The manager of a Dairy Queen in Missouri has been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a teenager who endured rampant bullying at work and school — until he finally pointed a gun at his head and pulled the trigger.
While on the job, Branham repeatedly bullied the teen — even forcing him to clean the floor by hand while lying on his stomach, and throwing a cheeseburger at the teen when he made it incorrectly, former co-workers testified.
Branham, 21, denied harassing the teen, saying none of his actions was intended to demean or demoralize him. Any insults were lighthearted and meant in jest, she testified.
“There’s a lot of people at Dairy Queen saying I was the reason [Suttner killed himself],” Branham said. “But I don’t understand why it would be that way.”
After six hours of testimony, a six-person jury of five men and a woman returned a recommendation that Branham be indicted for felony involuntary manslaughter. State law allows for a coroner to ask for an inquest into the manner and cause of a person’s death and Howard County Coroner Frank Flaspohler wanted the jury to determine whether Suttner’s death was the result of a crime or an accident.
Allison Bennett, who worked with Suttner at the Dairy Queen, said he was frequently harassed at work, often to the point that he would go outside and cry. He was also targeted by bullies at school, where a former classmate from Glasgow High School testified that she saw Suttner tormented hundreds of times.
“Kenny spent his life trying to tolerate negative words and actions,” said Mary Korte, the mother of one of Suttner’s friends, according to the Missourian.
Lexie Graves, who told jurors Suttner was her best friend, testified that she saw students pick on the teen for “basically everything about him,” including his weight and speech impediment, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Graves said she reported the bullying only once because it typically led nowhere. The girl’s mother also testified that her son was bullied at the school as well, and at least on one occasion by a teacher who also ridiculed Suttner. Subsequent meetings with school administrators solved nothing, she testified, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Jurors concluded that Branham was the “principal in the cause of death” and that Dairy Queen negligently failed to properly train employees on issues pertaining to harassment, according to the inquest’s verdict form obtained by the Associated Press. Jurors also found that Glasgow Public Schools was negligent in failing to prevent bullying.
Dairy Queen, meanwhile, said a franchisee independently owns and operates the restaurant where Suttner worked on Cleveland Street in Fayette, a town of roughly 2,700 people.
"We first learned of the situation today and our thoughts and prayers are with the family," the company said in a statement obtained by the Associated Press. "We are still in the process of gathering information but understand from the franchisee that the manager is no longer employed at this location."
Flaspohler, the county coroner, said Tuesday’s hearing was just the fifth time he had called an inquest in his 24 years in the position. He decided to seek an inquest — which is similar to a grand jury, but is public — because bullying is a public safety issue, the Columbia Daily Tribune reports.
“If we don’t take care of bullying, we’re going to have more of these,” he said.
Branham was charged Wednesday with second-degree involuntary manslaughter, according to the Associated Press. It’s unclear whether she has an attorney.
April Wilson, a special prosecutor handling the case, said before filing the charge that authorities wanted to be “very cautious and responsible” in the case.
“Both sides of the issue are extremely important,” Wilson said, according to the Associated Press. “A young man is dead. But we also want to acknowledge that it’s not easy being in public education.”
Shortly after the charges were read, Wilson read a statement from the family to reporters.
“They really feel that was Kenny’s voice today, and they feel like it’s justice for Kenny,” Wilson said.
Involuntary manslaughter charges for bullying employees at work. That's a new one.
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