A U.S. Marine Corps veteran is accused of killing four people, including a mother and her 3-month-old baby in her arms, while high on meth in what appears to have a been a random shooting spree east of Tampa.
The suspect was identified Sunday as Bryan Riley, a 33-year-old former U.S. Marine Corps sharpshooter who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Riley was taken into custody after he was shot in a shootout with deputies near North Socrum Loop Road and Fulton Green Road, then came out with his hands up.
“If he’d have given us the opportunity, we’d have shot him up alive. But he didn’t because he’s a coward,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd in a press conference Sunday.
Riley told detectives he was “a survivalist” and was high on methamphetamine, Judd said.
The carnage he allegedly perpetrated was horrific. Judd said it was among the three worst things he’s witnessed in his career.
In one home, deputies found the bodies of a man, 40, a woman, 33, and a three-month-old baby who died cradled in the woman’s arms.
“I will never be able to unsee that mother with that deceased infant in her arms as they both lay there dead,” Judd said.
They also found a wounded girl, 11, who had been shot seven times.
In a second home next door, responders found the body of a 62-year-old woman, who was the infant’s grandmother.
“They begged for their lives and I killed them anyway,” Riley told them during an interrogation, according to Judd.
The man found in the first home was identified by Judd as Justice Gleason.
The 11-year-old girl was taken to Tampa General Hospital. “She is expected to recover and we thank God for that,” Judd said.
The names of the two women and the baby were not released, after family members invoked their right, under the state’s Marsy’s Law, to not have their names released publicly.
Also among the dead was the family dog, which Judd said had multiple gunshot wounds. That dog was named after a local police K9 who was killed in the line of duty, Judd said.
The dog was named after K9 Diogi, a Polk County Sheriff’s Office dog killed with his handler, Deputy Matt Williams, in 2006, according to an agency spokesman.
Riley, the alleged shooter, was taken to a Lakeland trauma center and has since been transferred to the Polk County Jail. He faces charges including four counts of first degree murder, seven counts of attempted first degree murder of law enforcement officers, cruelty to an animal, shooting into a building, arson and burglary.
It began around 7:30 p.m. Saturday when a woman called 911 to report a man who came to her house and said, “God sent me here to speak with one of your daughters, Amber,” Judd said.
The woman told the man that there was no one there by that name.
The man initially refused to leave, so the woman called police and then he took off.
Judd said they received a call from a nearby man soon after, telling authorities a man told him he was looking for a girl named Amber. This caller said he didn’t know an Amber, called the police and then the man left.
About 4:20 a.m., authorities returned to the same house after getting 911 calls reporting an active shooter.
Deputies arrived to find a truck on fire in front of the house — and a man wearing camouflage, but without any guns visibly in his possession.
Responding officers and deputies say they saw a path of glow sticks from the road to the home.
The man, who Judd said was “ready for battle,” ran inside the home.
Deputies heard more shots. A woman inside the house was screaming and a baby was crying.
A team of deputies tried to run into the house, but the front door was blocked, they said, according to Judd.
One was able to get into the house from the back, but was confronted by the man in camouflage — but now he also donned a bulletproof vest, knee pads and head protection.
A shootout ensued. A lieutenant fired at Riley, hitting him at least once.
The man then retreated into the house as authorities set up a perimeter.
Authorities were working to determine if there was a connection between Riley and the victims, but said Sunday afternoon that they have not found any connections.
Investigators were confounded by the seemingly random shooting spree.
“The big question that all of us has is, ‘Why?’” State Attorney Brian Haas said. “We will not know today or maybe ever.”
Riley is from Brandon, Fla., which is about 30 miles west of Lakeland and about 15 miles east of Tampa, Judd said, and has “virtually no criminal history,” aside from a minor charge when he was a teenager.
Riley served four years in the Marines, was honorably discharged and then reenlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves, Judd said. He served in Iraq in 2008 and Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010.
“Prior to this morning, this guy was a war hero. He fought for his country in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Judd said. “And this morning he’s a cold-blooded killer.”
He’s employed by Tarpon Springs, Fla.-based ESS Global Corporation as a bodyguard and security worker.
Authorities spoke to Riley’s girlfriend of four years, who said he suffered from depression, but never saw him violent.
She said Riley provided security at a church in Orlando about a week earlier and then said he got a message from God to help victims of Hurricane Ida. Riley began buying supplies to take to Louisiana, but had not brought them there, according to Brian Bruchey, Public Information Officer for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
When Riley returned, he was acting erratic, unable to sleep and bought $1,000 worth of cigars, his girlfriend told investigators. He said that God told him to buy the cigars as a gift for people impacted by the hurricane, Judd said.
After Riley was taken into custody, a search of his truck found supplies that indicated preparation for a gunfight, including bleeding-control kits.
In an interview with detectives, Riley admitted to shooting multiple people, saying “voices and God told him to do it,” according to an arrest report.
When asked why, detectives said he responded, “…because I’m a sick guy. I want to confess to all of it and be sent to jail.”
Riley also admitted to setting the truck on fire and attempting to take an officer’s gun, the report read.
Dozens, if not hundreds of rounds were fired between the suspect and law enforcement. It’s not immediately clear if Riley shot everyone in the house or if anyone was unintentionally shot by police during the shootout, according to Bruchey.
“That information won’t be known for certain until the results of autopsies and the completion of the investigation. As of this time, none of the investigators have mentioned that this was a possibility,” he said.
Riley is thought to have used two or possibly three separate guns of different calibers that were later recovered from inside the house.
“It’s a horror of the utmost magnitude,” Judd said.
Riley was ordered held without bond during his first court appearance on Monday.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.