Federal officials announced reviews into the deaths of two black men found hanging from trees in California within two weeks of each other and 50 miles apart in a region known for active neo-Nazi groups.
The deaths of 24-year-old Robert Fuller and 38-year-old Malcolm Harsch were both described as suicides by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, despite challenges from their families, who said neither were suicidal, as well as activists and civil rights groups.
Thousands of protesters gathered during the weekend in Palmdale, where Mr Fuller was found hanging from a tree on 10 June, to demand an investigation into his death.
The protests, which coincided with demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, also brought attention to the death of Mr Harsch, who was found hanging from a tree outside the Victorville City Library 10 days earlier.
Following the protests, Los Angeles officials formally requested an independent investigation by the California Attorney General’s office into the death of Mr Fuller. A separate investigation into the death of Mr Harsch was not announced. However, the FBI and Department of Justice said on Monday that both agencies will review the deaths, amid mounting accusations the two black men died as a result of lynchings.
Diamond Alexander, Mr Fuller’s sister, told the Los Angeles Times he had attended a major Black Lives Matter demonstration in the area days before he died, adding that she did not believe her brother killed himself.
“My brother was a survivor,” she told the newspaper. “We want to find out the truth of what really happened. Everything that they’ve been telling us has not been right.”
His high school friend, Tommie Anderson, also told the Times he did not believe Mr Fuller killed himself. He pointed to apparent discrepancies in the story of his friend’s death, saying it was unlikely he would have been out that late at night, and the tree he was found hanging from was too thin to support his weight.
“For people to say he did this, this wasn’t Robert,” he said. “For him to tie himself to that tree, it’s not possible.”
Mr Harsch’s family also refuted his cause of death in a statement that said they “don’t believe it to be true”, adding: “There are many ways to die but considering the current racial tension, a black man hanging himself from a tree definitely doesn’t sit well with us right now”.
The statement continued: “We want justice not comfortable excuses.”
City officials initially appeared to blame a string of recent deaths similar to those of Mr Fuller and Mr Harsch on the coronavirus pandemic, saying in early statements to the Daily Beast about the apparent suicides: “Sadly, it is not the first such incident since the COVID-19 pandemic began.”
White supremacist activity and pockets of neo-Nazi groups have continued to flourish in the Antelope Valley, according to several reports, for decades. In Palmdale, where Mr Fuller was found dead, officials have a well-documented history race-based discrimination, including reported attempts to push out low-income minority families through harassment tactics.
Black Lives Matter demonstrations have consumed entire cities for weeks as protesters demand justice over the death of Mr Floyd – who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes as he pleaded for air – as well as an end to police brutality and systemic racism.