By MATT GUTMAN, ABC News
(LOS ANGELES) -- In the days after 24-year-old Robert Fuller was found dead hanging from a tree in the Palmdale, California, town square, a rumor began to circulate -- that Fuller killed himself because he had been arrested on an alleged lewd charge. Fuller's family insists the rumors are false.
Law enforcement sources in Los Angeles, as well as several media and legal sources, tell ABC News that among those propagating the rumor were members of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, the agency tasked with investigating Fuller's death, which has been criticized by activists, residents and Fuller's family for its handling of the case.
"I am concerned about who is leaking this false information," Fuller's family's attorney, Jamon Hicks, told ABC News in a phone interview. "To state that [the charge] was a 288, which is the code for lewd and lascivious, gives me great concern that there is someone within the sheriff's department leaking false information."
He also said that he believes the arrest rumor is false because Fuller "and his family would never have been able to afford" the bail for the charge, in order to be out in public to have hanged himself.
The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department has repeatedly declined to comment on the rumor or its origin. Since June 16, ABC News has repeatedly requested comment from the agency; in over 20 phone calls, emails and texts the answers have been: "We cannot confirm this;" "We are not releasing any information on the Fuller case;" and that "releasing anything about that rumor could harm the investigation."
Tension between the Fuller family and the LASD began when the agency determined Fuller's June 10 death a suicide shortly after his body was found in Poncitlán Square, across from Palmdale City Hall, with no chair or stool at the scene, according to the LASD.
The quick ruling caused an uproar, and protesters began marching in the working class town and holding sit-ins at City Hall and the sheriff's office.
The family has publicly insisted Fuller would not have killed himself and said the notion of a public suicide in the town square across from both the fire station and City Hall was unlikely.
As Fuller's family began raising questions about his death, rumors of the arrest began swirling, and it was also whispered among law enforcement agencies that Fuller had written a suicide note, according to several sources who spoke to ABC.
"These rumors have no basis in fact and are an attempt to further assassinate the character of Mr. Fuller," Hicks said in a statement last week. "It is sad that there are people seeking to tarnish this young man's reputation even after his death. His family has the right to grieve in peace over his loss and not be bothered with baseless rumors."
Regarding the arrest rumor, Hicks said in the phone conversation with ABC News, "The subtle message is his life was worthless. It's the same vilification as we saw against George Floyd," whose death after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes sparked nationwide protests.
In the two weeks since the agency announced it would conduct a more thorough investigation into the case -- which would be reviewed by the California Attorney General's Office and the FBI -- the LASD has released nothing about the investigation, nor has it moved to quash the rumor about Fuller's alleged arrest.
Another Black man, Malcolm Harsch, had been found dead hanging in a town in the region less than two weeks earlier. It was later determined there was no foul play in that death. Fuller's family has hired an outside pathologist to conduct an independent autopsy. Hicks said the pathologist is still awaiting lab results.
Hicks is also overseeing an independent investigation into the death of Fuller's half-brother Jerron Boone, who was killed on June 17 when a plainclothes member of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department in an unmarked car executed a "traffic stop," according to the LASD. The sheriff's department says Boone, who was wanted on multiple charges, opened fire first, and deputies returned fire. In a video of the incident, the LA Sheriff's undercover team is heard shouting "hands up" three times before firing dozens of times, but never identifying themselves as police.
In the car with Boone was a woman named Shellondra Thomas, who police said was hit by shrapnel. Her 7-year-old daughter was also in the car but was unharmed.
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By MATT GUTMAN, ABC News