HUNTINGTON - A Cabell County Circuit judge refused to reduce the sentence Tuesday for a man convicted of stabbing another man to death in 2017 before attempting to conceal the events, calling his actions the "ultimate betrayal of friendship."
Brian Michael "Mikey" Bragg, 31, previously pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Michael Sutphin and entered a Kennedy plea to malicious wounding in the assault of Tara Gillispie, 33, Sutphin's girlfriend at the time of his death. A Kennedy plea means Bragg accepted the punishment for his actions but did not have to admit his role in the crime.
Robert Lee Nance, 40, and Cheryl Dawn Nance, 34, both of Lesage, and Cynthia Bumgarner, 46, of Ona, also were charged in the case.
Bragg previously was sentenced by Cabell Circuit Judge Paul T. Farrell to serve 42 to 50 years in prison, but he returned to court Tuesday seeking a reduced sentence after an investigation into his past criminal and personal history was completed.
Farrell refused his request, emphasizing Bragg's actions after the slaying.
"Yours is the ultimate betrayal of friendship and betrayal of life," he said. "You defiled him even further by not even seeking medical help, by not even caring about what you did, and putting him in a van and dumping him somewhere up in the hills of Cabell County, where he literally froze."
Deborah Lawhorn, Sutphin's biological grandmother who raised him, said his mother, who suffered from severe depression, recently died and was buried next to him a couple weeks ago.
Lawhorn said she can't imagine what was going through Sutphin's mind as his friend killed him.
"(Sutphin) had begun to be the man he always wanted to be," she said. "He wanted to get married and start a family, but because of a murdering coward, he never got to do these things. He never got to live the life he longed for because of (Bragg)."
Bragg apologized for his actions.
"Obviously there's nothing I can say that's going to make this any better. I feel terrible about it all. I wish I could change it to where it never happened," he said. "I don't know if the family wants to hear it, but I'm sorry."
The complex case began Dec. 29, 2017, with a fight between the victim and a Bragg family member after Gillispie was left alone with the family member and accused him of restraining her and not letting her leave the residence. Sutphin and Gillispie eventually were at a home with Bragg and Robert Nance when Bragg threw a "spear-like rod," striking Sutphin in the chest and killing him. The group placed him in Bragg's van and drove to the Nances' home.
Gillispie was taken hostage for the next day and tortured until the group allowed her to leave after she woke up bleeding on a shower curtain with severe injuries. She said she did not go to the hospital until Jan. 3 because she was scared of repercussions from the group.
Bragg walked into the Cabell County Courthouse to speak with sheriff's deputies to confess, but he was turned away because he was high. He later met with police at the West Virginia State Police Huntington detachment, where he confessed.
Police found Bragg's van at the scene of a wreck the same day on Barker Ridge Road in Cabell County after responding to a call about a suspicious vehicle. Inside they found Sutphin's frozen body, which was covered in debris. The crash had been staged by Bragg and Robert Nance to make his death look like an accident.
In her victim impact statement, Gillispie detailed more than a dozen injuries received - which included broken ribs, an infected leg wound, and a syringe injection site - at the hand of the group, which led to two surgeries and months of wound care and pain.
"I went unconscious and I remember grabbing my leg and the last thought being that 'I knew you all were going to kill me,'" she said. "But my life wasn't over. I woke up. I was alive. My first thought was that it was a dream, but it wasn't. It was my worst nightmare coming true."
She testified that the worst part was how it affected her mentally, which ultimately led to a suicide attempt. Why she was able to live while Sutphin died eats at her daily, she said, but therapy has helped her take back her life.
"I tried to take my own life because of you and your actions, the actions you took that night," she said. "But today I'm grateful that I've been given this second chance, the chance to live life the way I'm supposed to."
Previous to Bragg's sentencing, Robert Nance pleaded guilty to malicious wounding and being an accessory after the fact and was sentenced to serve three to 15 years. Bumgarner pleaded guilty to being an accessory to murder and entered a Kennedy plea to malicious wounding. She was sentenced to serve seven to 10 years.
Cheryl Nance successfully completed a deferred adjudication agreement and all charges against her were dismissed.
Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.