LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) — Four people are dead, including an infant, after an armored man shot them before attacking Polk County deputies Sunday morning, Sheriff Grady Judd said in a press conference.
Judd said around 7:30 p.m. Saturday, deputies were called to a home about a suspicious person on North Socrum Loop Road. When they arrived, a woman told them that a man, later identified as 33-year-old Bryan James Riley, said God sent him to her house to speak with her suicidal daughter Amber, but there was no Amber at that home, Judd said.
For the next 22 minutes, deputies scoured the area but could not find the man or his vehicle, Judd said, but around 4:30 a.m. Sunday, a lieutenant with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office heard “two volleys of automatic gunfire” in the area, about two miles east of his position.
“It was the same exact house that (the gunman) showed up nine hours earlier,” Judd said.
The sheriff said almost immediately, the sheriff’s office got numerous calls about an active shooter situation.
“It was like bam, bam, bam bam bam, and I heard that more than once, and I thought that sounds like gunfire,” neighbor Ron Forrer said.
Lakeland police and deputies responded to the situation. The sheriff said when deputies arrived, they found a truck on fire and glow sticks lining the path to the house and heard a popping noise in the front yard.
“At that moment in time as we approached, we saw (Riley) totally outfitted in body armor and looked as if he was ready to engage us all in (an) active shooter situation, but we didn’t see a firearm,” Judd said.
According to Judd, the armored assailant ran back inside the house, at which point deputies heard gunfire along with a woman’s screams and a baby’s whimpers.
The sheriff said the lieutenant tried to enter the house from the front, but it was barricaded, prompting deputies to enter from the back.
The gunman then fired at the lieutenant, who returned fire and backed out of the house, Judd said, and deputies provided fire support to allow another three to get out of the way after getting pinned by gunfire from the front of the home.
According to the sheriff, there were dozens of shots fired in the exchange.
After a period of silence, Judd said Riley, who got hit by a gunshot, surrendered to officers, who rushed him to the staging area before getting taken to Lakeland Regional.
Once in the ER, the suspect tried to grab a Lakeland police officer’s gun and fought with first responders until they subdued him, the sheriff said.
Officials say it was incredible that no law enforcement officers were hurt in the exchange.
“By the grace of God, I don’t know how they weren’t,” said Sam Taylor, the assistant chief of police for the Lakeland Police Department.
While the suspect surrendered into custody, deputies heard an 11-year-old girl inside the home, according to Judd. He said a PCSO sergeant rushed inside and rescued the girl, who was shot multiple times with at least seven bullet holes on her body.
“She looks our deputies in the eye and says, ‘there’s three more dead people in the house,'” he said.
Judd said the child was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital for surgery. Meanwhile, the sheriff’s office had to use robots to check the home for booby traps before deputies could enter the home.
According to Judd, there were three homes on the property, with deputies finding Justice Gleason, 40; a 33-year-old woman, and a 3-month-old all shot dead in the main house. Judd said the infant’s body was still in their dead mother’s arms when they were found.
The infant’s 62-year-old grandmother was also found dead in the house directly behind the main one, the sheriff said. The family dog was also found dead.
“I will never be able to unsee that mother with that deceased infant in her arms as they both lie there dead,” Judd said. “It is a horror of the utmost magnitude.”
The sheriff said there was another 10-year-old girl from the family that was found safe at a relative’s home.
“If (Riley) had given us the opportunity, we would have shot him up a lot, but he didn’t because he was a coward,” Judd said. “You see, it’s easy to shoot innocent children and babies and people in the middle of the night when you’ve got the gun, and they don’t. But he was not much of a man.”
Judd said Riley, a self-described survivalist, said he was on methamphetamine at the time, but it is not known why or how he ended up at the home twice.
The sheriff also said Riley was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marines and currently works as a security guard for ESS Global Corporation. He lives in Brandon, but the sheriff’s office said it has found zero connection between him and the victims.
The 33-year-old is also said to have virtually no criminal history.
“Unfortunately, it’s so frustrating that we will not know the why today, maybe ever,” State Attorney Brian Haas said.
Judd said Riley’s girlfriend spoke to authorities, saying that his mental health was deteriorating but showed no signs of violence. According to the sheriff, Riley spoke with his girlfriend after being rebuffed at the victims’ home the first time, but the girlfriend tried to tell him God was not speaking to him, sparking an argument between the two.
Judd said Riley tried to convince deputies he was mentally ill while he was being interviewed, but he believes this is a tactic to get a mental health defense in court.
“He said at one point to our detectives, ‘They begged for their lives, and I killed them anyway,'” the sheriff said. “He’s evil in the flesh. He was a rabid animal.”
For now, agencies say they are now committed to supporting the victims while searching for justice. Judd said his agency will work with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to search Riley’s home for more evidence.
Haas said the process of getting justice will take some time to be completed.