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Judd: Lakeland girl, 11, played dead in order to survive shooting that killed 4

The sole survivor of a massacre that killed her family was shot seven times and tortured, Polk Sheriff Grady Judd said.
Bryan Riley, 33,  of Brandon faces at least four counts of first-degree murder, among other charges, after he shot at deputies and four people died at a home north of Lakeland, according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office.
Bryan Riley, 33, of Brandon faces at least four counts of first-degree murder, among other charges, after he shot at deputies and four people died at a home north of Lakeland, according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office. [ Divya Kumar ]
Published Sep. 9
Updated Sep. 9

The 11-year-old lone survivor of a shooting that killed four of her family members Sunday evening said she played dead in order to stay alive, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said at a news conference Thursday.

Judd said the girl was shot seven times and tortured. In an interview after the shooting, she told detectives: “I played dead and I prayed.”

“He thought he left her for dead, but she was way smarter than he was,” Judd said.

The shooter has been identified by authorities as Bryan Riley, 33, of Brandon. His girlfriend told investigators that Riley was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at the time of the shooting. He had served as a Marine in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he worked for ESS Global Corporation, a company based in Tarpon Springs, as a security guard. Judd emphasized Thursday that Riley was “well-trained.”

The four people killed have been identified as Justice Gleason, 40; Theresa Lanham, 33; Catherine Delgado, 62; and a 3-month-old boy, who was the girl’s younger brother. Judd says he also shot and killed the family dog, Diogi.

Riley is 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. He is being held without bond.

Bryan Riley, 33, from Brandon is faces multiple charges, including four counts of first-degree murder.
Bryan Riley, 33, from Brandon is faces multiple charges, including four counts of first-degree murder. [ Polk County Sheriff's Office ]

It was said immediately after the shooting that Riley and the slain family did not know each other personally. Judd said Thursday, however, that detectives uncovered a new detail this week: Riley and Gleason had gotten into a verbal argument Saturday night. The latest evidence also suggests why Riley was in Lakeland, approximately 45 minutes away from his home in Brandon.

Judd said Riley was in town to pick up a first-aid kit from a friend who lives near the family’s home on North Socrum Loop Road. After he left his friend’s home, Judd said, Riley saw Gleason mowing his front yard and stopped. He then told Gleason that God sent him to speak to a girl named “Amber,” who he claimed was suicidal and being held as a sex-trafficking victim.

Gleason told Riley that nobody named Amber lived at the home, but he refused to leave, Judd said. The family called deputies, who arrived just six minutes later, but they could not find Riley, who had made no threats of violence but was visibly upset, according to Judd.

Judd said Thursday that Riley returned to the home around 4:30 a.m. Sunday — this time armed with three guns and wearing full body armor.

Riley allegedly began his attack in a smaller home in the back, where he killed Delgado. He then shot his way into Gleason’s home, Judd said. Once there, he found the family hiding together in a bathroom and killed Gleason, Lanham and the 3-month-old baby, authorities said.

Deputies from the Polk County Sheriff's Office work Tuesday outside a Lakeland home where a family of four was shot and killed on Sunday evening.
Deputies from the Polk County Sheriff's Office work Tuesday outside a Lakeland home where a family of four was shot and killed on Sunday evening. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

What followed was torture, according to Judd: Riley took the 11-year-old girl into the living room and asked her questions about where Amber was. Each time the girl pleaded with Riley that she didn’t know anyone named Amber, he shot her in a different part of her body until he thought she was dead, Judd said.

“I can’t underscore enough her bravery, her ability to think through of how to survive when she has just witnessed her father, baby brother and her stepmother viciously murdered right before her eyes,” Judd said.

The girl had undergone four surgeries as of Thursday morning and remained in intensive care, Judd said. She was shot seven times but doesn’t recall each shot, she told investigators.

Judd said that deputies arrived at the scene quickly and got into a gunfight with Riley in which more than 150 shots were fired. No deputies were hit, he said, but Riley was struck in the stomach. From there, Judd said Riley surrendered his bulletproof vest and his weapon and walked outside. He was promptly taken into custody, where investigators say he later confessed to the killings.

“He was a coward,” Judd said. “An absolute coward. He looks like a man, but he’s not a man, he’s a sniveling coward.”