“When a person’s light goes out
in the sweet hush of God’s breath,
the tears still come, but isn’t it easier
to understand the gentleness of death?
But when one extinguishes his own light
from cruelty – from no self-worth –
the silent flame that is no more
singes every soul on earth.”
– L. Schraad
Four days before Christmas of 2016, a teenager sat in the woods outside of his Glasgow, Missouri home with a gun in his lap. Emotional, he called a few friends, who were able to find his location and notify his panic-stricken parents. He would eventually be found by his brother, but it would be too late.
He was buried two days later, with a single question on everyone’s minds: Why?
Approximately a week after Kenny’s death, Kenny’s mother, Angela Suttner, was summoned for a meeting with the county coroner and several other city officials. She knew her son had been bullied his entire life, and regardless of the efforts made by her and her husband, nothing had been done about the issue. She was quickly informed, however, that such a large number of people had contacted the police department after his suicide that the coroner decided to conduct an inquest – only his fifth out of his almost twenty-five years as a coroner.
Within two months, a woman named Harley Branham would be charged with involuntary manslaughter.
News broke across the nation about the teenager’s suicide and a prosecutor’s decision to charge someone for it. Who was Harley Branham? Can a person be held responsible for someone else’s suicide? How is that possible?
More importantly, who was the boy behind the shy smile and wire-framed glasses?
The nation was about to find out.
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
– Psalm 34:18
Kenneth Louis Suttner was born January 14, 1999, a 2-pound, 9-ounce “miracle baby” to loving parents, Michael and Angela Suttner. He was the second of four boys, who all remained close throughout Kenny’s life. He faced many challenges in his seventeen years on earth: he was born twelve weeks premature, which gave him many health issues that would affect him both physically and socially, and would ultimately provide ammunition to those aiming to bully Kenny. He was a survivor in many ways, overcoming many health and learning obstacles, including an inability to speak until the age of four.
Kenny flourished as a toddler, and when his speech improved his favorite thing to talk about was dinosaurs. He grew to be a sociable, funny, and gentle soul who read voraciously and loved his family fiercely. Children were drawn to his tender nature, which was evident with his love for animals, as well. He would eventually grow from a premature two-pound baby into a towering six-foot-three young man. Despite the bullying he endured in school, he took his education very seriously and made all A’s and B’s in addition to keeping up with his after school job.
He wanted nothing more than to help others – in particular, his family. He once wrote a story in school listing off all of the things he wanted to purchase for his family when he was older: a new house for his parents, a boat for his dad, and trucks for his three brothers. His family’s love and care for him was tantamount.
“Kenny had a very tough road,” Angela says. “We let him know that he could do anything we were told he couldn’t do…and he did! With every ounce of love we wanted everything for him.”
“The person who completes suicide dies once.
Those left behind die a thousand deaths,
trying to relive those terrible moments and understand … Why?”
– Clark (2001)
Four days before Christmas of 2016, Kenny Suttner told his mother he wasn’t feeling well and stayed home from school. Thinking he must have caught the flu that was going around, Angela checked on him periodically throughout the day, but noticed her son was unusually ill-tempered. He slept off an on, but seemed to perk up by the end of the day.
“He looked like he was feeling better; he smiled his big smile at me,” Angela remembers. “I went back to bed. I again woke up to the sound of the shower. That is the last moment of me knowing our son was alive, safe and sound in our own home. Looking back now and how he smiled so big at me — it is so hard and pains me even more. He always talked to me about anything and that smile, I believe, was his way of saying goodbye so that I wouldn’t worry or notice anything wrong. That’s heartbreaking – knowing he was still protecting me.”
Angela still cannot talk about the moment they knew Kenny had died, or the events surrounding that time.
“No mother, father, brother, grandparent, aunt, cousin, or friend should ever have to go through what we all did that night. It is a part of our son that I cannot share at this time.”
Two days later, Kenny lay in a blue casket at the Friemonth-Freese Funeral Home in Glasgow. Hundreds attended both the visitation and funeral service. Buried with him would be his class ring, seventeen years’ worth of memories, and his parents’ hopes and dreams of their miracle baby’s future.
Two years later, the county coroner still gets emotional when he talks about Kenny.
“I got to know him after his death,” he says.
Frank Flaspohler explains his reasonings behind the inquest: how Kenny’s situation was a potential risk for the community, especially after speaking with the sheriff’s department. Despite the controversy, he went forward with the decision his gut was telling him.
“I knew it would be stepping on a lot of toes, but I would rather deal with irritating people than to wake up and find out another child committed suicide.”
Frank goes on to say that Kenny could have easily hurt his bullies in self-defense if he wanted, but he never chose to. Frank describes him as “the poster child for turning the other cheek and doing the right thing.”
He also emphasizes the bravery of the students and adults that came forward to report the bullying.
“They were heroes; they were really important and took a lot of heat. I give a lot of credit to the people who stood up for him.”
According to court documents, because of the inquest, a woman named Harley Branham was identified as a contributing factor to Kenny’s suicide. Branham – Kenny’s manager at the local Dairy Queen he worked for – was arrested soon after the inquest on multiple charges. While originally faced with a second-degree manslaughter charge, that was dropped, leaving her with three misdemeanors and a felony: two third-degree assault charges, two harassment charges, and one aggravating stalking charge, respectively.
According to witnesses, Kenny suffered abuse at school, but the brunt of it was suffered at the Dairy Queen he worked for in Glasgow. He was allegedly forced to perform humiliating tasks that other employees were exempt from, food was thrown at him, and witnesses have said that Branham was so cruel that Kenny would often cry at work. These are only a few of the alleged actions that have been reported; it is possible, especially considering the extent of the charges, that more will come to light during the trial.
Could Branham be prosecuted for her alleged role she played in Kenny’s death?
Historically speaking, yes.
One of the most controversial and widely publicized examples of this was the trial of Michelle Carter for encouraging her boyfriend to complete suicide in 2014. The prosecution’s focus was narrowed in on the text messages Carter had sent her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, while he sat in his truck poisoning himself with carbon monoxide. At one point, Roy had second thoughts and was trying to exit the vehicle when Carter texted him, “Get back in the f*****g truck.”
A judge found Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter in 2017.
In 2015, Jessica Haban killed herself after a long and tumultuous relationship with her boyfriend, Long Vang. Haban and Vang’s relationship was publicly dissected, and it was soon decided that a decade of both emotional and physical abuse led to Haban’s suicide. While initially charged with third degree murder, that charge was dropped and Vang was ultimately found guilty of aggravated stalking – the same charge as Branham.
Branham’s case has not yet gone to trial as of the publication of this article. It is with high hopes that the verdict will aid in passing legislative measures against bullying, harassment, and other inhumane treatment.
Frank Flaspohler stated that bullying is something that needs to be measured in school districts. Similar to childhood obesity, which can also be considered a potential risk for a community, if bullying is measured every year, the school district and community could see the differences and identify the causes.
“We still, as a nation, have failed addressing the bullying issue,” he states. “We don’t focus on it. If we want to change something, we measure it. If we would measure bullying every year, we would know where we’re at. Kids won’t self-report.”
“Our family chain is broken, and nothing seems the same,
but as God calls us one by one,
the chain will link again.”
– Ron Tranmer
“Without his love, hugs, laugh and smiles around us every day, our family is no longer whole,” Angela muses. Years later, she still finds tiny toy dinosaurs around the yard that her son loved to play with.
What is Kenny doing now? Is he playing with his favorite dog, Bruno, who died just a year before he did? What would he be doing if he was still here? Would he be going on a walk through the woods, or reading one of his favorite books outside? Perhaps Kenny would be hunting with his brothers, or out on an FFA trip, or talking and laughing with his parents.
Unfortunately, the smile he gave his mother from the couch was the last one she – or anyone – would receive from him on earth. It is of utmost importance to keep our children’s smiles around; when we reduce the presence of bullying, we simultaneously reduce the possibility of suicide.
It is now the Suttners’ mission to spread awareness of bullying and establish preventative measures in schools and workplaces in order to impede youth suicides.
“If we can help one child or hundreds with Kenny’s story – that is what matters most to us. Kenny would want that more than anything – to help others! Change has to happen. For Kenny, we will fight this epidemic problem for our children. YOUR children.”
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of self-harm, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
You can also text CONNECT to 741741.