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Florida Veteran Had 'Zero Connection' To Family He's Accused Of Gunning Down In Their Home, Authorities Say

“This guy prior to this morning was a war hero. He fought for his country in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was a decorated military veteran and this morning he’s a cold, calculated murderer,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said of suspect Bryan Riley.

By Jill Sederstrom
Veteran Accused Of Slaughtering Family In Their Home

Investigators say the reason why a decorated military veteran allegedly broke into a Florida home in the middle of the night and gunned down the family inside—including a 3-month-old baby who died in his mother’s arms—may never be known.

“I guess the big question that all of us have is why? I know that’s the thing that has been on my mind all day and unfortunately, and it is so frustrating, that we will not know the why today—maybe ever,” State Attorney Brian Haas said in a press conference detailing what he called a “terrible tragedy.”

Bryan Riley, 33, is now facing four counts of first-degree murder after authorities said he killed four people and the family dog inside a Lakeland home and nearby apartment Sunday morning, leaving an 11-year-old girl “significantly injured” with at least seven bullet wounds, according to Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

“This guy prior to this morning was a war hero. He fought for his country in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was a decorated military veteran and this morning he’s a cold, calculated murderer,” Judd said, adding that authorities had found “zero connection” between the suspect and his alleged victims.

The victims have been identified—according to The Associated Press—as  Justice Gleason, 40; his 33-year-old girlfriend, Theresa Lanham; their 3-month old son, Jody; and Lanham’s 62-year-old mother, Catherine Delgado.

A 10-year-old child who also lived at the home had been staying with a relative the night of the murders and escaped the massacre, Judd said.

According to the sheriff, the incident began around 7:30 p.m. Saturday night when Riley approached a man, believed to be Gleason, on a lawn mower and told him that God had sent him to speak to one of his daughters, named Amber, because she planned to commit suicide.

Gleason and another witness allegedly told Riley that no one by that name lived at the property but he refused to leave and Gleason threatened to call 911.

Riley responded that Gleason didn’t need to call the cops “because I am the cops for God,” Judd said during the press conference.

Despite the threat, Gleason called 911 to report a suspicious person and vehicle, but by the time authorities arrived, Riley had disappeared.

Authorities spent 22 minutes searching around the property and surrounding area looking for Riley and his vehicle, but were unable to find any trace of him.

Just nine hours later, a Polk County deputy lieutenant heard a volley of gunfire around Socrum Loop Road while working his regular shift and called the suspected active shooter incident into authorities at 4:22 a.m.

Law enforcement officials from multiple agencies arrived to allegedly find Riley—decked out in camo—standing outside with his truck ablaze in Gleason's front yard. Judd said authorities “did not see a firearm” but saw Riley quickly run back into the house.

“The suspect runs into the house, and then there’s another volley of gunshots and they could hear a woman screaming and a baby whimpering,” Judd said.

Upon hearing the gunfire, a lieutenant on scene tried to make entry through the front door but discovered it had been barricaded. Authorities went to the back door of the home and were “immediately confronted” by the suspect, who they said was now wearing a bullet proof vest, camo, knee protection and head protection.

“There’s a shootout,” Judd said, adding that one bullet from law enforcement officers struck Riley, who retreated back into the home.

The suspect continued to fire at authorities from inside the home as authorities set up a perimeter and returned fire until there was silence and Riley exited the property and surrendered.

He was taken to a local hospital for his injury, where he was treated and released into the custody of the sheriff’s office.  

Inside the family’s home, law enforcement found an 11-year-old girl who had suffered significant injuries. She was immediately rushed to a local trauma center after suffering “multiple gunshot wounds,” Judd said.

Investigators also found Lanham dead holding her dead 3-month-old baby in her arms. Gleason and the family’s dog had also been killed.

Delgado was found dead in a nearby back apartment on the property.

Judd called the murders “heartless” and “calculating.”

“I’ve done this job my entire adult life and I’ve seen a lot of tragedy and a lot of sadness, and there’s things you can’t unsee,” he said. “I will never be able to unsee that mother with that deceased infant in her arms as they both lay there dead. It is a horror of the utmost magnitude.”

Once he was taken into custody, Judd said Riley made several statements to officers including allegedly admitting to taking methamphetamine and vaguely referencing the violence by saying “you know why I did this,” however, he never provided any direct motive.

“He says at one point to our detectives, they begged for their lives and I killed them anyway,” Judd said during the press conference. “He’s evil in the flesh. He was a rabid animal. Our hearts and our prayers goes out to the family of those that are injured and deceased.”

While investigators are still struggling to determine why Riley—who lived in Brandon and seemingly had no connection to the family in Lakeland—targeted the home, Judd said Riley’s girlfriend described his mental state rapidly deteriorating the week before the murders.

She told investigators that Riley, who she had been dating about four years, had been working a job doing security for a church in Orlando the week before the shootings and came home and told his girlfriend that God spoke to him and he believed he could talk directly to God.

Throughout the week, she said Riley began to gather supplies for hurricane relief victims, at one point spending $1,000 worth of cigars “as a relief present” after being instructed by God, Judd said.

Saturday evening—after encountering Gleason on the lawnmower—Judd said Riley returned to his home in Brandon and reiterated that he had gone to a home to talk to the homeowner’s daughter, named Amber, after getting a vision from God that she planned to commit suicide, but said he wasn’t allowed to speak to the girl.

At that point, Riley’s girlfriend confronted him about what she believed was delusional behavior.

“She said ‘Look, you are not talking to God directly.’ He gets mad and says, ‘There’s no room for doubters in my life. God gave me a gift and I am talking directly to God,’” Judd said.

According to Riley’s girlfriend, he never threatened any violence toward the family and went off to his man cave while she went to bed. When she woke up the next morning, he was gone.

She told authorities he had struggled with PTSD and depression in the past, but had never been violent before.

Riley allegedly later confessed to carrying out the killings and said he shot the infant “because I’m a sick guy,” according to a criminal complaint obtained by WFOR-TV.

“I want to confess to all of it and be sent to jail,” he allegedly said.  

Investigators are now trying to piece together what happened at the home Sunday morning and said it will take “hours and hours and hours and days” to process the crime scene.

“I can tell you the scene out there is absolutely horrific,” Lakeland Police Assistant Chief Sam Taylor said.

Investigators said they are also hoping to speak in more depth to the 11-year-old victim who survived the horrific violence.

According to a statement from the family, the young girl has already undergone four surgeries to repair 10 wounds. She’s listed in stable condition and expected to recover.

“She was very scared when this happened, but she just prayed during the event and knew it would be OK,” the statement said, according to WTVT-TV. “We appreciate all the well wishes, kind words and prayers.”  

Judd said the young girl managed to survive by playing dead.

Riley is currently being held without bond.

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