POLK COUNTY, Fla. — PTSD may have played a role in a Marine veteran who confessed to shooting and killing four strangers in Lakeland Sunday. He told deputies he did so because ‘God' told him to.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office revealed in a press conference Sunday that the gunman is a decorated war veteran.
“We’re not dealing with a traditional criminal here. We’re dealing with someone who obviously had mental health issues,” Sheriff Grady Judd said.
Prior to Sunday, 33-year-old Bryan Riley, of Brandon, was seen as a decorated sharpshooter marine veteran. He served in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2008 to 2010, according to Judd.
Authorities say the shooter admitted to shooting and killing four strangers, including a 33-year-old mother and her 3-month-old baby in her arms while high on methamphetamine. Authorities say he also shot and killed the baby's 62-year-old grandmother, and a 40-year-old man inside the home, and the family dog. An 11-year-old girl survived the shooting with multiple gunshots wounds.
“He says at one point to our detectives, ‘They begged for their lives, and I killed them anyway,’” Judd said.
According to the affidavit, Riley’s fiance said he does “bodyguard-related work” and after working security at a church in Orlando last week, “he believed he could speak with God.”
Judd explained that the suspect was in the Lakeland neighborhood earlier when he saw a man mowing his lawn and insisted that God told him the man's daughter, Amber, was going to commit suicide and he needed to speak with her. The man said no one by the name of Amber lived there. The suspect left, but returned to the area early the next morning, when the calls for an active shooter began coming in.
After shooting at law enforcement arriving on scene and a short barricade situation, the gunman surrendered with one bullet wound in his leg.
Sheriff Judd said they think the man on the lawnmower was the same man that was shot and killed, but they are not certain.
The affidavit states: "In summary, the suspect admitted to shooting several people at the incident location and stated voices and 'God' told him to do it."
ABC Action News went to Hillsborough County’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to get a better understanding of this thought process.
“As soon as I read that statement, I said, ‘Yeah this is this is definitely a mental illness,’” NAMI Hillsborough Executive Director Natasha A. Pierre said. “And if he wasn't dealing with it prior to the military, it could be related to some post-traumatic stress that he's experiencing, but just that statement alone evidence is a break with reality.”
Pierre said the pandemic is pushing a lot of people with pre-existing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to have severe mental breaks.
“I think that we have been living in a pressure cooker as a nation for the last year-plus, and many people are reaching breaking points,” she explained.
The gunman is 33, which means he was just 20 years old when he was deployed to Afghanistan and then Iraq.
In 2009, former President Barack Obama sent 17,000 additional troops into Afghanistan. Compiled data from the Brookings Institute shows deaths of US and Afghan soldiers significantly increasing from 2007 to 2011, signifying the most violent part of the 20-year war.
While it’s unknown whether the end of the war in Afghanistan triggered PTSD for the gunman, his fiance told authorities he had been acting strange for one week.
“I've heard more than one person say like, ‘You know what was the point of my service, what's the point of my, my time being over there only for it to come to this 20 years later?’” Pierre said.
Government research published in the National Library of Medicine also found that 30-40% of combat veterans with PTSD have auditory or visual hallucinations.
"The presence of psychotic symptoms in PTSD is associated with a more severe level of psychopathology, similar to that of chronic schizophrenia," the article's abstract states.
Pierre stresses that now, more than ever, it is important for anyone who is struggling with their mental health to seek support.
“When our veterans, when our law enforcement, when our first responders are dealing with post-traumatic stress and dealing with depression and anxiety, they are the strongest of the strong, the bravest of the brave, the boldest of the bold, so we know that it's not a character flaw, it's not that they're weak because they're experiencing it," Pierre expressed.
"There are veterans meeting across Tampa Bay, and they want you, they're looking for you, they're looking for your story…so that they too understand that they're not alone,” Pierre said.
NAMI is in nearly every county across the country and they’re free. They have also started support groups every day online due to the increased need for support in the pandemic. Click here to visit their webpage for military members.
In Hillsborough County, you can also contact the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. Any first responders or service members can call 1-866-4FL-HERO (435-4376). You can also be connected with a veteran who shares similar experiences.
A few local Veteran Affairs offices include:
- Brooksville VA Clinic
- Hidden River VA Clinic
- James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital
- Lakeland VA Clinic
- Lecanto VA Clinic
- New Port Richey VA Clinic
- South Hillsborough VA Clinic
- Tampa VA Domiciliary
- Zephyrhills VA Clinic
NAMI Hillsborough is also working on legislation for state support of a 9-8-8 phone line similar to 9-1-1, that would connect callers with mental health services to who they can relate to.