US federal authorities have said they will review local investigations into the deaths of two black men found hanged from trees 10 days and 50 miles apart in California, amid concerns they may have been lynched.
Law enforcement officials on Monday acknowledged they were facing mounting suspicion from community members surrounding the two hangings in light of heightened discontent with racial injustice aroused by George Floyd’s death.
Local police had previously said there was no foul play in the deaths of Robert Fuller in Palmdale and Malcolm Harsch in Victorville, with indications that both men had taken their own lives.
But the FBI, US attorney’s office in the Central District of California and the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division are now monitoring the investigations of the Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County sheriffs, authorities said in a statement.
The city of Palmdale issued a statement supporting an independent inquiry, and three elected officials urged California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead the probe.
Mr Becerra said for now his investigators will just support the sheriff’s department, “though we also have the ability to do it on our own if necessary.”
The announcement follows weekend protests, which were prompted by the initial determination of suicide as the likely cause of death for Mr Fuller.
Mr Fuller’s body was discovered at around 3.30am on Wednesday in a park near City Hall.
A post-mortem examination was conducted on Friday, and the Los Angeles county medical examiner-coroner’s office said the 24-year-old man appeared to have taken his own life.
The finding prompted outcry by his family, who believed he was not suicidal, and community members who called for an independent investigation.
More than 1,000 people turned out for a protest and memorial event on Saturday around the tree where Mr Fuller’s body was found, about 40 miles north of Los Angeles.
Dr Jonathan Lucas, the chief medical examiner-coroner, said the initial finding was the result of nothing at the scene indicating foul play.
“The initial report appeared to be consistent with a suicide but we felt it prudent to roll that back and continue to look deeper,” Dr Lucas said at a news conference.
The coroner’s office is awaiting toxicology results, Dr Lucas said. Investigators are also looking at Mr Fuller’s medical history.
Homicide detectives plan to interview Mr Fuller’s social services case worker and speak to anyone who had recently interacted with him as part of their investigation.
Mr Fuller’s family and friends described him as a peacemaker who was street-smart, loved music and video games, and mostly kept to himself. Days before he died, he attended a Black Lives Matter protest, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Mr Fuller’s sister, Diamond Alexander, said her brother was not suicidal. “My brother was a survivor,” she said.
The state senate began its session on Monday with a moment of silence for Mr Fuller and Mr Harsch, a 38-year-old homeless black man who was found hanging from a tree on May 31 in Victorville, a desert city about 45 miles east of Palmdale.
The San Bernardino County sheriff’s department said foul play was not suspected in the death of Mr Harsch, but his family said they were concerned it will be ruled as a suicide to avoid further attention.
San Bernardino authorities provided a fuller account of the circumstances surrounding Mr Harsch’s death.
In a statement, the department said his girlfriend called 911 and told a dispatcher that he had hanged himself in a homeless encampment.
The woman said they had been together earlier in the morning but separated for a brief time when she returned to her tent.
Detectives have interviewed several people who were nearby at the time. The department said there was no evidence of foul play.