over 1,000 people. On Monday, the L.A. County Coroner’s office withdrew its initial assessment of Fuller’s death as a suicide pending a further investigation.
Amid the outcry over Fuller’s death, Harsch’s family shared a statement with Victor Valley News saying they were concerned the investigation into his death would be “waived off as a suicide to avoid any further media attention.” On Monday, authorities in San Bernardino County (which encompasses Victorville) released a more detailed report on Harsch’s death: It said his girlfriend called 911 to say Harsch had hanged himself in a homeless encampment and that others had cut him down and tried to revive him. The department said there was no evidence of foul play, though a toxicology report is still pending so an official cause of death has not yet been determined.
At a virtual town hall Monday, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said his investigators will work with those in San Bernardino to determine any similarities between the deaths of the Fuller and Harsch. And as both investigations continue, they will now be monitored by a handful of federal and state authorities: “The FBI, U.S. Attorney’s office for the Central District of California and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division are actively reviewing the investigations into the hanging deaths of two African American men in the cities of Palmdale and Victorville to determine whether foul play or civil rights violations played a role,” a spokesperson for the FBI Los Angeles Field Office said in a statement, per CNN.
Villanueva and Palmdale officials welcomed California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s decision to send independent investigators to review the investigation into Fuller’s death. While Becerra said his people will just monitor the investigation for now, he added “we also have the ability to do it on our own if necessary.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also reach out to the Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 confidential text messaging service that provides support to people in crisis when they text 741741.