11-year-old survived Florida massacre by playing dead, investigators say

State / Regional

LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) — The sole survivor of a holiday weekend massacre in north Lakeland, Florida, told investigators she survived the attack by playing dead after being shot multiple times by a gunman, according to authorities.

The 11-year-old girl was rushed to Tampa General Hospital, where she was stabilized and is expected to survive.

“She did tell some of her relatives who told us how did she survive. She said, ‘I played dead and I prayed,'” Sheriff Grady Judd said.

Bryan James Riley, 33, is accused of gunning down and killing a family of four before opening fire on responding deputies, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office

No deputies were seriously hurt in the incident, authorities said, and Riley surrendered after being wounded.

“He went there on a mission to kill all of those wonderful people, and he killed all but one,” Judd said.

Riley is being held without bond on four counts of first-degree murder. During his first court appearance Monday, he said he intended to hire a lawyer, but a public defender was appointed to represent him until he does.

According to Judd and court records, on Saturday evening, about nine hours before the attack, Riley stopped his truck and confronted one of the victims as he mowed his lawn. Riley, who lives 30 miles away in Brandon, told the victim that God had sent him to prevent a suicide by someone named Amber.

The victims told Riley no one by that name lived there and asked him to leave. They called 911, but when authorities arrived, Riley was gone.

“He didn’t threaten violence. He never said I’m going to come back and shoot and do this and that,” Judd said. “He confessed later and told us, ‘You know, he made me really mad, so I went home and created an opps plan, and you know what that means. If you create an opps plan, you have to kill everybody.'”

Riley returned around 4:30 a.m. Sunday, arranging glowsticks to create a path leading to the house in what Judd said may have been an attempt to draw officers “into an ambush.”

When a deputy in the area heard popping noises, he sounded the alarm, bringing state and local law enforcement officers to the scene. When they arrived, they found an apparently unarmed Riley outside dressed in camouflage and his truck on fire.

A deputy searched the area but didn’t find Riley. Judd said given the circumstances, there wasn’t much more that could be done.

Riley ran back into the house, and authorities heard more gunfire and “a woman scream and a baby whimper,” Judd said.

Officers tried to enter the house, but the front door was barricaded. Judd said when they went to the back, they saw Riley, who appeared to have donned full body armor.

Riley and the officers exchanged heavy gunfire, with dozens, “if not hundreds of rounds,” fired, before Riley retreated back into the home, Judd said.

Everything went silent until a helicopter unit noticed that Riley was coming out, the sheriff said. He had been shot once and was ready to surrender.

Officers heard cries for help inside but were unsure whether there were additional shooters and feared the home was booby-trapped. Still, one officer rushed in and grabbed the wounded girl, who told authorities there were three dead people inside.

The sheriff’s office said they all had been huddling in fear, with the boy dying in his mother’s arms. Even the family dog was shot dead.

“I will never be able to unsee that mother with that deceased infant in her arms,” Judd said. “It is a horror of the utmost magnitude.”

Judd identified Justice Gleason, 40, as one of the victims. Citing a state privacy law, Judd only identified the other victims as a 33-year-old woman, her infant son and the boy’s 62-year-old grandmother.

Facebook posts and public records show Gleason was in a relationship with Theresa Lanham, and 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.

Authorities said Riley’s girlfriend told investigators he was never violent but had become increasingly erratic. She said he claimed to be on a mission from God, stockpiling supplies for Hurricane Ida victims, including $1,000 worth of cigars.

Riley’s vehicle had also been stocked with bleeding control kits and other supplies for a gunfight, authorities said.

He worked as a private security guard and had no criminal history, the sheriff said.

Officers took Riley to jail in a white jumpsuit later Sunday. He appeared downcast, hanging his head and hardly opening his eyes as reporters asked why he killed the family.

“This guy was a war hero. He fought for his country,” Judd said, adding that now, ”he’s a cold-blooded killer.”

Riley told detectives he shot the people because “God told him to.” He called himself a “sick guy” and said he wanted to go to jail.

Judd said Riley served in the U.S. Marines Corps and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan before being honorably discharged.

The sheriff said Riley’s girlfriend told investigators he suffers from PTSD and recently claimed he could talk directly with God.

“My prayers are that an event like this never happens anywhere in the world again,” Judd said.

Riley is being held in jail without bond.

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