CRIME

Sheriff: Fugitive capture turns into search for missing man

Having brought a rugged, six-day North Carolina manhunt to an end, authorities are now desperately searching for the missing owner of the stolen truck the captured fugitive was driving.

Investigators aren't sure how Phillip Michael Stroupe II spent his time since he stole a mountain bike at gunpoint Saturday and pedaled into the Pisgah National Forest, but authorities have put those questions on the back burner as they try to retrace Stroupe's final 17 hours of freedom and find the missing 68-year-old man, Henderson County Sheriff Charles McDonald said.

"We are still in a search mode for Mr. Tommy Bryson. We are holding out hope we will be able to locate him," McDonald said. "But time is of the essence."

Bryson was last seen around 8:40 a.m. Wednesday on a surveillance camera driving away from his home in Mills River to pick up a family member for a medical appointment. He never made it there.

Stroupe was arrested after a two-county chase at 1:30 a.m. Thursday on U.S. Highway 70, west of Marion, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) away. He ran into a tomato field before he was taken into custody. Officers found a gun nearby, McDowell County sheriff's spokeswoman Richelle Bailey said.

The sheriff wouldn't call Stroupe a survivalist, but said he was in good shape and likely had been able to find food and water after he slipped into the woods Saturday. Stroupe was fleeing Transylvania County deputies who wanted him on a break-in charge.

Stroupe also had relatives near where he was arrested, including an aunt who was taken into custody after refusing to leave a law enforcement barricade, authorities said.

Stroupe was a "product of an enabling family and that's been a problem for us," McDonald said. He declined to give further details.

Phone messages left with the families of Bryson and Stroupe were not returned Thursday.

Stroupe faces drug, weapons and fleeing police charges in McDowell County. More charges will likely be filed in Transylvania and Henderson counties from his escape Saturday and what may have happened to Bryson on Wednesday, authorities said.

The search for Stroupe included hundreds of miles in the Pisgah National Forest, parts of which were closed to visitors. The U.S. Forest Service had two camps and two roads closed late Wednesday. It was not immediately clear when those areas would reopen.

An even bigger search area was being used to try to find Bryson, McDonald said at a news conference.

"He had a lot of time to cover a lot more ground. There are things we just aren't certain of at this time," the sheriff said.

Stroupe had just been released from the Yancey County jail July 20 and has spent most of the past two decades behind bars, according to North Carolina prison records.

In 1999, Stroupe was sentenced to more than 18 years, the maximum allowed, for felony robbery with a deadly weapon and as well as breaking and entering and false imprisonment. He was released from prison in April 2015.

Last month, Stroupe was named as a suspect in the armed robbery of a store in Weaverville. A few days later, he was attempting to flee authorities when he rammed a stolen car into a Buncombe County sheriff's deputy's vehicle, authorities said.