Free Daily Headlines


Set your text size: A A A


District Attorney Andrew Murray announces the plea agreement that resulted in a life in prison sentence for Phillip Michael Stroupe II for the murder of Tommy Bryson in July 2017.

Phillip Michael Stroupe II was sentenced to life in prison today after he pleaded guilty to the July 2017 murder of Thomas A. "Tommy" Bryson, avoiding a trial that could have resulted in the death penalty had he been convicted.

The agreement was announced Tuesday by District Attorney Andrew Murray, who was appointed chief prosecutor for Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties when Greg Newman was removed in April.

“This defendant robbed our community of a salt of the earth, Godly man who was cherished by his family, friends and neighbors,” Murray said in a news release. “We agree with the family that this sentence, which ensures the defendant will never walk our streets again, hopefully brings some closure not only to the family but the entire community grieving the loss of Tommy Bryson.”
In Henderson County Superior Court, Stroupe pleaded guilty today to first-degree murder, two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon, and first-degree kidnapping. Judge Joseph Crosswhite imposed a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Stroupe also received additional consecutive sentences totaling another 304-402 months, which is 25-33 years in prison.
On July 22, 2017, Stroupe fled from deputies at a traffic stop in Transylvania County. He ran into Pisgah National Forest, where he stole a man’s bicycle at gunpoint. The incident sparked a days-long manhunt for Stroupe as authorities from multiple agencies began a widespread search.
Stroupe eventually made his way through the Pisgah National Forest to the Mills River area, where he encountered Bryson, 68, who was on his way to pick up a family member for a medical appointment on July 26. Taking advantage of the opportunity to steal Bryson’s truck while Bryson was most likely following his routine of checking his mailbox at the end of the driveway, Stroupe kidnapped him. Eventually, he took Mr. Bryson to a cornfield, where he coldheartedly shot Mr. Bryson and left him to die.
Bryson’s family soon reported him missing. Meanwhile, Stroupe drove Bryson’s truck to Tennessee and eventually back into Western North Carolina. He spray-painted the base of the truck in an attempt to change its appearance and had plans to dispose of the truck in a lake when a Blue Ridge Parkway Ranger spotted the truck on July 27 and identified Stroupe as the driver. That began a chase that led authorities into McDowell County, where Stroupe abandoned the truck and ran through a field, dropping the handgun as he fled. Officers apprehended Stroupe in the field and took him into custody.
Bryson’s body was not discovered until days later despite the family’s pleas for Stroupe to disclose their loved one’s whereabouts. Forensic analysis later determined that the gun Stroupe dropped in the field as he ran matched the bullet that killed Bryson.
"Shortly after this heinous crime was committed, the District Attorney’s Office, in consultation with the family, declared this a capital case and until a very recent change of heart by the Bryson family, intended to pursue the death penalty at trial," Murray's office said. "Stroupe’s plea today allows him to avoid the death penalty while assuring he will never again have the opportunity to harm someone outside the confines of his lifelong prison walls. With the support of Bryson’s family, the District Attorney’s Office believes this is the best outcome for the family and the entire community.
"A plea prevents the family from reliving horrific details of their loved one’s murder, Murray said. A death penalty trial can take months to try in court, and with delays already caused by the pandemic and worsening COVID-19 conditions, it is unclear when the court could complete such a long trial without the threat of mistrial due to COVID-19 exposure in the courtroom. And if a defendant is sentenced to death, surviving loved ones must endure the uncertainty of years, and most likely decades, of legal appeals that follow. The plea strictly limits Stroupe’s ability to appeal.
"Considering all these factors, Mr. Bryson’s family reached out to the District Attorney’s Office after concluding that they would prefer to extend unmerited grace to the defendant and ensure finality and closure for their family. The District Attorney’s Office understands and honors their request, acknowledging that a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole is one that will protect communities across Western North Carolina. Our thoughts and prayers remain with Mr. Bryson’s family."

The announcement ended four years of twists and turns of a criminal case that started with a massive four-day manhunt for Stroupe in the Pisgah National Forest and surrounding areas and included numerous instances of Stroupe's conflict with his court-appointed attorneys. 

In a hearing in March in Henderson County Superior Court, Stroupe advised Superior Court Judge W. Robert Bell of Mecklenburg County that he wanted to fire his two lawyers and represent himself.  Bell, who has presided over the case from the start, ruled that he can, introducing another twist in an almost four-year long saga of the highly anticipated murder trial. In addition to murder, Stroupe, a convicted felon who had recently been released from prison when he killed Bryson, was also charged with kidnapping and robbery in connection with the abduction and murder of Bryson.

Judge Bell asked Stroupe several questions related to his request and determined that the defendant is competent to make this decision, Newman said. The judge also found that the defendant understands the nature and potential consequences of the criminal charges he is facing. The defense attorneys, though relieved of their duties of representation, will remain available to the defendant throughout the trial to assist him with any questions he may have.

The defendant represented to the court that he will be ready to proceed to trial in July. Barring further delays due to the current COVID pandemic, Newman intends to call the case for trial on July 12.

The trial had been postponed three times already, once when Stroupe's defense team changed and a year ago, when the Covid-19 shut down most trials. A May 2019 trial date blew up when Superior Court Judge W. Robert Bell removed then-Public Defender Paul Welch from the case, for reasons that have never been made public. Stroupe’s new attorney, Mark Melrose of Waynesville, was assisted by co-counsel Sarah Ziomek of Forest City, a carryover from Stroupe’s original defense team. Although Newman had planned to start the case on July 12, that date had been delayed until later this month.