LAKELAND, Fla. - A chance encounter with a former Marine obsessed with delusions of child sex trafficking ultimately led to the massacre of four members of a Lakeland family, including a mother holding her baby boy, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said.
The sheriff offered one final update Thursday morning on the shooting rampage that left the family dead with the exception of the sole survivor, an 11-year-old who was shot multiple times. Detectives said they learned the suspect happened to drive by one of the victims, who was mowing the lawn on Saturday, and that was the first encounter he ever had with the family.
The Associated Press identified the victims as Justice Gleason, 40; his 33-year-old girlfriend, Theresa Lanham; their baby boy, Jody, who was born in May, and 62-year-old Catherine Delgado, who was Lanham's mother and owned the property where they were murdered.
The events that led up to that moment started when 33-year-old Bryan Riley, the man accused of shooting the child and four of her family members, told one of the witnesses who lives in the area that he was going to help with Hurricane Ida relief efforts, Judd said Thursday. That witness told Riley to come by his home and he would give him a first aid kit.
"We can document that mass murderer Riley was at his friend’s house picking up the first aid kit at about 6:45 p.m. on Saturday. We could also document he left there about 7:10 p.m.," Judd said. A short distance away, Riley saw 40-year-old Justice Gleason mowing his lawn with his 11-year-old daughter in the yard.
That provided the trigger that led to the slayings, Judd said: Riley saw the girl, believing she was an imaginary child named Amber who was suicidal and being held by a supposed sex trafficking ring that God had told him to confront.
"This was all fiction, all made up by him," Judd said. "There were no victims of sex trafficking in that house."
"They happened to be the unfortunate ones that [Riley] passed by," the sheriff added. "It could’ve been anyone’s neighborhood who was out with their children one afternoon."
Judd said because of this, he is asking anyone to make a donation to the family to help with funeral and hospital expenses. The young victim will likely remain in the hospital for months.
He said 100% of the donations made to the Polk Sheriff's Charity Inc. will go to the family, adding that there are four GoFundMe sites out there, but one is considered to be suspicious.
LINK: Find more information through Polk Sheriff's Charity Inc. website
According to the sheriff, when Riley approached Gleason, he said, 'Hey, God said that I need to talk to Amber because she’s going to commit suicide."
"And Justice said, ‘I don’t know what you're talking about. There’s no one here by the name of Amber,'" Judd added, "but ol’ murderer Riley pressed on."
After Gleason reiterated that he didn't know any Amber, Delgado – identified by the sheriff's office as Gleason's mother-in-law – also came outside.
"We also know by an interview with the 11-year-old little girl, she was in the yard with her dad. Our murder suspect…had the opportunity to see a little girl in the yard," the sheriff said. "So, Justice told him to leave. The mother-in-law said, ‘You need to leave right now or we are going to call the cops.’ They notified law enforcement and he drove off."
Riley never made a violent threat, but detectives said he drove away and was "very angry," thinking that Gleason was keeping him from seeing and rescuing "Amber."
That's when he went home, and put his OPS plan together. Previously, detectives said Riley's girlfriend, who is cooperating with the investigation, told them that, according to Riley, God spoke to him about helping victims of Hurricane Ida.
When he came home, detectives said Riley and his girlfriend had an argument.
"Girlfriend said, ‘God doesn’t talk to you in this way,’ and [Riley] accused her of being a non-believer," Grady explained, adding that both went into separate rooms. When the girlfriend woke up around 6:30 a.m., he wasn't home.
Booking image for Bryan Riley
It turned out he left the residence around 1 a.m. Sunday, based on nearby home surveillance video. He was seen carrying a large shoulder bag.
Since then, detectives were trying to determine where he was between that time and 4:22 a.m., when they responded to Gleason's home on North Socrum Loop Road.
Sheriff Judd emphasized that the investigation is still preliminary, but detectives were told by Riley that he went back to the home to do "reconnaissance outside the house in the moonlight." He even repositioned his vehicle three times to guarantee a "fast departure."
They said he spent time exploring outside the home, found three entrance points, and prepared his exit strategy. He slashed the tires of two of the victims' vehicles, including the pickup truck he set on fire as a diversion.
Courtesy: Polk County Sheriff's Office
"[Riley] set out the glow sticks from the road next to his vehicle, through the backyard, close to the next house," Sheriff Judd said. "He explained that those were so he can find his way out in an emergency."
The sheriff said Riley took his "breaching tools" and his first stop was around the back of the home where Delgado, the young survivor's step-grandmother, lived in an apartment. That's when Riley shot through the window and entered.
"He called it 'clearing the house.' That’s when he killed the grandmother," Judd said. "He was clearing the house and looking for Amber."
Then, he entered the main house by shooting out and breaking into the rear glass door.
Grady said Riley told investigators, "I made a lot of noise so I had to push through. God told me I was protected. I moved into the bedroom where I shot the dog two times."
Then, detectives said he made his way to the bathroom, where Gleason, Lanham, their 3-month-old baby and the 11-year-old girl were hiding. They said Riley shot through the bathroom door, and pushed in, but the family pushed back.
So, Judd said, he fired his gun again. Riley entered the bathroom and shot Gleason as well as Lanham, who was still holding the baby. All three were killed.
Riley then grabbed the 11-year-old girl from the bathroom and brought her into the living room, asking her, "Where's Amber?"
During an interview with detectives, the girl told them she responded to Riley, telling him she didn't know an "Amber" and she wasn't "Amber."
That's when he counted down from three, and shot her multiple times. He then questioned her again, and when she said she still didn't know an "Amber," he shot her some more.
Judd said when Riley was interrogated by detectives, he told them, "When she wouldn't tell me where Amber was, I eliminated her."
Riley thought he had killed the young girl, the sheriff said, but she played dead.
"This 11-year-old was very brave, and very smart. And she out-thought him, thank God," Judd said Thursday. "She said, ‘I played dead and I prayed.’ That’s the reason she is alive today. Before he shot her, thinking he killed her, the suspect told us, ‘I asked God if an 11-year-old could be involved in sex trafficking and God told me, ‘Yes.’ And that’s when I killed her.'"
Polk County deputies and Lakeland police arrived at the home. There was a shootout, and Riley was shot in the stomach. Judd said five deputies and one officer were involved in the shooting. Law enforcement fired their weapons a total of 59 times, whereas Riley shot an excess of 100 times.
Riley surrendered just a few moments later, walking out of the house with his hands up, officials said. He was taken to Lakeland Regional Hospital to be treated for a gunshot wound.
"He was a coward," Judd said. "An absolute coward. He looks like a man, but he’s not a man. He’s a sniveling coward. He was a big bad dude when he had two different firearms and broke into a grandmother’s home and shot and murdered an unarmed grandmother. He was a bad dude when armed with three firearms, went into this house and shot and killed this 3-month-old baby in the arms of the mother."
"He was a big bad dude when he took an 11-year-old child and shot her while trying to interrogate her, while trying to find Amber," he added. "When he got shot by the good guys, he folds up. He drops his vest and his guns. Our deputies did as they should have. They took him into custody."
The young girl is being treated for 11 bullet wounds, a broken leg and other injuries. So far, she has undergone four surgeries, and could need more.
Officials previously said Riley is a former U.S. Marine. Authorities said he told them he was on methamphetamine at the time of the massacre and was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"This is the most extensive single crime scene that we have worked that I can remember," Judd said. "It was all a figment of his imagination."
Dan Jarvis, the founder of 22Zero, an organization based in Lakeland that helps people work through PSTD, says it would be wrong to assume PTSD is to blame for Riley’s behavior.
"Saying PTSD is going to cause a veteran to go off in a mass shooting event, the facts don’t bear that out," he told FOX 13. "With over a million veterans with PTSD, we’re not seeing that."
Dr. Jannell Royster, a psychologist, said, typically with PTSD, the trauma is internal and the violence is directed toward themselves.
"They want to get out of their own head. It is not normal for them to go homicide," she said.
Out of all the witnesses so far, Sheriff Judd said none have told detectives that they were aware of any potential violence from Riley.
Investigators also have not yet verified Riley's post-arrest statement to officers that he was high on meth at the time of the shooting. No evidence of that drug has been found, although Judd said illegal steroids were found at Riley's home in Brandon and hospital blood tests could reveal more.
"This investigation is not near over. This is going to go on for weeks and weeks and weeks," the sheriff said. "This mass murder is exceptionally horrible."