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Initial Findings Disputed In Probes Into California Hanging Deaths

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Authorities have changed their view of the death of a black man in California. Before we go further, we will warn you that some people find this story disturbing. And it will last about four minutes. If you want to change the station, come back to us in a few. Two different men were found dead in different places in Southern California, both hanging from trees. Authorities initially described both cases as suicides. But after protests, the LA Sheriff's Department is reconsidering one of the cases. Emily Elena Dugdale of KPCC has been following this story. Good morning.

EMILY ELENA DUGDALE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are the circumstances of these two deaths so far as is known?

DUGDALE: Yeah. So on May 31, a 38-year-old man named Malcolm Harsch was found dead hanging from a tree near the city library in Victorville, Ca. That's about 90 minutes from LA. That case was largely underreported until last Wednesday when 24-year-old Robert Fuller was also found hanging from a tree in a park in Palmdale, Ca. That's only about 50 miles from where Harsch was found.

So the families of both men think the deaths were lynchings, not suicides. Fuller's family and friends say he didn't have any mental health issues and that he was in the prime of his life. So my colleague, Josie Huang, spoke to a woman named Tommie Anderson, who was one of Fuller's close friends. Anderson said Fuller was excited about an upcoming group trip to Las Vegas and the rising Black Lives Matter movement.

TOMMIE ANDERSON: Robert didn't die here. And that's what I want people to completely understand that he did not die here. He didn't come to this park and hang himself. Somebody brought him here and did this to him.

INSKEEP: Do authorities have any new evidence, though, about the case?

DUGDALE: Actually, they didn't present any new evidence at a press conference yesterday. They just explained that they initially thought it was likely a suicide because there was no evidence of foul play. Here's what the county's medical examiner Jonathan Lucas said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONATHAN LUCAS: We felt better that we should look into it a little more deeply and carefully, just considering all the circumstances at play.

DUGDALE: So California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said his office will assist the sheriff's department in the fuller investigation. Now, yesterday's press conference came after days of rallies that were fueled by anger over George Floyd's killing. Many of the black residents in the area say they have a strange relationship with the sheriff's department.

A four-year investigation started in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Justice found housing discrimination in Palmdale aided by the sheriff's department against black residents. And in recent weeks, amidst nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, there has been at least one shooting death of a black man at the hands of a sheriff deputy in the area.

INSKEEP: So in this wider context of protests about a wide range of conditions, how are people responding to the latest announcement?

DUGDALE: Yeah. So friends and family say, it's not enough. They're calling for an independent investigation led by the California attorney general, not just supporting the sheriff's work. You know, it's not that they just don't trust the local law enforcement. The community is very aware of the well-documented history of neo-Nazi groups in the region.

And we've seen a rising trend in hate crimes that are linked to the demographic shifts in the area - from overwhelmingly white to more black and brown as people leave Greater Los Angeles in search for more affordable housing. So on Monday, civil rights activist Najee Ali referred to those trends at a press conference in downtown LA.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NAJEE ALI: I find it very strange they were hung within days of each other in Palmdale and Victorville, an area that we know is frequented by skinhead and white nationalism, who definitely want to hang on to that white supremacy.

INSKEEP: OK. One of the activists speaking out about cases in Southern California. Emily Elena Dugdale of KPCC, thanks.

DUGDALE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.