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STATE TO SEEK DEATH PENALTY AGAINST STROUPE

Newman is flanked by sheriffs and first responders as he announces decision to seek the death penalty against Phillip Michael Stroupe II for the murder of Thomas Bryson. Newman is flanked by sheriffs and first responders as he announces decision to seek the death penalty against Phillip Michael Stroupe II for the murder of Thomas Bryson.

Prosecutors will seek the death penalty against Phillip Michael Stroupe II, the Weaverville man who was charged on Monday with first-degree murder in the death of 68-year-old Thomas Bryson of Mills River, District Attorney Greg Newman said.

During a news conference Monday afternoon, sheriffs from Henderson, Buncombe and Transylvania counties thanked volunteers and paid first-responders for their work on the six-day manhunt and search for Bryson's body and detailed the 15 criminal charges Stroupe faces in Henderson, Transylvania and McDowell counties.

The case is now a capital murder case in Henderson County. Besides first-degree murder charges, Stroupe, 38, faces kidnapping and car theft charges arising from the abduction of Bryson, who was on his way to take his sister to a medical appointment when he went missing Wednesday morning.

“We’ll be seeking the death penalty,” Newman said. “It’s charged as a first-degree murder, and we’ll have a couple of different theories that we’ll be able to proceed upon. With first degree murder in North Carolina, you have premeditation or you have felony murder which is a death that occurs as a result of other felonies, so we have a couple of theories that we can pursue, and we will. The death penalty will have two phases of a trial, where the first phase is to see if the person is guilty of the charges and if the jury says the person is guilty, the second phase is the death phase and that can take as much if not longer than the original phase, it lengthens the process a little bit.”

Newman added that he was comfortable proceeding with the death penalty prosecution given the circumstances, adding that Bryson’s family had agreed with the decision. A grand jury is set to meet Aug. 21.

“The grand jury meeting determines if a person should receive a jury trial for their charges,” Newman said. “It’s a formality that’s required. We’re going to accelerate it, and bring them ahead of time by about a month just to consider this case as well as others that are related to it.”
Stroupe had a brief initial appearance at the Henderson County Courthouse today where he was advised of the charges.

Stroupe faces six charges in Transylvania County and six in McDowell County, including possession of methamphetamine, fleeing to elude arrest, failure to stop for police lights, reckless driving to endanger the public, resisting a law officer and posession of a firearm by a felon.

Law officers believe Stroupe murdered Bryson on Wednesday shortly after he took him captive and stole his 2007 four-wheel-drive Honda Ridgeline.

Bryson was “found deceased in an area in Buncombe County about 20 minutes’ drive time from where we believe he was abducted in the South Mills River area on South Mills River Road,” McDonald said.
Bryson was found off of Glen Bridge Road in southern Buncombe County. Stroup had been uncooperative throughout the entire investigation while looking for Bryson, McDonald said. Newman added that a deal had not been struck between Stroup and law enforcement to find Bryson. Bryson was found by a family member who was working at the time with Skyland Fire Department, Duncan said. The family member says he was led to the site by divine intervention, said McDonald, who agrees. McDonald also added that law enforcement had reason to believe that Bryson had already met his fate when he met Stroupe and that evidence suggests that Bryson was dead by the time deputies were notified that Bryson was missing.
“An officer passed him (Stroupe) on the Blue Ridge Parkway traveling, which resulted in a prolonged chase on NC 80 but ended up in McDowell County near the Pleasant Gardens community, where he was taken into custody early Thursday morning about 1:20 a.m.,” Duncan said of capturing Stroupe. Stroupe’s bond was set at $2 million for his charges in McDowell County alone in order to keep him put. “When that bond was set Mr. Bryson had not been found, so he’s going to have a new bond set when he has his warrant set or no bond for the homicide charge,” Duncan added.

McDonald praised first responders for their work throughout the ordeal and thanked the community for supporting them.

“This was a bump in the road, and I do not say that lightly, but this community will become stronger for it,” he said.

In another development, Phillip Michael Stroupe, father of Phillip Michael Stroupe II, was arrested Sunday and charged with felony accessory after the fact of first-degree kidnapping. Phillp Michael Stroupe, 65, of Burnsville, was being held in the Henderson County jail on a $250,000 secured bond. His first appearance was scheduled in District Court in Henderson County on Monday.

Henderson County sheriff's deputy Aaron Lisenbee and SBI agent C.M. Drake said in an arrest warrant that the elder Stroupe had helped his son escape and avoid arrest by "receiving material information" regarding the disappearance of Bryson on Wednesday, the day the victim disappeared.

Phillip Michael StroupePhillip Michael StroupeBryson's body was found in a corn field in southern Buncombe County, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported.

Sheriff Charlie McDonald confirmed the discovery of the body in an interview with WLOS-TV.

“Unfortunately, we had to deliver the news, but at least I think we’re thankful we’re able to get them some sort of closure regarding their family member.," McDonald said. "It’s been a very difficult time for them and the Mills River community as well.”

He said murder charges would be brought against Phillip Michael Stroupe II, the Weaverville man who led authorities on a six-day man hunt before his capture.

Buncombe County deputies charged three people on Friday with harboring fugitive Phillip Michael Stroupe II at a Barnardsville home on Wednesday before he was caught and arrested in McDowell County early Thursday.

Stroupe, who grew up in northern Buncombe County, is charged with multiple felonies arising from the six-day manhunt across Western North Carolina and is thought to have kidnapped 68-year-old Tommy Bryson, a Mills River man who remains missing.

Arrested were Jennifer Elaine Hawkins and Frederick Aurther Badgero Jr. Charged and still at large was Larry Jay Hawkins. Duncan described the three as persons who, like Stroupe, have lengthy criminal histories. Duncan could not provide information on whether the two people in custody had been able to shed any light on what happened to Bryson. The three are in their late 30s or early 40s, he said.

"The most important thing is to find Mr. Bryson," he said. "We hope to find Mr. Bryson alive but certainly as time goes on you have to start to expect the obvious. But right now our search teams are hoping to turn up a lead to find him alive and bring him home safely."

Buncombe deputies became aware Wednesday afternoon that Stroupe may be at a residence in Barnardsville and made the arrests.

"We are absolutely going to follow through with prosecution for their part in harboring and possibly being an accessory after the fact," Duncan said. "They all have lengthy criminal histories. ... they were not truthful and upfront about what transpired there."

Responding to a question about Stroupe's lack of cooperation, Duncan said, "You heard what the district attorney. He spoke very plainly and I think he described the situation very well." The McDowell District Attorney Ted Bell told a judge during Stroupe's first appearance Thursday that the defendant had been uncooperative and instead had been maneuvering for a deal from prosecutors in exchange for information about Bryson's whereabouts.

McDonald said Stroupe remains less than cooperative.

"It's been our pleas in a couple of interviews we've had with the suspect that if there's any hope at preserving life he'd want to take those opportunities to help but he hasn't seen fit to do that," he said. "We have no idea really whether or not the victim was harmed soon after (the kdinapping) or if anything's happened besides being abducted."

The Bryson family had put up a $10,000 reward for information leading to the rescue or recovery of Bryson. 

"They're hoping to generate some leads and tips as well," McDonald said.

Thomas Bryson's sons, Rick and Joey Bryson, told WLOS that their father was a man of deep faith who would have done whatever his kidnapper asked in order to be reunited with his family.

On Thursday night investigators said they have reason to believe Stroupe may have traveled as far west as East Tennessee before turning back to the N.C. mountains, where he was involved in a chase that culminated in his capture and arrest in McDowell County.