Girl who survived Florida massacre says gunman falsely believed parents were ‘sex traffickers’
ORLANDO, Fla. — The 11-year-old girl who survived her family’s massacre Sunday in Polk County said the former U.S. Marine gunman told her that he killed her parents because they were “sex traffickers,” which authorities said Thursday was “a figment of his imagination.”
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said 33-year-old Bryan Riley “tortured” the girl for information on “Amber,” who he wrongly believed was a suicidal sex trafficking victim being held at the home. The girl, who has had four surgeries so far, was shot in the hand, legs, thigh and abdominal cavity, according to the sheriff.
“This 11-year-old was very brave, very smart and she out-thought him,” Judd said at a news conference. “She said, ‘I played dead and I prayed.’”
Riley told investigators he thought he had “eliminated” the child, the sheriff said.
“The suspect told us, ‘I asked God if a 12-year-old could be involved in sex trafficking, and God told me yes, and that’s when I killed her,’” Judd said.
Investigators have “no indication” that the massacre is related to widely circulating conspiracy theories around human trafficking like QAnon, said Scott Wilder, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office.
“We’ve found nothing so far in his background or through search warrants connecting him to those conspiracies,” he said in an email.
Riley, who is being held in jail without bond, was charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the massacre, which left four people dead. The victims, who Judd said have “zero connection” to Riley, include the girl’s father, 40-year-old Justice Gleason; a 33-year-old woman and her 3-month-old baby boy; and a 62-year-old woman.
The gunman also killed the family’s pet dog, Diogi.
The Sheriff’s Office declined to identify the remaining victims, but The Ledger identified the younger woman as Theresa Lanham, Gleason’s girlfriend, and the infant as the couple’s son. The older woman was Cathy Delgado, Lanham’s mother, according to the Ledger.
Riley’s girlfriend told investigators that he had been acting strange over the past week after he came home from a security detail at an Orlando church nearly two weeks ago and said he could speak to God. Judd declined Thursday to name the Orlando church, saying investigators still needed to talk to its leaders.
Riley’s behavior became increasingly erratic and he said God told him to deliver relief supplies to Hurricane Ida victims, according to his girlfriend.
A man who lived near the massacred family told investigators that Riley came to his house last Saturday to pick up first-aid kits for hurricane victims, Judd said. After leaving his friend’s house, Riley saw Gleason mowing his front yard along with the 11-year-old girl.
“God said that I need to talk to Amber because she’s going to commit suicide,” Riley told Gleason, according to the sheriff. “Justice said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no one here by the name of Amber.’”
Riley told them he would not leave unless he spoke with Amber, so the family threatened to call police and Riley left, Judd said.
“[Riley] was very angry at Justice because he thought Justice had kept him from seeing this child, Amber, that was going to commit suicide,” the sheriff said. “And that’s when [Riley] said ... ‘God told me to kill everyone and to rescue Amber because she’s a victim of sex trafficking.’”
After Riley went back home to Brandon, he argued with his girlfriend because she told him he couldn’t speak to God. He then put together a plan to “kill everyone” at the Polk home, Judd said.
Riley told investigators he did reconnaissance around the family’s property, including slashing the tires of two vehicles, then dousing them with gasoline and setting them on fire; repositioning his truck three times to have a quick departure; and creating a path with glow sticks so he could find his way later or help “Amber” escape from the home, according to the sheriff.
Judd said Riley broke into the grandmother’s apartment first and killed her. Then he began searching for “Amber” in the main house, where Gleason and his daughter, son and girlfriend were hiding in the bathroom.
Gleason tried to block Riley by holding the bathroom door shut, but Riley shot the door open and then killed the girl’s father, stepmother and baby brother, Judd said.
The girl said that Riley grabbed her and took her into the living room while calling her “Amber.” When she said she wasn’t “Amber” and there was no one in the house by that name, Riley demanded to know the location of the alleged sex trafficking victim.
“[Riley] counted down three, two, one and he shot her in the thigh area,” Judd said. “... This evil human being told us, ‘I tortured her ... to investigate in order to find Amber.’”
After shooting her multiple times, Riley told the girl, “Do you know why I killed your parents? They’re sex traffickers,” according to Judd.
Five deputies and one Lakeland police officer fired about 59 shots during their shootouts with Riley, who was hit once, Judd said. The gunman shot in excess of 100 times during the incident and three guns were recovered from the scene, according to the sheriff.
Judd said his office is collecting donations for the family to pay for the girl’s care and the funeral services of her family members. Those who wish to donate can find more information at polksheriff.org/donate and direct their funds to the family by selecting “Quadruple Homicide Victims.”