LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) — Someone pounded on Miguel Rivera’s sliding glass door early Sunday, but when he went to investigate, no one was there. Minutes later, gunfire erupted at his neighbor’s house, where authorities say a Marine vet who thought he heard the voice of God killed four people, including a 3-month-old boy.
Rivera said he believes Bryan Riley might have killed him if he had gotten to the door sooner.
“I pray to God every day I am alive still,” Rivera said Tuesday from the front porch of his Lakeland home. “I feel sad for those people. God rest their soul.”
Riley, 33, is being held without bond on four counts of first-degree murder for the slayings of 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. He is also accused of seriously wounding an 11-year-old girl and killing the family’s dog.
Polk County sheriff’s officials say Riley, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, broke into two homes on Delgado’s property about 4:30 a.m. Sunday, shooting his victims as they cowered in fear and begged for their lives. The baby was found cradled in his mother’s arms.
At the crime scene Tuesday, sheriff’s deputies carted out bags of items. The single-story, concrete block home has a smaller home in the back near a child’s inflatable pool. A sign on a fence labels the property “The Compound,” while another sign warns about a dog on the premises.
“They were nice people. It doesn’t make sense. I can’t get it through my head,” Rivera said.
The girl who survived is in stable condition at a Tampa hospital, officials said. A family statement said she has already undergone four surgeries to repair 10 wounds but is alert, reading, writing and generally in good spirits. The Associated Press is not identifying her because of her age.
“She was very scared when this happened, but she just prayed during the event and knew it would be OK,” their statement to WTVT-TV said. “We appreciate all the well wishes, kind words and prayers.”
Gleason’s mother, Pamela Freeman, declined to comment Tuesday.
Thirty miles (48 kilometers) from the shooting, no one answered the door Tuesday at Riley’s home in the Tampa suburb of Brandon. The house was already decorated for Halloween, with a scarecrow and jack-o’-lanterns. Neighbors said Riley was quiet and didn’t socialize, but last week he stopped John Morris’ wife, who has cancer, and said, “I want to pray for you.”
“It was odd. He didn’t make it loud or anything. He didn’t talk to us much and then all of a sudden he comes up with this,” said Morris, 77.
The massacre came about nine hours after investigators say Gleason had a bizarre confrontation with Riley. Detectives don’t believe Riley knew the family or others in the neighborhood, but as Gleason mowed his lawn Saturday evening, Riley pulled up in his truck.
Riley told Gleason that God had sent him to prevent a suicide by someone named Amber. Gleason and one of the other victims told Riley no one by that name lived there and asked him to leave. They called 911, but when authorities arrived, Riley was gone. A deputy searched the area but didn’t find Riley.
But Riley returned. About 4:30 a.m., he arranged glowsticks to create a path leading to the victims’ house in what Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said may have been an attempt to draw officers “into an ambush.”
Shooting soon began — neighbor Liberty Ulrich’s security camera recorded at least four short volleys of about six to 10 shots each. A deputy in the area heard the gunfire and sounded the alarm, bringing state and local law enforcement officers to the scene. When they arrived, they found an apparently unarmed Riley outside, dressed in camouflage, and his truck ablaze.
Riley ran back into the house, where authorities heard more gunfire, “a woman scream and a baby whimper,” Judd said.
Officers tried to enter, but the front door was barricaded. Judd said that when they went to the back, they saw Riley, who appeared to have donned full body armor.
Riley and the officers exchanged heavy gunfire, with dozens “if not hundreds of rounds” fired, before Riley retreated back into the home, Judd said.
Everything fell silent, until a helicopter unit noticed that Riley was coming out, the sheriff said. He had been shot once and surrendered.
Officers heard cries for help inside but were unsure whether there were additional shooters. Still, one officer rushed in and grabbed the wounded girl, who told authorities there were three dead people inside.
“I will never be able to unsee that mother with that deceased infant in her arms,” Judd said. “It is a horror of the utmost magnitude.”
Detectives say he confessed, telling them he was on high on methamphetamine. He told them they know why he did it. They don’t.
Riley’s girlfriend told investigators he was never violent but had become increasingly erratic. She said he claimed to be on mission from God, stockpiling supplies for Hurricane Ida victims including $1,000 worth of cigars. He worked as a private security guard and had no criminal history, the sheriff said.
“This guy was a war hero. He fought for his country,” Judd said. Now, ”he’s a coldblooded killer.”
Spencer, Frisaro and Associated Press reporter Kelli Kennedy reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.