Coroner appeals order to turn over death investigation records

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FAYETTE - A judge has ordered the Howard County Coroner to turn over documents from an inquest held in January 2017 over the death of Kenneth Suttner.

The Glasgow School District filed a lawsuit in March seeking the transcript and exhibits from the inquest. The district said its request for the records, which it claims are public, was denied by the coroner's office.

"We had been promised from the day of the hearing in January that we would receive a transcript, only to be told in March that we would not receive it. Then we were forced to engage in litigation." attorney for the Glasgow School District Thomas Mickes said.

In Judge Scott Hayes' ruling, issued on October 9, he said the coroner is not a law enforcement agency and "cannot close the records requested" by the school district. The coroner had until October 11 to comply with the order, but filed an appeal with the Western District Court of Missouri on October 10.

The coroner's attorney Richard Hicks said they disagree with the judge's ruling and the "salient issue in this matter regards whether a coroner's office is a law enforcement agency."

Hicks said the coroner, Frank Flaspohler, was advised by Special Prosecuting Attorney April Wilson that there was still an ongoing investigation and the documents being requested were "investigative in nature and therefore protected documents that don't have to be disclosed."

The January inquest found bullying was a contributing factor to Suttner's death by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Harley Branham, a former manager at the Dairy Queen where Suttner worked, faces a charge of involuntary manslaughter for allegedly harassing Suttner, leading to his death.

The jury at the inquest found Branham to be "the principle in the cause of death." They also found Dairy Queen to be negligent in training on harassment prevention and resolution, and found the school district to be "negligent in preventing bullying." All of these factors, the jury ruled, "caused Kenneth Suttner to take his own life."

Mickes said at the coroner's inquest, "The district, nor its staff or students were allowed to defend themselves. Individual students were named and their reputations tarnished, the reputation of our staff and our district was tarnished and the transcript was our vehicle to tell the whole story."

He mentioned that some evidence provided to the jury about how the school district handles bullying was taken out of context.

Hicks said if Flaspohler were to be advised that there is no longer a criminal investigation, then he would "readily turn over the requested documents."

In March, the KOMU Target 8 Team looked at the issue of responsibility for deaths caused by bullying.

[This story has been updated from a previous version to add more information and correct the spelling of Suttner's last name.]