Former Marine charged in killing of 4 people, including baby, denied bond

The sheriff said the suspect's girlfriend claimed he suffers from PTSD.

September 6, 2021, 4:13 PM

A former Marine sharpshooter dressed in full body armor and wielding an automatic weapon allegedly went on an early-morning shooting "rampage" in Polk County, Florida, on Sunday, killing four strangers, including a mother and her baby, and wounding an 11-year-old girl before giving up, authorities said.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said the suspect, who he identified as Bryan James Riley, 33, of Brandon, Florida, allegedly told investigators the victims "begged for their lives, and I killed him anyway."

Riley made his first court appearance on Monday and a judge ordered him to be jailed without bond. During the brief court hearing, Riley said he would hire his own attorney, but the judge said he'll appoint one until Riley retains a lawyer.

He was arrested on four counts of first degree murder, one count of attempted first degree murder, seven counts of attempted first degree murder on a law enforcement officer, shooting into an occupied dwelling, two counts of armed burglary with battery, arson and cruelty to an animal, according to the probable cause affidavit released by the Polk County Sheriff's Office. He is being held at the Polk County Jail.

The shooting unfolded before dawn at two adjacent homes on the same property near Lakeland, Florida, about 35 miles east of Tampa. A sheriff's lieutenant two miles away heard the volley of automatic gunfire, responded to the scene and radioed for backup, Judd said at a news conference on Sunday.

Judd said that nine hours earlier, deputies received a 911 call from the same home and that a woman reported a strange man parked near her residence who allegedly told her he was there because "God sent me here to speak with one of your daughters," Amber, to prevent her from committing suicide. Judd said the woman and another witness told the suspect there was no one by that name who lived at the residence and told him to leave or they were going to call the police.

The sheriff said deputies responded to the 911 call within six minutes, but the man was nowhere to be found.

PHOTO: Damage to the back of a Polk County, Fla., house is pictured in an image provided by the Polk County Sheriff's Office showing where a sheriff's lieutenant entered the house and exchanged fire with a suspect in Lakeland, Fla., Sept. 5, 2021.
Damage to the back of a Polk County, Fla., house is pictured in an image provided by the Polk County Sheriff's Office showing where a Polk sheriff's lieutenant entered the house and exchanged fire with a shooting suspect in Lakeland, Fla., Sept. 5, 2021.
Polk County Sheriff's Office via AP

The sheriff said the same man, who he identified as Bryan James Riley, 33, of Brandon, Florida, returned to the home around 4:30 a.m. Sunday and allegedly unleashed a barrage of fatal gunfire.

"We find zero connection between our shooter, our murderer and our victims," Judd said.

The sheriff said that when deputies first approached the home where the shooting occurred, they saw a truck on fire and a path leading from the road to the house illuminated by glow sticks.

"At that moment in time, as we approached, we saw an individual totally outfitted in body armor and looked as if he was ready to engage us all in an active shooter situation," said Judd, adding that deputies initially did not see the man holding a gun.

He said the suspect immediately retreated into the house and deputies heard another volley of automatic gunfire that was followed by a woman screaming and a baby crying.

Judd said a sheriff's lieutenant initially tried to enter the front door, but it was barricaded. When the lieutenant went to the back of the house, a gunfight erupted.

"The suspect shot at our lieutenant. Our lieutenant returned fire and backed out of the house," Judd said.

PHOTO: Police lights on a street at night.
Police lights on a street at night.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

He said three deputies in front of the house were pinned down by gunfire directed at them and that other officers returned fire, giving the trapped deputies time to get out of harm's way.

"I can tell you there were at least dozens if not hundreds of rounds fired this morning between our suspect and our deputies who were directing fire back at him," Judd said.

No law enforcement officers were injured in the incident, Judd said.

He said that when the shooting subsided, Riley, who was shot once in the shootout, walked out of the home with his hands up and surrendered.

Judd said that after the suspect was arrested, deputies and Lakeland police officers heard sounds coming from inside the house and shouted out orders for people to come out. He said deputies briefly entered the home and found an 11-year-old girl shot at least seven times but still conscious.

"She looks our deputies in the eyes and said, 'There's three more dead people in the house,'" Judd said.

He said deputies removed the girl from the home and she was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital, where she was undergoing surgery Sunday morning and is expected to survive.

Fearing the residence was booby-trapped, a robot was sent into the house to search for explosives, he said. Deputies then entered the home and discovered three people fatally shot, a man and a mother cradling an infant in her arms.

Deputies found the fourth victim, a woman who was fatally shot in a nearby house on the same property.

Judd identified one of the victims as Justice Gleason, 40. He said the other victims were a 33-year-old white female, her 3-month-old baby and the infant's 62-year-old grandmother.

The sheriff said the suspect also shot and killed the family dog, "Diogi," who was named after a Polk County Sheriff's Office K-9 that was fatally shot along with his handler, Deputy Sheriff Vernon Matthew Williams, in 2006.

Judd said a preliminary investigation, which he cautioned is subject to change, indicates the suspect drove to the Lakeland area from his home near Tampa and has no connection to the people he allegedly killed and hurt.

"At this early point in the investigation, we don't know how he ended up there or why he ended up there," Judd said. "But he showed up twice in nine hours."

After being taken into custody, Riley allegedly told deputies that he is a "survivalist" and that he had been using methamphetamine.

"This guy admitted to us that he was taking those drugs before he went on this active shooter rampage," Judd said.

He said that when Lakeland police officers took the suspect to a hospital to be treated, a scuffle broke out and the suspect allegedly tried to grab one officer's gun.

"They had to fight with him again in the Lakeland emergency room," Judd said. "Once we got him tied down, they gave him medication to render him unable to fight any longer and they could continue to treat him."

When questioned by investigators, Riley allegedly confessed to everything.

"The suspect denied knowing the victims and when asked for a motive for shooting the infant, the suspect replied, '...because I'm a sick guy. I want to confess ti all of it and be sent to jail,'" the affidavit states. "The suspect also admitted to setting fire to a pick-up truck at the incident location for the purpose of creating an exit strategy."

Judd said investigators digging into Riley's background learned he was trained as a Marine sharpshooter and was honorably discharged after serving tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He said Riley was working as a bodyguard for an executive protection company.

Judd said Riley's fiancé told investigators he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and that he allegedly claimed he had been getting instructions from God to do certain things. According to the probable cause affidavit, she also said Riley told her, prior to the shooting, that God was telling him to go save a woman named Amber's life.

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