Jun 15, 2020
L.A. Sheriff Press Conference Transcript on Death of Robert Fuller
L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva and other officials held a press conference on June 15 in which he addressed the death of Robert Fuller. They said a “thorough” investigation is underway after Fuller was found hanging from a tree.
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Sheriff Villanueva: (00:00)
It touches in everyone’s heart because Robert Fuller was a young man in the prime of his life and his death obviously is painful for many people. So my condolences to the Fuller family and we hopefully with this death investigation will answer all the questions and will give full closure to what happened here. And is our interest to make sure that we leave no rock unturned. I reached out to Attorney General Xavier Becerra and they are now going to provide a monitor and review all of our investigation to make sure we didn’t leave any rock unturned. I’ve also reached out to the FBI. I spoke to a special agent in charge, Voviette Morgan, and she indicated the civil rights division of the FBI will also be monitoring this investigation. So we’re making sure that we’re transparent, fully accountable and we’re going to constantly be cross checking each other’s to make sure we arrive at the right conclusions based on the evidence and the facts that we have at hand. And with this in mind, I’d like to turn over now to Chief Daryl Osby from the Fire Department.
Daryl Osby: (01:10)
Hi, good morning. Thank you. My name is Daryl Osby. Good morning. I’m the Fire Chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. And on behalf of all the members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, on behalf of myself also, I would like to express my heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Robert Fuller. On Wednesday, June 10th of this year, approximately 3:36 in the morning, paramedics assigned to paramedic squad 37 in the city of Palmdale were alerted to a possible emergency in a park nearby. While in route to the park, the paramedics from squad 37 contacted our 911 communications center and asked for additional resources, which included another fire engine company, an ambulance company and law enforcement, which is a normal protocol for us. Upon arrival of squad 37 at the scene of the park in the vicinity of 38318 North Ninth Street in the city of Palmdale at approximately 3:39 AM, squad 37 was first on scene and the assisting units arrived thereafter. Upon arrival there was no one on scene, except for the fact that upon arrival the paramedics found a male hanging from a tree. The two paramedics made an assessment and determined that the patient was deceased. Just for the viewers understanding, our paramedics and firefighters go through rigorous training. And to make a determination of the field that the patient was deceased was based on reference 814, which is in the prehospital care manual, which gives the paramedics criteria with which to make that determination. I will not get into the specifics of that because it’s under investigation. Once that was determined, the incident was turned over to the Sheriff’s department. And the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the members that were on scene from the Los Angeles County Fire Department are fully cooperating with the investigation by the Sheriff’s department. Once again, on behalf of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Robert Fuller. And thank you. And I will turn the mic now over to Captain Kent Wegener of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Homicide Bureau.
Kent Wegener: (04:06)
Good morning. My name is Kent Wegener. I’m the Captain of Sheriff’s Homicide. What I wanted to do is provide some detail regarding the status of the investigation and what is on our list of things to do and to accomplish before the conclusion of the investigation. Initially, we are going to do forensics on the rope that was involved, physical analysis and a test of serology nature by our crime lab. We’ll also dissect the involved knot structure to determine how they were tied. We’re going to continue with the video canvass to see if we can identify any surveillance video or home video which captures the events around the scene.
Kent Wegener: (04:50)
We will be in contact with the caseworker for the victim Robert Fuller, from the Department of Social Services. We will be researching his medical history, both locally and in the states of Arizona and Nevada, where we believe he resided for a period of time. We look to contact the witness who located him in the park and those who may have seen him in the past few days prior to his death. We have a cellular phone that belonged to the victim. We are going to do cellular analysis of that and that is now in progress. I would now like to turn over the mic to Chief Medical Examiner, Jonathan Lucas, so he could enlighten you about the procedures and the findings of the coroner’s office.
Dr. Lucas: (05:52)
Good morning. My name is Jonathan Lucas. I’m the Chief Medical Examiner Coroner for the County of Los Angeles. I simply want to start by offering condolences to the family, Mr. Fuller, as well as to his friends and the entire community of Palmdale. Is a tragic and sad death. And we are, as we do in all of our cases, taking this very seriously and we are doing all we can to find out what happened.
Dr. Lucas: (06:25)
Our department first became aware of the death on the morning of June 10th when we were notified by law enforcement shortly after 4:00 at 4:12 AM. A complete autopsy was performed on June 12th and we are still awaiting results on toxicology at this time. We are also looking into additional historical information, including medical history, trying to learn more about him and of course, as I mentioned, the toxicology results. We don’t have much to release at this time, other than we’re going to continue to evaluate the evidence as it comes in, independently make an assessment as to the cause and manner of death. But we’ll not do that until we have all the history and toxicology and evidence analysis that is currently pending. So with that, I’ll end it there.
Sheriff Villanueva: (07:47)
At this time we’ll take some questions, [inaudible 00:07:52], go ahead and cue the phone.
Speaker 2: (07:54)
Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press one and zero on your telephone keypad. You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating the one zero command. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, it’d be one and zero.
Speaker 3: (08:20)
Yes, good morning. And this could be for the Sheriff or for Dr. Lucas. Can you explain what the case worker was for, for Mr. Fuller? I mean, why did he have a caseworker? Also both the Sheriff’s Department and the ME has said that the initial findings rule a suicide, or it was consistent with a suicide. Do you still stick with that assessment? Thank you.
Dr. Lucas: (08:49)
Yeah. This is Dr. Lucas. I can answer the second part of that question, which was that the initial reports appeared to be consistent with a suicide, but 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.
Sheriff Villanueva: (09:18)
I can answer the first part of that question is we have identified the case worker, but we have not yet interviewed that case worker. So until we have that information, we won’t be able to answer that question.
Speaker 4: (09:40)
What sort of evidence was found at the scene? Was there a chair, a stool, something like that could indicate potential foul play? Also, is the AGs office or the FBI Civil Rights Division, are they taking an active role or are they just monitoring from the sidelines?
Sheriff Villanueva: (09:58)
I’m answering the second part of your question. They are taking a monitoring role.
Sheriff Villanueva: (10:03)
On answering the second part of your question, they’re taking a monitoring role at this time, and of course I probably don’t need to remind people, but the LA County Sheriff’s department, our homicide Bureau is considered one of the premier investigative homicide bureaus in the entire nation. And they set the standard nationwide for how to conduct these investigations fairly, impartially and they’re nicknamed the Bulldogs. They’re going to stick to it till they get to the truth of what happened. And their reputation is definitely well established. So they’re going to do their job and we’re obviously going to give them all the access necessary so we can have the monitoring efforts from both the AGs office and the criminal or the civil rights division of the FBI.
Sheriff Villanueva: (10:44)
And on the first part of your question about the evidence, let me turn that over to you.
Kent Wegener: (10:50)
Regarding a chair or something similar found at the scene, there was nothing, 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.
Speaker 7: (11:10)
Thank you. Next, going into the line of [inaudible 00:11:14].
Speaker 8: (11:19)
Hi. Quick question, is the timetable for this final decision on the manner or cause of death. And then secondly, the larger issue sheriff is given the contentious history between the Sheriff’s department and the community, how do you gain the trust of people there in addition to the fact that your investigation is being monitored, but why do you think people will trust you with whatever results you come up with?
Sheriff Villanueva: (11:46)
I think if you look at the big picture, people trust what the Sheriff’s department does by and large. And the recent events behind the murder of George Floyd causes 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. We are part of the community. In fact, a lot of the deputies who work in Palmdale Lancaster are also members of the communities of Palmdale Lancaster. And that doesn’t change overnight because what happened in another state. So I’m going to reiterate there are people within the community, unfortunately, there’s weather vane politicians, they’re going to try to take advantage of these times of unrest to try to foment division or distrust between law enforcement and the community, but we are part of the community. And as Sir Robert said in 1850, “The people are the police. The police are the people,” and we are one in the same.
Sheriff Villanueva: (12:44)
We’re going to continue to be that way. And hopefully as we’re being as transparent as we can be with this investigation and the results, you’ll find out that they’re going to probably all coincide with the same conclusions once it’s done. And I’ll refer to the time line, back to you sir.
Dr. Lucas: (13:05)
With regards to the timeline, it’s difficult to predict, but all I can do is say that we’re going to get this done as quickly as we can, as long as we get all of the analysis completed and the toxicology and the history that we need to be confident in a conclusion. So it’s hard to predict these things with great certainty, but we’re moving as quickly as we can while being as thorough as we can.
Speaker 9: (13:44)
Hi, thank you. Yes. I was wondering if you could explain to me in more detail, what factors led you to initially label the death of Robert Fuller as a suicide. And second, if you could answer whether there have been other instances of similar suicide within the County of hanging in public, and if this is something that has been a common trend and why you would have made that assumption that this is a suicide. Thank you.
Dr. Lucas: (14:18)
This is Dr. Lucas again. I can just speak in very general terms that in general, a suicide in public or a hanging in a public place is not unheard of. They do occur. And I think initially, there wasn’t any evidence or information that led us to believe that there was anything other than a suicide, but that changed. I should say we felt better that we should look into it little more deeply and carefully considering all the circumstances at play. But I don’t have numbers for you, but I do know that hangings in public do, suicides do occur with some regularity.
Kent Wegener: (15:28)
Thank you. And next, going to the line of Josh Kane, Los Angeles, daily news.
Josh Kane: (15:35)
Thank you. I just wanted to follow up on the previous question that was asked. I guess I’m wondering if Sheriff’s investigators, can anyone describe the initial scene in more detail and talk about why the death was initially looked at as a suicide? I guess in investigator’s estimation, was there anything that led them to suspect that? What’s like the positioning of the body, the rope that was used? What specifically led to the determination that this looked like a suicide? Thank you.
Dr. Lucas: (16:25)
This is dr. Lucas again. I just want to be clear. There was not an official determination of suicide although initial signs seemed to point that direction. The death certificate never said suicide, and we have appropriately deferred the cause and manner of death for the additional investigation. So often in any investigation, there is an initial impression that the investigation and the analysis that follow will inform the final conclusion. That’s where we are right now.
Kent Wegener: (17:12)
Speaker 10: (17:12)
Hi, thank you. So my question is about both these communities have kind of documented history of Neo Nazi activity. I know that Palmdale, there was a US justice department investigation involving the Sheriff’s department about how housing discrimination against black residents. So I’m just wondering how these kinds of historical implications in these communities is going to aid in the investigation. Kind of, what are you going to do to make sure that the voices of the community who are looking and saying, “Hey, these things have happened here pointing to patterns.” How is that going to be heard?
Sheriff Villanueva: (17:56)
Well, as a matter of fact, is they already have been hurting, as you can tell, just by the public outcry and the concerns voiced by the community. We’re taking all the necessary steps to make sure we’re fully transparent, and we’re, cross-referencing all of our activities, all our investigative efforts with both the attorney General’s office and the FBI, the civil rights division of the FBI here in Los Angeles. So we’re making the effort to make sure that what we’re doing is exactly the way it’s supposed to be done when we’re doing a death investigation. And the medical examiner, which is a neutral third party, their job is just investigate the cause and manner which people end up dying. And that is part of the process. And I know due to the recent issue of not only the concerns in the high desert community, but also with across the nation, the issues of civil unrest and concerns about police conduct, is that we have to make sure that we’re a supporting institutions that are working and serving the community. And when things are not working, we have to identify them, we have to fix them, reform them. But undermining institution because of lawful activities they’re engaged in, we can’t do that either. That doesn’t serve a lawful purpose.
Sheriff Villanueva: (19:09)
So we’ve been working, we have a consent decree with the department of justice. It was entered specifically because of the housing authority issue. And I don’t think that was a plan that was well thought out, that happened before I took office as sheriff. I think the reforms have been put in place, they’re working to date. And of course, some of that requires funding from the board of supervisors. So we need to be able to afford to continue with those reform efforts. And it’s an ongoing process. But we’re definitely, we’re suffering along with the community in Palmdale Lancaster for the tragic loss of this innocent life.
Kent Wegener: (19:53)
Next [inaudible 00:19:57].
Speaker 12: (20:00)
Good morning. This is a question for the sheriff. Have you reached out to Mr. Fuller’s family directly?
Sheriff Villanueva: (20:09)
Not yet, but I will be doing very shortly. And my personnel, the station captain Ron Shafer of Palmdale has reached out to them. So that is an ongoing process. As a matter of fact, Brandon Dean, who was a Lieutenant, was in charge of the investigation on scene, spoke to them personally. In fact, if I could bring him up to the mic.
Brandon Dean: (20:35)
Hi, my name is Lieutenant Brandon Dean for the homicide division. So just touching on what the sheriff said, our handling investigators, I’m in charge of the investigators that are heading up this investigation. They have spoken with one of his sisters who resides in Arizona. The conversations initially went well. We had several phone conversations with them and we had planned to have a sit down meeting with them yesterday, but they were unable to attend. So we’re still trying to set up a face to face meeting with all of his family members.
Speaker 13: (21:19)
Thank you. And to the phone operator, please don’t please do not mute my phone. Sheriff, I want to ask real quick. I asked you earlier about the caseworker and you said that you were trying to find the case worker. My question was what type of a case worker was it? Why did Mr. Fuller need a case worker/ also to the coroner, you’ve been tap dancing around this question my colleagues and I have been asking. And it’s what did you find at the scene or on that person that would lead you to believe initially that it was suicide? I mean, you had to have something specific that led you to that initial conclusion. And also to either detectives Wagoner or Dean, did you get any information from the family that would lead you to why Mr. Fuller did this?
Sheriff Villanueva: (22:02)
Let me answer the first part real quick, the case workers from the Department of Public Social Services, so he was receiving some form of a benefit from the County and as a result, he’s assigned a case worker. Exactly what the nature of that was we don’t know, but we know DPSS is the department involved. So I’ll defer from here.
Dr. Lucas: (22:30)
Thank you. Again, to the point about what would have led us to believe that the death might’ve been a suicide at the beginning was more the lack of any evidence that there was any foul play at the time. That’s about all I can say. I mean, he was hanging and there was no other information to suggest that there was a foul play at the time. So further investigation is ongoing, but that’s why we were thinking in that direction early on.
Kent Wegener: (23:19)
Regarding the conversation with the family, whether or not there was a motive on the part of the victim to commit suicide, that information that we did receive, although brief, is being followed up on. And until we can verify the credibility of that, we’re not going to comment on it.
Thank you. And going to the line is [inaudible 00:23:44] Associated Press.
Speaker 16: (23:47)
Hi, thank you so much. I’m curious if you’ve reached out to the authorities in Victorville to see if there’s any potential nexus or what characteristics might be similar. Obviously both families are saying that there might have been foul play. Any potential, or are you looking into the avenue that there may be one person who could have committed both acts if it turns out to be the case that neither was suicide?
Kent Wegener: (24:15)
We’ll have conversation with them.
Sheriff Villanueva: (24:16)
We will definitely have conversations with them. And that’ll be part of the thoroughness of the investigation itself. Let me take this time to switch to Spanish. [foreign language 00: 04:37]. Any Spanish questions?
And once again, if you have a question please press one zero.
Sheriff Villanueva: (26:11)
There are no Spanish questions at this time.
Sheriff Villanueva: (26:14)
All right thank you, thank you all. [silence].