LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) — Bryan James Riley, the man accused of killing four people in their Florida home Sunday night, made his first appearance in court Monday morning for what the sheriff called “a horror of the utmost magnitude.”
Who is Riley and how did he end up at the victims’ homes?
Sheriff Grady Judd said Sunday that investigators did not find any relation between the victims and Riley, who lives in Brandon, Fla.
“We find zero connection between, at this point of the investigation,” the sheriff said.
According to Judd, Riley worked security for ESS Global Corporation. Before that, Riley served in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years as a sharpshooter. He was deployed to Iraq in 2008 and Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010. Riley was honorably discharged, and spent another three years in the reserve.
The sheriff said Riley had no criminal history, but according to statements made to authorities, he does appear to have mental health issues.
Riley’s mental health
Riley’s girlfriend of three years, who cooperated with authorities, told investigators he had mental issues but that he showed no signs of violence.
“She said, ‘he had PTSD; I’d seen him depressed. I’d never seen him violent,'” Judd said.
Judd said the girlfriend told authorities that things changed on Aug. 29, after Riley worked as a security guard for a church in Orlando.
“He came home, and he said God spoke to him and now he can talk directly to God,” Judd said.
The sheriff said Riley told his girlfriend God told him to go help the victims of Hurricane Ida, so he began purchasing supplies for the trip, but one day, his behavior took a stranger turn.
“(The girlfriend) said he came home on one day, he was becoming more erratic, he wasn’t sleeping at night, and he bought $1000’s worth of cigars to take as a relief present,” Judd said. “He said that God said he should do that.”
This religious motivation may have been what triggered his first encounter with the family of 40-year-old Justice Gleason, one of the people killed Sunday morning.
The night before the murders
Saturday evening, Riley said he saw a man on a lawnmower and believed he received a vision from God that the man’s daughter “Amber” was going to commit suicide and that he needed to speak with her.
The man, whom the sheriff’s office believes was Gleason, told Riley there was nobody named Amber at his home.
“The guy told him to leave, but he was insistent,” Judd said.
Judd said preliminary information suggests that Gleason brought one of the female victims to Riley to speak with him, telling him there was no Amber and that he needs to leave or they’d call the police.
“He tells them, ‘Look, you don’t need to call the cops cause I’m the cops for God,'” the sheriff said.
According to the sheriff’s office, Riley left the scene before deputies arrived. Deputies searched for around 20 minutes but could find no trace of Riley or his truck.
Judd said Riley returned to his hometown of Brandon, Florida, where he spoke with his girlfriend about what happened. When she told him God wasn’t talking to him, he got angry and told her he had no room for doubters in his life.
“She said we’ve never had an argument like this,” the sheriff said. “He didn’t threaten anybody.”
The girlfriend said she went to bed, but when she woke up early the next morning, he was gone.
The sheriff said the girlfriend checked her phone’s GPS and found him back at the family’s home in Lakeland, Florida.
The second visit
The sheriff’s office said Riley became violent on his second visit to Gleason’s home, nine hours later. Judd said that was when he brought bloodshed to the quiet, rural neighborhood.
Riley is accused of shooting five people: Gleason, a 33-year-old woman, an 11-year-old girl, a 3-month-old baby, and the children’s 62-year-old grandmother. The sheriff also said Riley shot the family’s dog.
Judd said the 11-year-old survived with critical injuries, but the rest of the family inside the house were all dead. Deputies found the baby’s body still cradled in his dead mother’s arms.
“I will never be able to unsee that mother with that deceased infant in her arms as they both lie there dead,” the sheriff said Sunday.
When authorities arrived, Riley got into a shootout with deputies and police officers, according to Judd, but surrendered after being wounded. Lakeland police said Riley tried to grab an officer’s gun while in the emergency room at the hospital, but first responders subdued him before he caused any further harm.
“It was, like, devastating to see all the details, and you know, just the infant that died,” said neighbor Michael Anderson, who lives near the crime scene.
Judd said Riley was heartless and calculating with the murders.
“He laid down these glowsticks from the road, past the initial house, up behind the house,” the sheriff said. “I think … he was trying to create a diversion or illusion or create an opportunity for these deputies to follow these glowsticks to see what would happen.”
Judd and other officials said it was amazing that no deputies were shot or killed in the chaos.
Arrest and aftermath
Judd said during Riley’s interview with deputies, the suspect tried to convince deputies he was mentally ill. He also told authorities he was on methamphetamine after surrendering.
“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.”
However, Judd said he believes Riley may have been playing word games to set up an insanity defense in court.
Monday morning, a judge denied bond for Riley. He’s facing numerous charges for first-degree murder, attempted murder, and other crimes.
Riley could face the death penalty or life without parole if he’s found guilty of the murder charges, according to Florida law.