A Marine veteran charged with the murders of four people this week in a Florida home, including a 3-month-old baby, targeted the family because he believed they were holding a child sex-trafficking victim — who authorities say was a "figment of his imagination."
Authorities said the man, Bryan Riley, 33, ambushed the family by first conducting pre-dawn "reconnaissance" Sunday at the home in Lakeland, about 40 miles east of Tampa. He suspected that a suicidal child by the name of Amber was being victimized in the home, and he intended to save her, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Thursday.
Riley eventually shot his way into the home carrying multiple firearms and wearing a bulletproof vest before he systematically killed the victims, who had been asleep only moments before, Judd said at a news conference.
"We know that he was seeking out Amber, who wanted to commit suicide, who was the victim of sex trafficking, and it was all a figment of his imagination," Judd said.
Riley left his home at about 1 a.m. Sunday, Judd said. Officers responded to the Lakeland residence shortly before 4:30 a.m., officials said.
Once in the home, Riley "tortured" an 11-year-old girl by shooting her multiple times after she was unable to tell him where Amber was, Judd said. Despite having been shot several times, the girl survived and spoke with police about her terrifying encounter.
"'And that's when he called me Amber.' She said, 'I'm not Amber,'" Judd said the girl, the attack's lone survivor, told investigators.
"He counted down and said '3, 2, 1'" before shooting the girl, Judd said. The girl recalled being shot at least two more times. As she was bleeding and in distress, Riley asked her whether she knew why he had to kill her parents, Judd said. "Because they're sex traffickers," Judd said he told the girl.
The girl escaped with her life by "playing dead" and praying, Judd said.
A judge denied bond for Riley on Monday, NBC affiliate WFLA of Tampa reported.
One victim was identified as Justice Gleason, 40; the other victims were described as a 33-year-old woman, her 3-month boy and the baby's 62-year-old grandmother, WFLA reported.
Facebook posts and public records show that Gleason was in a relationship with Theresa Lanham and that they had a baby boy, Jody, in May. Lanham's mother, Catherine Delgado, owned the property and lived there. Gleason also had an 11-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.
Riley is charged with four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, two counts of shooting into a building, two counts of armed burglary with assault/battery, second-degree arson and attempted murder in the first degree with a weapon, the sheriff's office said.
Riley said at the court hearing Monday that he intended to hire a lawyer. A public defender was appointed in the meantime. His arraignment is scheduled for Oct. 12, a court official said Thursday. A representative with the public defender's office could not immediately be reached for comment.
Judd said Riley confronted Gleason late Saturday afternoon and asked to see someone named Amber, who Riley said was suicidal. Gleason and one of the women who were killed repeatedly told him that there was no Amber at the home and that police were going to be called. Riley then saw the 11-year-old girl, who was in the yard with her father, Judd said. Riley left angrily before police arrived, Judd said.
Riley was in the area Saturday, Judd said, because shortly before he spoke with Gleason, he had met a friend who offered him a first-aid kit because Riley said he was going to help with Hurricane Ida relief.
"There's not words to adequately describe the rage that we all feel about what he did to this innocent family," Judd said. "They happen to be the unfortunate ones that he passed by that afternoon where he saw the man and an 11-year-old girl. ... These just happen to be the unfortunate people that he picked on."
Judd said investigators pieced together a possible motive by speaking to witnesses, including Riley and his girlfriend. Witnesses told investigators that Riley had not made comments before the shootings that he was planning violence.
Riley's girlfriend told investigators that he recently claimed that he could speak "directly to God," Judd said.
Authorities said that before he entered the home, Riley staked out the scene and set two vehicles on fire as a diversion. He laid out glow sticks leading to a path to the home in what officials have said may have been an attempt to draw officers into an ambush.
Riley spent four years with the Marines, three years as a reservist, serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, Judd said. He was honorably discharged and worked security for ESS Global Corp., WFLA reported.
Judd said Riley made his way into the residence by shooting through a glass back door. Inside, he first killed the grandmother. He then made his way into a bathroom, where he killed the three other victims, who were hiding from him. He also found the young girl there, Judd said.
When officers arrived, five deputies and a Lakeland police officer fired 59 rounds, wounding Riley. Riley had fired more than 100 rounds, Judd said, and investigators recovered three of his firearms.
Riley was wounded in his stomach by gunfire that went through his protective vest, Judd said. He tried to take an officer's gun while he was being treated by emergency medical responders as he was being transported, but he was subdued, authorities said.
Riley told investigators that he was on methamphetamines, but investigators said they have not confirmed that. They have evidence that he was illegally abusing steroids, Judd said.
After he was wounded, Riley took off his bulletproof vest, dropped his weapons and went outside, where he surrendered, Judd said.
Judd was visibly angry throughout Thursday's media briefing, which lasted more than 30 minutes. He called Riley a "mass murderer," an "evil human being" and a "coward."
But he spoke with pride when he discussed the courage and awareness the young survivor showed amid unconscionable horror.
"I can't underscore enough her bravery. I can't underscore enough her ability to think through of how to survive when she has just witnessed her father, her baby brother and her stepmother viciously murdered right before her very eyes," Judd said.