‘I played dead and I prayed:’ Polk County sheriff says girl’s quick thinking saved her life in fatal shooting of family

Bryan Riley accused of fatally shooting baby, 3 adults

POLK COUNTY, Fla. – An 11-year-old girl is alive following a deadly shooting at her home Sunday when she “played dead” after being shot by the suspected shooter several times, according to the Polk County sheriff.

Three adults and a 3-month-old boy were fatally shot early Sunday morning when a man, identified as 33-year-old Bryan Riley, invaded the home, according to deputies. The victims have been identified as Justice Gleason, 40; his 33-year-old girlfriend, Theresa Lanham; their son, Jody, who was born in May; and Lanham’s 62-year-old mother, Catherine Delgado, who owned the property, according to The Associated Press.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Riley, a former Marine who served as a sharpshooter in both Iraq and Afghanistan, seemed to have targeted his victims at random and appeared to be suffering from mental health issues. He is being held in jail without bond.

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The sheriff said the evening before the shooting, Riley talked to Gleason, who was mowing his lawn, and Riley told him that God had sent him there to prevent a suicide by someone named Amber.

“He was seeking out Amber who wanted to commit suicide who was the victim of sex trafficking and it was all a figment of his imagination,” said Sheriff Judd.

Gleason and another person, identified as one of the shooting victims, told Riley no one named Amber lived there and told him to leave. They called the police but when the authorities arrived, they could not find him.

“Riley, the murder suspect said ‘God told me to kill everyone and to rescue Amber because she’s a victim of sex trafficking.’ So he goes home and decides to put an opps plan together. In his confession he says, ‘you know what that means, you have to kill everyone,’” said Sheriff Judd.

Sheriff Judd said Riley returned to the home early Sunday morning with three guns and tactical gear, including a bulletproof vest. Investigators said he set a truck on fire and entered the home through a glass door, killing the grandmother and dog. Then entered a bathroom where Gleason and his family hid and started firing.

Early Sunday morning, an investigator heard shots fired in the area of North Socrum Loop Road around 4:30 a.m. Deputies who responded to the scene saw breakable lights lining up a path from the road to a house.

Deputies heard screams of a baby and a woman coming from the barricaded house. Judd said they were able to make an entry in the back of the house and Riley fired shots at the deputies. Deputies returned fire, according to PCSO.

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During Thursday morning’s update, Judd said the 11-year-old girl who survived the shooting was woken up by her father and taken to the bathroom to hide along with her younger brother and stepmother. The girl told deputies after her family was killed, Riley took her to the living room and repeatedly asked her about Amber, shooting her multiple times.

“And he asked me where Amber was and he shot me again ... she says, ‘I played dead and I prayed,’ Judd described the girl’s recount of the shooting.

The sheriff said the girl was “way smarter than he was” and Riley thought “he left her for dead.”

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

The girl was rushed to the hospital to get surgery for her injuries. Judd said she had four surgeries as of Thursday and is now in intensive care.

Judd asked if people wanted to donate toward the family, such as hospital bills for the girl, to donate through the sheriff’s office website. If you’d like to donate, click here and select “Quadruple Homicide Victims” in the drop-down menu.


About the Authors:

Brenda, a UCF grad, joined the ClickOrlando.com team in March 2021.

Crystal Moyer is a multimedia journalist who joined the News 6 team in February 2020. Crystal comes to Central Florida from WKMG’s sister station, WJXT in Jacksonville, where she worked as a traffic anchor and MMJ.