A former rural Missouri Dairy Queen manager accused of bullying a 17-year-old employee who eventually killed himself pleaded guilty Friday to a misdemeanor charge and won’t go to prison.
Harley Branham, 23, of Fayette, pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and was sentenced to two years of supervised probation and 30 days of house arrest.
Kenneth Suttner shot himself at his home on Dec. 21, 2016. Prosecutors initially charged Branham with involuntary manslaughter, aggravated stalking and other crimes, alleging that her bullying of the teenager contributed to his suicide. The felony charges were all dropped.
Branham’s attorney, Jeffrey Hilbrenner, says Suttner “had some real difficulties” during his life and Branham’s plea was her admission that she played a role in those difficulties.
“He was picked on by lots and lots of people,” Hilbrenner said.
A phone message left with the special prosecutor in the case, April Wilson of Scotland County, was not immediately returned.
Branham was charged after the Howard County coroner asked for an official inquest into Suttner’s death, saying he wanted to shine a spotlight on the problem of bullying. Witnesses at the inquest said Suttner was bullied for years at school and work in Fayette, about 100 miles (160.93 kilometers) east of Kansas City.
Witnesses said Branham repeatedly ridiculed the teen and made him perform humiliating tasks, such as cleaning the floor by hand while lying on his stomach.
Branham testified during the inquest that she never bullied Suttner and he didn’t seem to be bothered by the jokes. But jurors at the inquest concluded Branham “was the principal in the cause of death.”
Jurors also found that Glasgow Public Schools, where Suttner was a junior, was “negligent in preventing bullying,” although school officials have said Suttner never reported the bullying.