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Neighbors, friends left to wonder why Lakeland family was shot to death

A Brandon man faces charges in the slayings of Justice Gleason, 40, his girlfriend Theresa Lanham, 33, the couple’s 3-month-old son, and Lanham’s mother, Cathy Delgado, 62.
Miguel Rivera of Lakeland, right, with his mother Ana Bonilla, describes what he saw and heard as a neighbor family was gunned down Sunday.
Miguel Rivera of Lakeland, right, with his mother Ana Bonilla, describes what he saw and heard as a neighbor family was gunned down Sunday. [ MIGUEL RIVERA | Lakeland Ledger ]
Published Sep. 7
Updated Sep. 7

LAKELAND — Miguel Rivera, 50, said he was awakened at 4 a.m. Sunday morning by someone banging on his back sliding glass door.

“I was kind of scared — I was thinking, ‘Who could be knocking on my glass door?’” said Rivera, who shares his home with his mother, Ana Bonilla, and 10-year-old daughter. “I just didn’t open the door. I stood there waiting to see if they would knock again.”

Related: Motive for Lakeland family’s massacre may never be known

About 20 minutes later, he heard gunshots coming from behind his Oak Run Drive home.

“I heard around six or seven gunshots and ... that’s when I called 911,” Rivera said. “They told me they were going to send some units.”

Once Polk County sheriff’s deputies arrived several minutes later, a shootout began.

Bryan Riley, 33, of Brandon, faces charges including four counts of first-degree murder
Bryan Riley, 33, of Brandon, faces charges including four counts of first-degree murder

What Rivera heard was a man police say is 33-year-old Bryan James Riley, a U.S. Marine veteran, breaking into the home across a wooded lot and randomly killing four members of the same family — Justice Gleason, 40, his girlfriend Theresa Lanham, 33, the couple’s 3-month-old son, and Lanham’s mother, 62-year-old Cathy Delgado. Delgado was found in a small home behind the main house. Gleason and Lanham were found in the main house, with Lanham holding the baby.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office released Gleason’s name. The Ledger confirmed the names of Lanham and her mother through Facebook.

Investigators say Riley also shot Lanham’s 11-year-old daughter multiple times. She was rushed to Tampa General Hospital for surgery. The Sheriff’s Office said she was in critical but stable condition Monday. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said the girl is a student at Lake Gibson Middle School.  The Ledger is not naming her or the 3-month-old victim because they are minors.

According to the arrest affidavit, the girl told investigators that Riley entered their home and asked for “Amber,” and then shot everyone inside, including the family’s black shepherd, Diogi. Judd said the dog was named for one of the Sheriff’s Office’s K-9 officers, which was killed in the line of duty along with his handler, Deputy Sheriff Matt Williams, in 2006.

“What breaks my heart is the little kids, especially the baby – Jesus Christ,” said Rivera, noting that Justice Gleason always waved hello and was kind when he once spoke to him about his missing dog. “God bless his soul, he’s gone. God bless all their souls, especially the baby.”

According to the affidavit, when Riley was asked why he shot the baby, he said, “...because I’m a sick guy. I want to confess to all of it and be sent to jail.”

‘You don’t need to call the cops because I’m the cops for God’

Judd said on Sunday that Riley had “zero connection” to the family and that he chose them because God told him a girl at the house named Amber was going to commit suicide.

It all began with an odd incident on Saturday evening, when Riley spotted Gleason mowing his yard, pulled up in his truck, and told Gleason that God wanted him to speak to Amber.

Gleason said, “‘There’s no Amber here. You leave or we’re going to call law enforcement,’” Judd said.

Gleason then called one of the two women at the house to come out and she also told him to leave or she would call the police.

Judd said before he left, Riley told the Gleasons, “You don’t need to call the cops because I’m the cops for God.”

But the family did call 911. Judd said it took his deputy six minutes to reach the residence, located about half a mile north of Lake Gibson High School. The deputy spent about 20 minutes looking for Riley, but he was long gone.

Judd said because Riley had not threatened anyone, their search was not more intense.

According to Judd, Riley went to his home in Brandon and told his fiancée that God was telling him to “talk to Amber.” The fiancée told investigators that Riley had been talking about having conversations with God for the previous week after working security at an Orlando church.

His fiancée said she told Riley that God was not telling him to talk to anyone and they had an argument, with Riley telling her he had “no room for doubters in his life,” Judd said. He locked himself in a room and told her to go away, so she went to bed. When she woke up, he was gone.

Judd said the fiancée, whose name was not released, is fully cooperating with investigators. She told them she had never seen him the way he had been in the past week.

The Sunday morning shooting

Riley returned to the home in the early morning hours Sunday and the first 911 calls started coming in at 4:23 a.m., with neighbors telling emergency operators that there had been a shooting.

A neighbor’s backyard security camera picked up the moment gunfire is first heard. They provided The Ledger with footage.

Polk County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Scott Wilder said Tuesday they believe Riley first shot Delgado in a second home on the property. He found Delgado hiding in a closet.

Investigators wrote in an affidavit that Riley told them one of the victims was hiding and kept saying, ‘Please no, please no’ while he shot her.”

Sheriff’s Office northwest Shift Commander Lt. Duane Tompkins, 40, a 17-year veteran with the department, arrived at the house first and found the suspect’s truck, with a Marine Corps license plate, on fire. In addition, glow sticks lined the path from the road to the house and to another home behind the main residence. Tompkins was hearing popping sounds coming from the engulfed truck. And then he saw a figure in the front yard, wearing camouflage from head to toe.

He “looked as if he was ready to engage us all in an active shooter situation, but we didn’t see a firearm,” Judd said. “Now understand we’re way out in the country area, so it’s not unusual to see people in camo. But he was garbed up and it appeared that he had bullet proof vests on and he immediately ran back into this house. We didn’t know who he was.”

Tompkins then “heard another volley and a woman scream and a baby whimper,” Judd said.  According to the arrest affidavit, that is when Riley shot Gleason, Lanham, the baby and the 11-year-old.

The affidavit shows “they were pleading for their lives and he continued to shoot them anyway.”

Tompkins tried to get into the front door, but it was blocked, so he ran to the back of the home and got in through what photos show to be a sliding glass door – with the glass shattered.

“The suspect shot at our lieutenant and our lieutenant returned fire and backed out of the house,” Judd said.

Then the gunman began firing into the front yard, pinning down three deputies outside, Judd said. A responding Lakeland police officer provided cover so the deputies could escape.

Finally, the gunfire stopped.

Deputies in the sheriff’s helicopter, circling overhead, saw a man come out with his hands raised. Deputies on the ground moved in to handcuff him. Riley had been shot one time by Tompkins, so a Lakeland police officer put Riley in the back of a patrol car and rushed him to Lake Gibson High School, to a waiting ambulance.

“He made statements ...’You know why I did this,’” Judd said. “That was his statement. He said ‘There’s three in the house.’ He described himself as a survivalist and then he said ‘I’m taking meth.’”

After Riley was arrested, Polk County Sheriff’s Sgt. Tyrees Graham heard the 11-year-old girl calling for help and Graham rushed inside to get her before he knew if Riley had left booby traps inside the home.

“The 11-year-old – she looks our deputies in the eye and said: ‘There’s three more dead people in the house,’” Judd said at a Sunday morning press conference outside of Lake Gibson High School, half a mile south of the shooting scene.

On Monday, investigators were still gathering evidence inside and outside the home. Riley’s charred truck remained to the left side of the single-story, white, cinder-block home. Belongings that appeared to have been gathered from the carport and front porch, including a bench and chairs, were still piled in front of the front door.

Shooting victims Justice Gleason and Theresa Lanham

Gleason and Lanham first noted their relationship with a photo on Facebook in March 2020. He has his arm around her shoulder and she is embracing him and kissing his cheek. He is smiling from ear to ear.

More photos of the happy couple followed. Then in April 2021, the couple held up a onesie at a baby shower. On May 18, a very pregnant and happy Lanham appeared in a photograph with Gleason and their dog, Diogi.

She announced her baby was born on May 21, 2021, at 9:33 a.m.

The whole family, including the baby’s 10- and 11-year-old sisters, doted on the baby. Facebook photos taken by Lanham show Justice Gleason clearly smitten with his son, a huge grin on his face as he holds the boy in snapshots in their home, at the beach and even when he sat the infant on the back of a motorcycle.

By Sunday afternoon, friends were leaving heartbroken messages to the family.

May you and your beautiful wife Theresa and baby rest in peace with our Lord. You will be missed!” Carolyn Chistian wrote. “You were such a good man and friend to everyone. Praying God comforts your family and everyone that knew you all.”

Pansy Mincey Smith told The Ledger that she had gone to school with Gleason’s father, Joe, who died several years ago.

“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 teddybear for him. This is so heartbreaking, son.”

Jeremiah Benson, who owns JayBeezs Tree Service, said he met the family last week when he was surveying the neighboring property for tree removal. He coordinated his work with Cathy Delgado, who he said owned the family compound that includes three houses. A 2019 Facebook post from Lanham shows that the family bought the property so they could all live together.

“I’m just like why?” Benson said. “Cathy called us the day before to let us know she put the dogs in the back so we could get in and out. She was just so nice — she was the sweetest person you’d ever want to meet.”

Benson said he had also spoken to Gleason on Saturday.

“He was telling me it was OK to cut the fence and use their driveway,” Benson said. “He said he appreciated what we were doing. I just don’t understand.”

State Attorney Brian Haas was on hand for two press conferences on Sunday, noting that the family and the community are victims of this shooting.

“I guess the big question I have on my mind is why,” Haas said. “It’s so frustrating that we will not know the why today — maybe ever.”

Riley, who served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, is now charged with four counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and seven counts of attempted murder on a law enforcement officer. According to affidavit, he admitted everything to investigators.