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Polk Sheriff: Ex-Marine who shot, killed 4 people, including baby, says ‘God spoke to him’

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said the shooter, who was dealing with mental illness, was "ready for battle."

LAKELAND, Fla. — It was 4:23 a.m. Sunday.

In the near-silence of the night, Polk County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Tompkins, who was near Highway 98 N and Duff Road, heard what sounded like automatic gunfire erupt from a neighborhood about two miles west.

The gunfire was coming from North Socrum Loop Road near Fulton Green Road in unincorporated Lakeland. It was the same area where a woman had called 911 about a suspicious car and man roughly nine hours earlier. But, when authorities arrived the first time, no suspicious man was found.

This time, there was the distinct sound of an active shooting.

As the lieutenant peeled into the neighborhood, he found a truck on fire and breakable lights lining a path from the road up to a house. There was a man in body armor, who immediately ran inside.

Then, more gunfire. A woman screamed. A baby whimpered.

The lieutenant and other responding deputies ran up to the front of the house, but it was barricaded, so Lt. Tompkins rushed around to the back. He managed to get in through the back – but was met with the gunfire from the man, investigators said. The lieutenant returned fire and backed outside.

Like any active shooting, law enforcement units were dispatched from all over. Lakeland police officers and fellow Polk deputies sped toward the scene.

The gunman began shooting out the front of the home, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said. Responding units sprayed gunfire to help three deputies who were pinned down in the firefight.

Then, silence.

From the sheriff’s office helicopter, the shooter could be seen walking out with his hands up, Judd said. He was not holding a gun. He’d been shot once.

But, because he surrendered, he was arrested without any further shots being fired.

A Lakeland police officer put the guy in a car and took him to the emergency staging area before transporting him to Lakeland Regional Health.

While being treated at the hospital, deputies say the man abruptly jumped up and tried to grab a Lakeland officer’s gun. A fight ensued in the middle of the emergency room. The gunman was ultimately tied down and sedated, Judd said.

As mayhem was unfolding on the ER bed, deputies back at the house found an 11-year-old girl who had been shot at least seven times. The girl, a student at Lake Gibson Middle School, was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital for surgery. She is expected to survive.

Before she was flown to the hospital, she had a horrifying message for first responders.

“The 11-year-old – she looks out deputies in the eye and said: ‘There’s three more dead people in the house,’” Judd said.

The sheriff’s office made entry into the home – at first using robots to make sure there were no bombs or booby traps.

Inside the house, they found 40-year-old Justice Gleason and a 33-year-old woman dead. A 3-month-old infant was dead in the mom’s arms. All had been shot.

Inside a nearby house on the property, a 62-year-old woman’s body was located, bringing the total deaths to four. The older woman was the baby's grandma, Judd said. Police say she was hiding in her closet when Riley opened fire.

“This man killed four people this morning, tried to kill our deputies and then gave up,” Judd said.

According to Judd, the shooter has been identified as 33-year-old Bryan Riley. He was a Marine for four years before being honorably discharged and spending three years in the Reserves. He did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and was a sharp shooter, according to investigators.

Judd described Riley as a "survivalist" and said his truck had first aid kits.

“He was ready for battle,” Judd said.

Riley also admitted to taking meth, according to law enforcement.

“I can tell you there were at least dozens if not hundreds of rounds fired this morning between our suspect and our deputies who were directing fire back at him to try to stop him from shooting at us,” Judd explained.

Riley lives in Brandon and doesn't appear to have ties to the Lakeland area neighborhood where the shooting took place, according to investigators. Early indications are he had "zero connection" to the people killed, Judd said.

“Who in the world would ever expect to have an active shooter in a neighborhood at 4:30 on a Sunday morning?” the sheriff added.

According to Judd, another child – about 10 or 11 years old – was temporarily unaccounted for but has since been found safe. That child was never in the home during the shooting.

At least two firearms have been found at the scene.

Riley also shot and killed the family dog, Judd said. The dog was actually named after K-9 Diogi, a Polk County Sheriff’s Office K-9 killed with his handler, Deputy Matt Williams, in 2006.

It was clear the emotional toll the deadly shootout had taken on the first responders. In Sunday’s news conference, Judd described the gunman as a “coward.”

“You see it’s easy to shoot innocent children and babies and people in the middle of the night when you’ve got the gun and they don’t. But he was not much of a man,” Judd said.

Riley was treated at the hospital before being booked into jail.

“We want answers, certainly. But, we’re going to get justice for the victims and the community,” State Attorney Brian Haas told reporters.

When Riley was there around 7:23 p.m. Saturday and before the shooting, authorities say he reportedly said something to the effect of “God sent me here to speak with one of your daughters, Amber."

Neighbors told him nobody by that name lived there. Riley replied that he was there because God told him Amber was going to die by suicide, Judd said. The neighbors instructed him to leave or they would call law enforcement.

Authorities responded within six minutes of the Saturday 911 call and spent 22 minutes looking for him that night. But, by then, he was gone. They wouldn't find him until the shootout on Sunday.

“Crazy people with guns are dangerous,” Judd said. “Good people with guns keep crazy people with guns at bay. And our deputies and police officers were the good people with guns.”

Riley's girlfriend of four years is cooperating with detectives. According to Judd, she said he had PTSD and she'd see him depressed but never violent.

The sheriff's office says Riley did security work as an employee for a company called ESS Global Corporation. The company has since released a statement to 10 Tampa Bay saying claims that Riley was an employee were "inaccurate" and that he was rather an independent contractor.

"First and foremost it is a tragic event and our prayers are with the family and friends of the victims. In response to the press conference announcement regarding Bryan Riley's relationship with ESS Global Corp, the information released yesterday was inaccurate. Bryan was not an employee of ESS Global Corp; however, an independent 1099 contractor who has worked no more than three days over the past two years. We are currently cooperating with the Polk County Sheriff’s department and have expressed our willingness to help in any way we can. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family devastated by this senseless act of violence."

About a week ago, Judd said Riley worked security at an Orlando church and said God began speaking to him. 

In the days that followed, investigators say the girlfriend told them Riley had been acting strangely over the last seven days, becoming increasingly erratic – buying $1,000 worth of cigars as Hurricane Ida relief. 

She continued to say Saturday night Riley told her about how he believed a girl named "Amber" was going to commit suicide, according to arrest records. When the girlfriend tried to reason with Riley and "explain that 'God' was not speaking to him," he grew upset and told her to go away. She told the sheriff's office to appease Riley's request, she went to bed but when she woke up Sunday morning, he was not home.

The girlfriend checked his cell phone's location and the coordinates led to the driveway where the deadly shooting happened, according to the sheriff's office. 

According to Judd, Riley has virtually no criminal history besides one situation when he was very young. He has a concealed carry license but no record of violence, according to law enforcement.

So far, Riley has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted first-degree murder, seven counts of attempted first-degree murder on a law enforcement officer, shooting into an occupied dwelling, two counts of armed burglary with battery, arson and cruelty to an animal.

Once arrested, authorities say Riley confessed in a post-Miranda interview to shooting several people and stated voices and "God" told him to do it. He also shared information that was not known during the initial investigation.

According to investigators, he also admitted to not knowing the people he shot; and when authorities asked his motive for shooting the infant, he allegedly replied, "...because I'm a sick guy. I want to confess to all of it and be sent to jail." 

During the interview, authorities say Riley said the people were pleading for their lives and he shot them anyway, including a woman he found in a closet who kept saying, "please no, please no" while he shot her.

In the days to come after this deadly shooting, the school where the 11-year-old girl attends plans to have counselors available when classes resume.

"We're not dealing with a traditional criminal here," Judd said.

In Judd's words: "He was a decorated military veteran. And this morning, he's a cold, calculated murderer."

Riley will be held in the Polk County Jail. His first appearance hearing is at 9 a.m. Monday, Sept 6.