Sheriff: Florida 11-year-old ‘played dead and prayed’ as ‘sniveling coward’ gunned down family

LAKELAND, Fla. — An 11-year-old girl injured in a mass shooting Sunday morning told authorities that she “played dead and prayed” as the alleged gunman killed her family and tortured her in an apparent bid to save a nonexistent child from sex traffickers.

Bryan James Riley, 33, of Brandon, faces a slew of charges in the bizarre case, including four counts of first-degree murder and seven counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. The former Marine sharpshooter got into a gunfight with deputies who responded to the victims’ Lakeland home as the shooting was taking place.

He also attempted to grab one officer’s gun before giving up.

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Riley is also charged with attempted murder for shooting the girl, as well as kidnapping, burglary, arson and cruelty to an animal for killing the family’s dog. He is being held without bond in the Polk County Jail.

Riley is accused of killing Justice Gleason, 40; Gleason’s 33-year-old girlfriend, Theresa Lanham; their 3-month-old son, Jody; and Lanham’s 62-year-old mother, Catherine Delgado, who owned the homes where the massacre took place. The surviving child has not been identified but Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd indicated Thursday that the girl was the infant’s older sister.

Lanham’s Facebook page appears to show Jody and an older sister, whose name is being withheld. The slain mother posted a photo of Gleason and their son on social media just hours before all three died.

Tall like Daddy

Posted by Theresa Lanham on Saturday, September 4, 2021

The victims begged for their lives as they were killed, Riley told investigators. The infant boy was still cradled in his mother’s arms when their bodies were found.

The 11-year-old survived being shot multiple times. She remains hospitalized as she recovers from a total of seven bullet wounds.

“Prior to this morning, this guy was a war hero. He fought for his country in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Judd said Sunday. “And this morning he’s a cold-blooded killer.”

The suspected gunman, who wore a bulletproof vest and was armed with three guns, had no known connection to the family and seemingly picked them at random, according to Polk County authorities.

Judd said during a Thursday media update, however, that detectives believe they know Riley’s reason for targeting the family: to rescue a girl named “Amber” that he believed was a sex trafficking victim.

Amber does not exist, the sheriff said.

The Associated Press reported that Riley told authorities he was high on methamphetamines when the killings took place. Riley’s fiancée told detectives that Riley, who she said suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, had been acting erratically for weeks, claiming he could speak directly to God.

A visibly disgusted Judd showed reporters social media photos of Riley, whose arms and torso bulged with muscles.

“This is the big bad dude that tortured an 11-year-old child and murdered a 3-month-old baby and the 3-month-old baby’s mother and father,” Judd said. “Then this guy says to the 11-year-old, ‘Do you know why I killed your parents? They’re sex traffickers.’”

The sheriff reiterated several times during Thursday’s news conference that Amber does not exist and that no one in the slain family’s home was a sex trafficking victim.

Judd’s department is holding an online fundraiser to help the 11-year-old and her remaining family with medical bills, funeral bills and housing.

“Quite frankly, the family needs help. As you know, we have an entire family that was wiped out at one time,” Judd said. “To quote one of the uncles that’s working closely with the family, ‘I never had a class in high school to help me deal with this.’”

“We have a family that is going through a horror right now that no family should have to go through,” Judd added.

‘She’s going to commit suicide’

The events that led to the mass shooting began innocently the night before as Riley visited a friend who lives in the neighborhood where the killings took place. The witness told investigators that Riley had mentioned plans to help with Hurricane Ida relief efforts.

The witness offered to put together a first aid kit for Riley, who went to the friend’s home around 6:45 p.m. Saturday to pick up the supplies, Judd said. Riley spent about 25 minutes with his friend before leaving shortly after 7 p.m.

The first call to police about a suspicious person on North Socrum Loop Road came in at 7:22 p.m., the sheriff said. Gleason, Lanham and the children lived in the main home on the property, while Delgado lived in an apartment.

“Sometime in that period, that’s when Bryan Riley stopped out in front and talked to Justice, who was mowing his yard,” Judd said. “And that’s when 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.’”

Riley allegedly refused to leave without speaking to the girl, but Gleason demanded that he go. Delgado came outside during the confrontation, and she too told Riley they did not know what he was talking about.

The 11-year-old girl was in the yard, however, which provided Riley the opportunity to see a young girl lived there, Judd said.

“Never did Bryan Riley make a threat,” the sheriff said. “He just wanted to talk to Amber because he thought she was going to commit suicide. Just a bizarre, irrational statement, but no threats of violence.”

Either Delgado or Gleason called authorities, but Riley angrily drove off before deputies arrived. When he got home, he and his fiancée fought over his claim that God was sending him messages.

Riley, who Judd said confessed in detail about the killings, said he never told his girlfriend about the violent plan already fomenting in his mind. The woman told investigators Riley locked himself in a room and asked her to go away, according to a criminal complaint in the case.

She did as he asked and went to bed.

Read the criminal complaint below.

When she awoke around 6:30 the next morning, he was gone, the court records show. Worried, she checked the GPS coordinates of his cellphone, which the coordinates placed in the driveway of the victims’ homes.

Surveillance footage shows that Riley left again around 1 a.m. and drove his black Ford F-150 back to the slain family’s home to do what he called “reconnaissance outside of the house, in the moonlight,” Judd said. He carried a large bag slung over his shoulder.

Inside were the supplies he’d gathered for what he was about to do, including bleeding control kits in case he was injured.

“The terminology that he used is from some of his training,” the sheriff said. “Some of his executive training. Some of his security training.”

Judd said Riley later told detectives that God told him to save Amber. Riley said he began putting together an “ops plan.”

“You know what that means. It means you have to kill everyone,” Riley said, according to Judd.

Watch Thursday’s news conference below.

‘The mission was underway’

Riley told detectives that after his surveillance of the home, he repositioned his truck multiple times to ensure he had a quick escape. He also slashed the tires on the family’s vehicles and set out glow sticks to light the way for him and his imagined sex trafficking victim to find their way out of the house and to his truck.

“This is all fiction. All made up by him,” Judd said. “There were no victims of sex crime in that house.”

Shortly after 4 a.m., Riley doused both the family’s sedan and their pickup truck with gas and lit them on fire as a diversion. Only the truck went up in flames.

“He said, ‘By the time I got back to the car, it wouldn’t catch on fire, but the mission was underway and I had to push through,’” Judd said.

Riley said he took his “breaching tools” and went around to Delgado’s apartment, where the tools were unable to let him gain entrance. He instead shot through the door before going around to the side, shooting through a window and getting inside.

“He called it ‘clearing the house,’” the sheriff said. “He was ‘clearing the house’ looking for Amber.’”

That’s when he killed Delgado.

“He said, ‘I dumped a mag,’” meaning that he emptied a magazine’s worth of bullets killing the grandmother, according to Judd. It was not immediately clear how large the magazine was or what type of guns Riley was using.

Riley continued to describe his supposed mission in military terms, telling detectives he had to “reset” before moving on to the main house.

“‘I had to reset to start my methodical search for Amber in the main house,’” he said, according to the sheriff.

Riley gained entrance to the main house by shooting out the glass in the back door. He then walked down the home’s hallway, which he called the “fatal funnel,” and entered a bedroom.

The first one to die in that house was the family’s dog, Riley allegedly said. He then went to the bathroom, where Gleason and Lanham were hiding with the children.

“Justice was trying to keep him out,” Judd said. “Everyone was in the bathroom, huddling and hiding.”

Riley fatally shot Gleason, then killed Lanham and Jody, who was in her arms.

In a 911 call placed by one of the victims, Riley could be heard screaming at the 11-year-old, court records state.

“Amber! Get up now, Amber!” he screamed in between volleys of gunfire.

The girl could be heard crying and telling Riley her name and that she was not named Amber.

“Did you know they were trafficking kids?” he asked, according to the criminal complaint.

The gunfire could be heard continuing.

‘He’s a sniveling coward’

According to Judd, Riley grabbed the 11-year-old and took her into the living room, where he continued demanding to know where Amber was.

Like Gleason had the evening before, the girl told Riley her name was not Amber and there was no Amber living there, the sheriff said.

“He said, ‘I want to know who Amber is’ and he counted down, ‘three, two, one, pow,” Judd said, using his hand to mimic firing a gun. “And he shot her, in the thigh area and the stomach.”

Clutching her belly, the girl continued to deny knowing Amber or where she was.

“I tortured her in order to investigate, in order to find Amber,” Riley told investigators, according to Judd.

Each time the girl denied Amber’s existence, he shot her again.

Riley told detectives he asked God if a girl that age could be involved in the alleged sex trafficking. When God told him yes, he said, he “eliminated her.”

But the girl was not dead.

“He thought he’d killed her, but this 11-year-old was very brave and very smart, and she out-thought him, thank God,” the sheriff said. “She said, ‘I played dead and I prayed.’ And that’s the reason she’s alive today.”

The girl, who had undergone four surgeries as of Thursday, remained in critical condition.

It was around that time that deputies showed up at the house. In the subsequent exchange of gunfire, a bullet went through Riley’s vest and grazed his abdomen.

“He immediately retreated back to, of all places, the baby’s nursery,” Judd said.

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After dressing his wound, Riley realized he was “outgunned and outmanned.” He took off his bulletproof vest, dropped his guns and walked outside with his hands in the air.

Judd said Riley “thought he was a bad dude” when he broke into Delgado’s apartment and shot the unarmed grandmother before moving to the main house and trying to kill everyone inside, including two children.

“He was a coward, an absolute coward,” Judd said. “He looks like a man, but he’s not a man. He’s a sniveling coward.”

Riley, who was working as a security guard in the Lakeland area, could face the death penalty if convicted of the homicides.

Judd said Thursday that detectives have not yet determined if Riley was on drugs at the time of the attack, but said illegal steroids were found at his home.

“This investigation is not near over. This is going to go on for weeks and weeks and weeks,” the sheriff said.