PALMDALE, California — On Wednesday June 10 at around 3:36 in the morning, a passerby called to report that a man was hanging from a tree at Poncitlán Plaza, a very small park surrounded by City Hall, a fire station, a community hall, small businesses and apartment buildings.
Robert Fuller, 24, of Lancaster (10 miles north from Palmdale), was pronounced dead at the scene. The LA County Coroner’s office rushed a conclusion and ruled it a suicide.
The next day, the local newspaper ran a story about a man who committed suicide at the park. Still, nobody really knew about the incident, and it would have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the outrage of the community on social media that started reporting it as “a lynching in Palmdale.” By the morning of June 12, a crowd of 80 people had gathered by the tree to talk about Fuller’s death being dismissed as a suicide.
“Black people don’t kill themselves by hanging from a tree. I wasn’t buddy buddy with ‘Old Boy.’ We had a few classes together in high school. This man did not kill himself. They’re trying to tell us that he brought himself here at 3 o’clock in the morning and killed himself by hanging from a tree with a rope, we all know this town, its energy,” Joshua Summerville of Lancaster told Latino Rebels. “We need answers. We need full transparency from the city and they are not giving us that. This is very shady. They are telling us that there are no cameras outside the City Hall, the fire station and the businesses around the park?”
In a matter of minutes, the crowd grew to more than 150 on June 12, City Manager J.J. Murphy came out to try to appease the mostly young people only to be faced with angry questions of “Where is the proof that this is a suicide?”, “How can you tell us that the City Hall, the park, the fire station and the businesses don’t have f*cking cameras!” (Latino Rebels canvassed the area and found at least five cameras in businesses and apartment building.)
Murphy’s presence angered the group even more. Soon, a couple of community leaders had showed up. The frustrated group called for an impromptu march to the Sheriff Station. With signs in hand, they marched down Sierra Highway chanting “Justice for Robert Fuller” and “No justice, no peace.” Once at the sheriff’s station, the crowd attempted to go inside. A few went in, and soon sheriff captain agreed to come out and talked to them. After demonstrating their frustration, the crowd dispersed peacefully and said, “We’ll be back tomorrow”. The next day, the march and rally was attended by more than 2,000 people.
That same Friday afternoon, the City of Palmdale and the local sheriff had a press conference where residents were allowed to participate. Again, the outraged community members demanded answers, called for surveillance camera footage and told officials to stop labeling it as suicide. City Manager Murphy told the residents that he’ll stop using the word suicide, but “you need to stop saying lynching.” The crowd got angry.
As the case drew attention and the community pushed back, LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger called for an investigation, followed by state senator Scott Will (R) and assemblyman Tom Lackey (R).
Fuller’s case also drew attention to another case: 50 miles east of Palmdale and 10 days before in the City of Victorville Malcolm Harsch was found hanging from a tree near the the city’s library. Harsch’s death was ruled as suicide. The investigation Harsch found surveillance footage that supported suicide. Detectives from the San Bernardino Sheriff Department showed the video to family members. The family issued a statement saying that it was indeed suicide.
Three cousins of Robert Fuller spoke with Latino Rebels regarding Robert’s suicide statements from officials.
“Bull crap! It is mind-boggling for him to think of suicidal thoughts and for them to come to that conclusion so sudden is really suspect,” said Pernisha Theus, one of Fuller’s cousins.
On Monday June 15, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva had a press conference where he announced that the State Attorney General’s office and the FBI will be overseeing the investigation.
“There was never an official determination of suicide. The initial report appeared to be consistent with suicide. We felt it prudent to roll back that statement.” county medical examiner Jonathan Lucas said.
“We’ll do forensics on the rope that was involved. No chair was found at the scene, only the victim’s backpack and cellphone,” Captain Kent Wegener added.
“This is really crazy to all of us. We want to find out the truth about what really happened.” Diamond Alexander, sister of Robert Fuller, said at the rally on Saturday June 13 prior to the march. “Robert was a good little brother to us. Everything they are telling us is not right… staring at this tree, it don’t make no sense, my brother was tall. He was not suicidal, he was a survivor, he was marching with the George Floyd protesters.”
“There is institutional racism in the Antelope Valley. When I moved to Lancaster 21 years ago from the San Fernando Valley, I started noticing that most of my kids’ new friends were on probation. I started asking them and they would say ‘I got a ticket for crossing the street and they sent me to court’ or ‘I missed a few days of school.’ They are overpolicing the kids here.“ Lisa Brown told Latino Rebels.
“Palmdale and Lancaster has the highest rate of kids being removed from homes and put in foster homes,” Brown added.
Lancaster and Palmdale have a high population of African Americans and Latinos. Most officials are white.
This week, officials announced that Fuller’s autopsy was complete. The family, who continues to demand answers, will hold a funeral for Fuller on June 30.
Meanwhile, on June 17, Fuller’s half-brother Terron Boone was killed in Kern County by deputies. Reports said that Boone “got out of the passenger side in the car he was in and started shooting at the deputies” according to the LA County Sheriff account, who had a warrant for Boone’s arrest in a kidnapping probe. The FBI is now also involved in that case.