Polk County gunman killed 4, including mom still holding baby

Posted at 4:11 PM, Sep 05, 2021

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) -- A former Marine sharpshooter who told authorities he was high on methamphetamines when he invaded a home in Florida and fatally shot a mother, her 3-month-old baby and two others was ordered held without bond during his first court appearance on Monday.

Bryan Riley, 33, also asked for his own lawyer and will be appointed his own lawyer until he can get one, a judge said.

Riley surrendered on Sunday morning after a furious gun battle with authorities who brought in at least one armored vehicle during their standoff. An officer then rushed into the home and rescued an 11-year-old girl, who was still conscious despite being shot seven times. She was in critical but stable condition on Monday, the sheriff's office said.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Riley, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, appeared to be suffering from mental health issues. He said Riley's girlfriend told investigators he had post-traumatic stress syndrome and had been unraveling for weeks, repeatedly telling her he could communicate directly with God.

The slain family first encountered Riley on Saturday evening when he randomly stopped by their home in Lakeland, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from Tampa, where he lives, Judd said.

Justice Gleason, 40, was mowing his lawn when Riley pulled onto their property and said God had sent him there to prevent a suicide by someone named "Amber." Gleason and another person Judd described as one of the victims said there was no one there by that name, and told him to leave. They called law enforcement and authorities responded, but Riley was gone.

Hours later, Riley returned and shot the family, telling his interrogators that "they begged for their lives and I killed them anyway," Judd said.

Around 4:30 a.m. Sunday, Riley put out glowsticks in the early morning darkness to create a path leading to the house in an attempt to draw officers "into an ambush," the sheriff told reporters.

A lieutenant working a good distance away heard popping noises and immediately put the agency on active-shooter mode, bringing all state and local law enforcement in the area to the scene. They followed the sounds of gunfire to the home and found Riley's white truck ablaze and an unarmed Riley outside, dressed in camouflage.

He ran back into the house, where authorities heard another round of gunfire, "a woman scream and a baby whimper," Judd said.

Officers tried to enter the front of the house, but it was barricaded. Judd said when they circled to the back, they encountered Riley, who appeared to have put on full body armor including head and knee coverings and a bulletproof vest.

Authorities exchanged heavy gunfire, with dozens "if not hundreds of rounds" fired, before Riley retreated back into the home, Judd said.

Everything fell silent, until a helicopter unit alerted authorities on the ground that Riley was coming out, the sheriff said. He had been shot once and was ready to surrender.

Officers heard cries for help inside the home, but were unsure whether there were additional shooters and feared the home was booby-trapped. Judd said a brave sergeant rushed in and grabbed the injured girl, who told deputies there were three dead people inside as she was rushed into surgery.

Deputies then sent robots into the home to check for explosives and other traps. When it was clear, they found the bodies of Gleason; the 33-year-old mother; the baby; and the baby's 62-year-old grandmother, who was in a separate home nearby.

Authorities released only Gleason's name, and did not say if or how he was related to the other victims, but a woman's Facebook page shows many photos of Gleason with the woman, a baby boy and his big sister. One photo posted Saturday, showing Gleason smiling as he held the baby, was captioned "Tall like Daddy."

Pansy Mincey Smith told The Ledger that she had gone to school with Gleason's father, Joe, who died several years ago. She had last seen him at the hospital in May, shortly after his boy was born.

"RIP Justice Gleason. The last time I saw you, you were getting on the elevator at the hospital," Smith wrote on Facebook. "You were smiling from ear to ear about your new little baby boy, you had that big teddy bear for him. This is so heartbreaking, son."

The sheriff's office declined to say how many times the victims had been shot, but said they had all been hiding and huddling in fear, with the boy dying in his mother's arms. Even the family dog was shot to death.

Authorities said Riley's girlfriend told investigators he was never violent but had become increasingly erratic. She said he claimed to be on 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.

But the war veteran, who worked as a private security guard, had no criminal history, the sheriff said.

"Prior to this morning, this guy was a war hero. He fought for his country in Afghanistan and Iraq," said Judd. "And this morning he's a cold-blooded killer."

While being treated at the hospital, Riley jumped up and tried to grab an officer's gun. "They had to fight with him again in the emergency room," Judd said, adding that Riley was ultimately tied down and medicated.

"The big question that all of us has is, `Why?"' State Attorney Brian Haas said. "We will not know today or maybe ever."


Associated Press reporter Freida Frisaro contributed from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.