tampabay.com

Peace mission turned sour

A man came to prevent a domestic fight but now is charged with murdering his stepson.

By THOMAS LAKE
Published June 8, 2007


NEW PORT RICHEY -- To begin with, the man authorities call a murderer says he came that night to prevent a fight.

He admitted firing the gun, but was found kneeling over his stepson, trying to save his life.

And the stepfather went to jail, even though his story -- which never contradicts the accusation on his arrest report -- suggests he did everything he could to make peace.

Everything, that is, except for leaving his gun at home.

Michael Wayne Armstrong, 50, has a concealed-weapons permit and a well-trimmed white beard. He fixes radios for a living. Until Wednesday, he had never been arrested in Florida.

On that night, he says, he and his wife were at home watching their grandchildren when the phone rang.

It was his stepson's girlfriend, calling for help. She said the stepson -- Walter Travis Stroupe, his wife's son -- had taken her keys and wouldn't let her leave.

Armstrong knew what he had to do. Stroupe, 33, had a rap sheet that included driving under the influence, possession of marijuana and resisting an officer, and Armstrong had intervened in his domestic disputes before. Usually his mere presence was enough, he said: He'd show up, say nothing, do nothing, just appear, and the fighters would retreat to their corners.

Armstrong got on his Harley and rode from Arroyo Drive to Candice Lane. In his pocket was a .380 semiautomatic pistol, which he says he always carries.

He pulled up to the concrete driveway and saw the couple. The girlfriend was in her white Jeep, and Stroupe was looking through the vehicle's window. They were arguing. Armstrong says Stroupe approached him, asked if he'd brought his gun, and threatened to beat him.

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According to a probable-cause statement from Detective D. Durivou of the New Port Richey Police Department, this is what happened next:

"Upon arrival I met with the Defendant [Armstrong]. He was observed by three independent witnesses, fighting with the victim. During the fight the Defendant was observed to be in possession of a handgun. As the Defendant and the victim fought, the Defendant shot the victim. Prior to my arrival at the scene, the Defendant made a spontaneous utterance that he had shot the victim. Post Miranda the Defendant admitted to the shooting. As a result of his injuries the victim died."

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Armstrong disputes nothing in the preceding paragraph. But Thursday, as he was held without bail on a charge of second-degree murder at the Land O'Lakes Jail, he gave a reporter a different interpretation of the same facts:

The girlfriend backed her Jeep out to the road, near Armstrong's parked Harley. That's when Stroupe lunged headfirst over the motorcycle and tackled Armstrong to the pavement.

They grappled. The gun fell from Armstrong's pants pocket. Stroupe nearly grabbed it but Armstrong pulled it away. He said he was trying to remove the bullets when the gun went off by accident.

And he realized Stroupe had been shot.

Please don't die, Armstrong recalled thinking.

He threw the gun in the Jeep for safekeeping and returned to Stroupe. He had been an emergency medical tech for 17 years in South Carolina, and now he administered CPR.

Kim Esquinaldo, 35, a Methodist church administrator who was visiting a friend, came outside and saw a man in a motorcycle helmet kneeling over a bleeding man on the pavement.

"Don't leave us," she heard him say. "Come back, buddy. You can do it."

Stroupe twitched and gurgled and gasped for breath. He was a pool repairman. The grandchildren at Armstrong's house were his children: a 4-year-old girl plus twins, age 2, a girl and a boy. The girlfriend was their mother.

"Come back to me," she called.

A police officer arrived.

Where's the shooter? he said.

Right here, Armstrong said, knowing from his experience that if police thought a gunman was on the loose, it might delay the ambulance.

Esquinaldo heard the cop speaking into his radio.

I have the shooter right here, he said.