Investigation Into Robert Fuller Death Begins Because of 'All the Circumstances at Play,' Medical Examiner Says

The death of Robert Fuller is being investigated as a potential homicide because of "all the circumstances at play" after weeks of protests demanding a stop to the violence against black Americans have swept the nation.

Chief Medical Examiner Jonathan Lucas with the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner said authorities initially believed Fuller, 24, whose body was found hanging from a tree near City Hall in Palmdale, California, on June 10, died by suicide. An official cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

"Initially, there wasn't any evidence or information that led us to believe that there was anything other than a suicide," Lucas said during a Monday news conference. "But we felt better that we should look into it a little more deeply and carefully, just considering all the circumstances at play."

Robert Fuller protesters
Sheriffs block marchers from continuing down East Palmdale Boulevard after a demonstration on June 13 in Palmdale, California. The marchers were leaving a demonstration at a tree where authorities say Robert Fuller, a 24-year-old black man, was found hanging. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has since launched a homicide investigation into Fuller's death. David McNew/Getty

Kent Wegener, captain of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Homicide Unit, said the lack of evidence found at the scene also led authorities to believe early in the investigation that Fuller died by suicide. "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," Wegener said.

Lucas said his office was awaiting a toxicology report and additional information regarding Fuller's medical background. No timeline has been provided on when Fuller's official cause of death will be announced, but Lucas said it would happen as quickly as possible.

Fuller's death came on the heels of two weeks of demonstrations in the U.S. and around the world. The protests began in response to the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died while in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. In the ensuing weeks, protesters have demanded an end to police brutality against black Americans and widespread reform of policing policies and practices.

While authorities said there was no evidence suggesting foul play in Fuller's death, the haste in identifying the case as a likely suicide received quick condemnation from protesters, who drew comparisons between his death and that of black Americans who were the victims of thousands of lynchings from the late 19th century into the late 1960s.

"We felt it prudent to roll that back and continue to look deeper, which is why currently, officially the case is still deferred and under investigation," Lucas said. Even so, he said public suicides were not uncommon—even when the person dies by hanging.

"In general, a suicide in public, or a hanging in a public place, is not unheard-of," Lucas said.

As the medical examiner's office waits to receive additional information to determine an official cause of death, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the FBI's local Civil Rights Division will review the results of the sheriff's department's homicide investigation as it proceeds.

"We're taking all the necessary steps to make sure we're fully transparent, and we're cross-referencing all of our activities, all of our investigative efforts, with both the attorney general's office and the FBI," Villanueva said during the news conference.

Becerra's office did not respond to Newsweek's request for comment before publication.

Asked by a reporter how the public could trust the investigation in light of the recent protests and the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, Villanueva defended his department and its ties to the local community.

"The recent events behind the murder of George Floyd cause a lot of people to rethink their relationship with local law enforcement, but we've been at this for 170 years and we have long-standing ties," Villanueva said.

"There are weathervane politicians that are going to try to take advantage of these times of unrest to try to foment division or distrust between law enforcement and the community," he added. "But we are part of the community."

This story has been updated with additional information and background.