KANSAS CITY, Mo. (FOX 26) - A manager of a small-town Dairy Queen accused of bullying a teenage employee who later killed himself was charged Wednesday with involuntary manslaughter following a rare investigation in Missouri requested by the local coroner.
A felony complaint alleges that Harley Branham, 21, harassed the 17-year-old employee between September and Dec. 21, when he fatally shot himself outside his family's home. Branham testified during the coroner's inquest that she never bullied the boy, Kenneth Suttner, and that he seemed not to be bothered by jokes; other witnesses said he'd been bullied for years at school and at work in Fayette.
"We wanted to be very cautious and responsible," April Wilson, the special prosecutor overseeing the case, said before filing the second-degree involuntary manslaughter charge. "Both sides of the issue are extremely important. A young man is dead. But we also want to acknowledge that it's not easy being in public education."The Howard County coroner sought an official inquest following Suttner's death, a process similar to a grand jury investigation but public. Such investigations can be sought if a coroner believes a death could be related to a continuing safety and health hazard. In this case, the coroner said he pursued the inquest to publicly acknowledge bullying as a problem.
Wilson said jurors empaneled to hear the case listened to more than six hours of testimony from nearly 20 witnesses, including Branham, before recommending the charge on Tuesday. Branham has no listed home telephone number, and online records don't show whether she has an attorney.
Jurors concluded that Branham "was the principal in the cause of death," and that Dairy Queen negligently failed to properly train employees about harassment prevention and resolution, according to the inquest's verdict form. Jurors also found that Glasgow Public Schools followed unspecified policies and procedures, saying the school district was negligent in failing to prevent bullying. All of those factors caused the boy "to take his own life," the form read.
After the jury's decision, Wilson read a statement from Suttner's family that said they hoped the school district takes steps to address bullying. "If this can help one child at least Kenneth's death wasn't in vain," the family said.
Wilson said the school district's and Dairy Queen's alleged negligence would not lead to criminal charges but could give rise to civil actions. Dairy Queen said in a statement that a franchisee independently owns and operates the Fayette location.