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Dairy Queen manager charged in suicide of bullied teen employee

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The former female manager of a Missouri Dairy Queen has been charged in connection with the suicide of a teenage employee whom she is accused of bullying to death.

Harley Branham, 21, was arrested Tuesday and charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Kenneth Suttner. Branham was the 17-year-old high school junior’s boss at a Dairy Queen restaurant in Fayette.

According to the Columbia Daily Tribune, Branham's arrest was the result of a coroner's inquest into Suttner's death, which the coroner's jury ruled was the result of harassment that he suffered at work and school. Suttner was a student at Glasgow High School.

Suttner shot himself in the head on the morning of Dec. 21 outside his family's Howard County home. The Missourian reported that Suttner sat on a log in the snow, calling and texting family and friends.

Shortly after his last phone call at 12:39 a.m., he put a .22-caliber gun to his head and pulled the trigger, the newspaper reported.

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Witnesses at the inquest, including Suttner’s best friend, testified that the teen was constantly bullied for everything from his weight to a speech impediment.

"A lot of people, kids, made fun of the way, basically everything about him," Lexie Graves testified, according to the Tribune.

The witnesses said one of his biggest bullies was Branham, who ridiculed Suttner on a regular basis and subjected him to tasks she did not make other employees do, a former coworker testified.

Branham forced Suttner to clean the restaurant’s floor by hand while lying on his stomach and once threw a cheeseburger at him when he made it wrong, the former coworker testified.

Branham, who was one of 20 people who testified during the inquest, denied that she abused Suttner, though she admitted to calling him names. The Missourian reported that Branham said she meant the insults in a playful manner.

“There’s a lot of people at Dairy Queen saying I was the reason,” Branham testified about Suttner’s death. “But I don’t understand why it would be that way.”

The Missourian reported that Branham was later fired from her job, but the owner of the Dairy Queen said it was for reasons unrelated to Suttner's suicide.

The coroner's jury deliberated for about an hour before determining that Suttner's death was the result of involuntary manslaughter, the Tribune reported. Inquests are rare occasions, but Howard County Coroner Frank Flaspohler said he called the inquest because bullying is a "public safety problem."

People who learned of the charges praised the jury's decision on social media.

Good!!! Maybe if they start actually charging the bullies in these Cases, the bullying will stop!!!

Posted by Samantha Stewart Martinez on Thursday, February 2, 2017

So heartbreaking....RIP Kenneth Suttner....Shame on those that allowed the bullying to continue...

Posted by Judy Hebert Knight on Thursday, February 2, 2017

It was not immediately clear if anyone besides Branham will face charges, but the jury found that Dairy Queen was negligent in its employee training. Jurors also found that the Glasgow School District was negligent in preventing the bullying, of which several people testified that district officials were made aware.

Graves' mother testified that her own son was a victim of bullying by at least one teacher who had also ridiculed Suttner. A second woman testified that she removed her son from the district because nothing was ever done about the bullying he suffered, the Tribune reported.

Other parents told the jury that they had specifically gone to the school board to complain about Suttner being terrorized at school. The Missourian reported that the district’s superintendent and assistant superintendent both testified that they had no record of the bullying.

Special prosecutor April Wilson asked the superintendent, Mike Reynolds, what his response was when he was served a subpoena to appear at the inquest, and Reynolds said he did not remember.

Wilson told him that his response, which was recorded, was, "This is all just a crock of (expletive)," the Missourian said.

After the inquest, Wilson read a statement from Suttner’s family in which they said they hope the school district will finally address the bullying that they say took their son’s life.

"They really feel that was Kenny's voice today, and they feel like it's justice for Kenny," Wilson said.