On the morning of July 31, 2017, Denise Fernatt, a Sunday school teacher, was leaving her home to drive to her church in Kanawha County, West Virginia, when she saw a partially naked photo of herself outside her front gate.
While driving to the church, she saw the same photo posted on a stop sign, according to a police report. She was too upset to go to her church.
While driving back home, she saw the photo again, posted on a sign outside the town’s fire department.
On Aug. 4, 2017, Fernatt was fired from her job after her employer was sent the photo.
The next day, she killed herself.
Now, her husband is blaming members of the couple’s former motorcycle club and other local residents for bullying his wife into killing herself.
In a lawsuit filed in Kanawha County on July 29, Roy Fernatt alleges that some members of the Fire and Iron Motorcycle Club, including the town’s volunteer fire department chief, bullied Denise Fernatt by posting at least 30 copies of a “suggestive” photograph of her all over the small town of Glasgow, which has a population of less than 1,000 people.
Their actions, the lawsuit said, were carried out to embarrass and humiliate her “with the specific idea of causing [Denise Fernatt] to commit suicide.”
“They caused her death,” Wanda Carney, an investigator for Fernatt’s attorney, told BuzzFeed News on Friday. “She was absolutely targeted. They meant for her to do this. They strategized for this to happen."
Roy Fernatt is suing Marty Blankenship, who is Glasgow’s volunteer fire department’s chief, the Fire and Iron Motorcycle Club Inc., its local chapter, and five other individuals. Roy Fernatt worked with Blankenship at the Glasgow volunteer fire department.
BuzzFeed News was unable to reach Blankenship and it is unclear if the defendants have an attorney. The Fire and Iron Motorcycle Club was not immediately available for comment.
Carney and Roy Fernatt believe the alleged harassment began after one of his wife's Facebook posts about discussing drugs with children angered some of her friends from the couple’s former motorcycle club and the local fire department.
In the Facebook post, Fernatt wrote, “it’s 420, have you talk about drugs with your children lately?” When one of her friends commented “Puff puff pass” accompanied by laughing emojis, Fernatt reprimanded the friend for joking about drugs when there were children and students who could see her Facebook page.
Around July 30, 2017, copies of a private photo showing Fernatt in lingerie were posted all over the town, including the local police station, fire station, the Cedar Grove Life Center, the Shrewsbury Church of God, and on several signs, utility poles, and bulletin boards.
She had sent the photo — taken around eight years ago — to Roy Fernatt just after they got married, his attorney, Michael Clifford, told BuzzFeed News on Friday. She had also sent the photo to another woman friend, according to police reports reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
While it is unclear how the members of the motorcycle club and the fire chief got ahold of Fernatt’s photo, Clifford believes that they may have downloaded it from her cellphone or her husband's computer.
Text messages exchanged between some of the defendants in the lawsuit appear to show them discussing wanting to harm Denise Fernatt, according to the police report.
In text messages sent on July 25, 2017, one woman named in the lawsuit tells another, “I go something up my sleeve." The second woman then replies, “fucking bitch gets all she deserves.”
In a text message to a third woman, the first woman also wrote, “i will make the silly blonde with a head injury want to kill her self because u fuck with me my family or my friends it’s over.”
The third woman then texted the first woman saying, ‘I’ll gather up some tape & tacks.”
On the day the photos were posted all over Glasgow, the third woman texted the first woman, “It’s done let’s see what happens,” according to the police report.
After the photos were posted in the town, Denise Fernatt filed a report with the Glasgow Police Department, which began investigating.
On Aug. 4, 2017, one of the photos was sent to Denise Fernatt’s supervisor, Judge John Hatcher, at the Fayette County Courthouse where she had worked in the probation department for 17 years. Hatcher then fired her.
“He called her in the office and kept flashing the picture in her face telling her she was a disgrace to the department,” Roy Fernatt told WWVA.com. “He wouldn’t let her explain nothing. He wouldn’t let her explain that the picture was over seven years old.”
Fernatt was “embarrassed and upset” that her “reputation had been ruined and that her private life had been invaded,” the lawsuit said.
The next day, she died by suicide. In her car, authorities found the termination letter from the judge and a suicide note, Carney said.
Denise Fernatt had had depression, which recurred after she sustained a head injury in a motorcycle accident, according to Carney. The Fernatts left the Fire and Iron Motorcycle Club soon after the accident.
Denise Fernatt had made previous attempts to die by suicide, according to police reports.
The lawsuit said that the members of the club and their friends were aware of her “mental and emotional fragilities” and that they sought to exploit those by their actions.
“But for the bullying and hazing endured by decedent in the days preceding her death she would not have died,” the lawsuit says. “The mental and emotional abuse seriously impaired the physical and mental capacities of the decedent, and proximately caused her death.”
Roy Fernatt is suing for damages including funeral expenses and loss of employment benefits, as well as mental anguish and the loss of companionship.
In 2017, the Glasgow Police Department concluded its investigation into Fernatt’s suicide and the events leading up to it without pressing charges against anyone.
The department said that the Kanawha County prosecutor’s office had advised police that there was “no criminal offense” that authorities could pursue and that the case was “more of a civil and moral matter,” according to the police report.
However, Roy Fernatt, with the help of Clifford and Carney, is fighting to introduce legislation that would criminalize adult bullying in the state of West Virginia. While the state has a law prohibiting bullying and harassment of students in school, that statute does not apply to adults. Clifford said that they have met with West Virginia state Sen. Patricia Rucker, who has expressed interest in drafting the legislation. Rucker was not immediately available for comment.
In a recent Facebook post dedicated to his wife, Roy Fernatt wrote, “Denise I’ve told you so many times (days, nights, or as I’m just riding down the road) that I would never stop fighting for you as long as I live. Well I’m still living so I’m still fighting. I have always loved you and will never stop loving you.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org. You can also text TALK to 741741 for free, anonymous 24/7 crisis support in the US from the Crisis Text Line.