Prison official charged with unsafe gun storage in Marysville son’s death

Prosecutors allege Jennifer Wright kept her pistol in a kitchen drawer and Branden McKinnon, 12, used it to shoot himself.

Branden McKinnon (Family photo)

Branden McKinnon (Family photo)

MARYSVILLE — Prosecutors allege a state prisons employee didn’t properly secure the gun her 12-year-old son used to die by suicide in Marysville last year, leading to a first-of-its-kind criminal charge in Snohomish County.

Late last year, Branden McKinnon’s father sued the boy’s mother, Jennifer Wright, over his death last May. The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount in April.

Two weeks before Branden McKinnon’s death, he and his mom had traveled to Mexico. It was a great trip. But when they came back the middle school student’s grades faltered. And his stepfather and Wright had been putting pressure on him to get his grades up, they told investigators. He had been feeling down because of it.

The stepfather told Marysville police Branden wore his heart on his sleeve, according to court papers. That had only been amplified while he’d been going to class online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Wright got home from work as a custody officer at the Monroe Correctional Complex the night of May 19, 2021, she reportedly checked on her son. She thought he was sleeping. She wanted to give him space after an argument about Branden’s grades.

But when she checked on her son again around 7:30 p.m. that night, she found he’d shot himself, according to the charges filed Wednesday in Snohomish County Superior Court. Her 9 mm pistol was on the bed next to Branden’s electronics. She called 911 and began CPR.

When police arrived, an officer took over chest compressions and Wright helped to keep her son’s airway open. Later, another officer suggested Wright leave the room. At 7:50 p.m., Branden McKinnon was declared dead, according to court documents.

The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office determined he died of a gunshot wound.

The stepfather told police the family had several guns in the garage and one in the kitchen drawer. When he showed an officer where that gun should’ve been, it wasn’t there. The officer asked if they had a gun safe. The stepfather said they didn’t have one, deputy prosecutor Jarett Goodkin wrote in the charges.

Wright had taken her pistol out a previous night as she prepared to go to a search-and-rescue academy, she later told a detective. She said she put it back in the kitchen drawer, unloaded. She put ammunition in a different drawer.

Prosecutors charged Wright, 38, with first-degree unsafe storage of a firearm, a felony.

‘Far too many families’

This isn’t the first time Snohomish County residents have faced criminal charges for not properly storing their firearms.

In 2016, an Everett man was sentenced to two months in jail for leaving a loaded Ruger .380-caliber firearm near his 3-year-old son, who shot himself. The man was convicted of a gross misdemeanor.

And in 2012, a Marysville police officer allegedly left his gun in the family van’s cup holder. His 3-year-old son retrieved it and shot and killed his sister, 7. Prosecutors charged the officer with manslaughter, but a jury couldn’t reach a verdict. Prosecutors declined to retry the case.

But Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell said this is the first time his office has prosecuted someone under a new state law implemented in 2019. It was part of a suite of reforms enacted after Washington voters passed Initiative 1639 in 2018. The statute holds that a person is guilty if unsafe storage of their gun means another person gains access to it and “causes personal injury or death with the firearm.”

Kristen Ellingboe, communications director for the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, said safe gun storage has proven to be effective in preventing gun violence. She said the goal is this law would never be used, but “far too many families” have faced tragedy due to unsafe storage.

Branden’s father Jonathan McKinnon described his son as the “perfect kid” in a January interview with The Daily Herald. Branden played soccer, ran cross country and loved superheroes.

On Thursday, the father’s lawyer Casey Arbenz said Branden’s death was “tragic and totally avoidable.”

“This case should serve as a reminder to all who fail to secure their weapons that substantial civil and criminal penalties may follow if their firearms fall into the wrong hands,” he said.

As of this week, Wright remained employed by the Department of Corrections.

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

Help is available

There are free and confidential resources for people in crisis or who know someone in crisis.

If there is an immediate danger, call 911.

Care Crisis Chat: imhurting.org (chat); 800-584-3578 (call).

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255, 988lifeline.org.

The Trevor Project Lifeline for LGBTQ Youth: thetrevorproject.org, 866-488-7386.

Mental Health First Aid courses: mentalhealthfirstaid.org.

Compass Health’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Team may be contacted at anytime by calling the Volunteers of America crisis line: 1-800-584-3578.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.donordrive.com.

The Snohomish Health District has a list of other local resources. snohd.org/200/Suicide-Prevention.

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