A Missouri Dairy Queen manager was arrested this week and charged with involuntary manslaughter, a felony, in the suicide of one of her former teenage employees, PEOPLE confirms.
Harley Branham is accused of repeatedly harassing and demeaning 17-year-old Kenneth Suttner at the fast food restaurant in Fayette, Missouri, the Columbia Daily Tribune reports.
After deliberating for several hours on Tuesday during an official inquest sought by Howard County Coroner Charles Flaspohler, a jury found Suttner died due to harassment “both at Dairy Queen and at school,” according to court documents obtained by PEOPLE.
Former coworkers testified at the inquest that Branham forced Suttner to perform tasks others did not have to, including cleaning the floor by hand while lying on his stomach, theTribune reports.
Allison Bennett, who worked at Dairy Queen with Suttner, testified that Branham threw a cheeseburger at the boy because she claimed he made it incorrectly.
On Dec. 21, distraught over the bullying he faced at school and at work, Suttner killed himself with a gunshot to the head outside his family’s home in Glasgow, Missouri, after calling friends and relatives, according to police.
On Tuesday, after the jury’s verdict, the high school junior’s former supervisor was indicted and charged with involuntary manslaughter in his death, according to court records.
Branham, 21, “was the principal cause of his death,” the coroner’s jury found.
Flaspohler told the Tribune he sought an inquest because he felt bullying is a public health issue. (A coroner’s inquest is investigative, not prosecutorial, and is a separate process from standard police proceedings. An inquest involves jurors and testimony, and its findings can affect a law enforcement investigation, but it does not have the same authority as a criminal trial.)
Following the jury’s verdict, special prosecuting attorney April Wilson on Wednesday filed a felony complaint charging Branham with involuntary manslaughter, claiming she “acted with criminal negligence by harassing [Suttner]” and causing his death.
(Wilson was appointed to the case after the county’s prosecuting attorney recused himself, according to the Tribune.)
Branham is scheduled to be arraigned on Feb. 14 and has been released on bond, according to records. Her attorney, Jeffrey Hilbrenner, tells PEOPLE, “It’s too premature to comment.” But “it’s a tragic situation,” he says.
During her testimony at the inquest, Branham denied bullying Suttner or making him do anything to demean him, according to the Tribune. Any insults, she testified, were done in jest and he took it in stride.
Branham did admit that she called Suttner an “a——” at least once but claimed it was intended to be playful, according to the Columbia Missourian.
While on the stand, she said, “There’s a lot of people at Dairy Queen saying I was the reason” he killed himself, “but I don’t understand why it would be that way,” the Tribune reports.
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The jury also found Dairy Queen negligent in training its employees and that the Glasgow School District was negligent in failing to prevent bullying: “The school followed policies and procedures, but they were negligent in preventing bullying, all of which caused Kenneth Suttner to take his own life.”
Suttner reportedly faced extensive harassment at school: A former classmate testified that she saw Suttner tormented hundreds of times, according to the Missourian.
“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 paper.
Suttner’s family could not be immediately reached. The Glasgow School District did not immediately respond to a request for comment, though the district superintendent testified during the coroner’s inquest that school bullying was not widespread, according to the Tribune.
In a statement to PEOPLE, Dairy Queen said the Fayette location is independently owned and operated, so it did not employ or supervise Branham, but the franchisee said she no longer works there. (A message left with the franchise owner was not immediately returned.)
“Our thoughts and prayers are with [Suttner’s] family,” DQ said its statement. “We are still in the process of gathering information.”
According to the Tribune, the prosecutor said Suttner’s family felt the verdict was “justice for Kenneth.”