Emma Walker’s story – The high school romance that became a cautionary tale of toxic love

Riley and Emma

Emma Jane Walker and William Riley Gaul were termed by the press as the “quintessential high school couple – the cheerleader and the football player”. But underneath the façade lay a rocky relationship that ended in Emma’s untimely death at the hands of her boyfriend. She was only 16 years old.

Though the jury found him guilty of murder, Riley, who was 18 then, insisted throughout the trial that he never meant to kill Emma; he was only looking to scare her into getting back together with him after a breakup. As of now, Riley is in incarceration at the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, Tennessee.

Key Takeaways

  • Emma began dating Riley when she was 14 years old and he was 16.
  • Their relationship soon turned unhealthy with Riley’s controlling and possessive tendencies coupled with frequent fights and reconciliations.
  • After Emma broke up with Riley in the fall of 2016, she was anonymously threatened and stalked by him until her death.
  • On the night of November 20, Riley fired two shots from a stolen gun outside Emma’s bedroom, killing her instantly.
  • Riley Gaul was found guilty of first-degree murder during the trial and sentenced to life in prison with eligibility for parole after 51 years.

At the beginning of their relationship, Riley came across as the “likable boy next door” to Emma’s parents

Emma Walker lived with her family in Sterchi Hills, North Knox County, Tennessee, and was a cheerleader for Central High School’s football team, the Bobcats. She made the cheerleading squad when she was a 14-year-old freshman.

Walker began dating the school jock Riley Gaul, who played wide receiver for the Bobcats, in the fall of 2014. Gaul lived with his mother and grandparents.

“He was a little nerdy on the side. A little to himself. From the outside in, you would think he was just a normal guy,” said Walker’s friend, Zach Greene, to ABC News.

Gaul made a good first impression on Walker’s parents, Jill and Mark Walker. He came across as the “boy next door” who was very “polite, nice and likable in the beginning”.

“I thought he was a very nice-looking young man, well-mannered. We would let them have some supervised visitation. He would come over to the house and they would meet up after football games to eat, and things like that,” said Mark.

The couple seemed happy together and often documented their outings on social media, especially Walker who once posted “look how lucky I am” on one of many posts made on her Twitter account.

Emma and Riley had an on-and-off relationship which quickly turned unhealthy due to Riley’s possessiveness

While the relationship appeared completely ordinary at first, Emma’s friends and family soon began to notice a series of red flags in Gaul’s behavior. He did not befriend any of Emma’s friends and later became quite possessive of her to the point of controlling her activities.

Lauren Hutton, a friend of Walker’s, told ABC News that Gaul got “clingier towards Emma and did not let her do certain things”. This was confirmed by Walker’s mother who said that Gaul would comment on how Emma dressed and at times even told her what to wear and what not to wear.

Throughout the next two years, the couple frequently broke up and got back together again and again. As the arguments between the two worsened, so did Gaul’s controlling behavior. For instance, Gaul would often wait for hours on end outside the supermarket where Walker worked part-time.

He also had a tendency to send aggressive and disrespectful Snapchat texts to Walker, the contents of which once said, “I hate you, I hate everything about you. You’re the biggest b*tch I’ve ever come in contact with”. But for every outburst he had, he was also quick to apologize and often followed up with messages of how much he loved her.

Walker’s parents were concerned over one particular message which said, “You’re dead to me, I’ll check the obituary. F*ck you”. When confronted about it, Gaul said he was just angry and did not mean the words he wrote.

Yet, Emma ignored the warning signs and things escalated to the extent of her parents banning Gaul from their home and forbidding her from using her phone to communicate with him. But the two secretly kept in touch over Emma’s iPod touch which was given to her by Riley.

“He had a way of isolating her and making her think he was the only one,” Jill said.

Emma Walker and William Riley Gaul

After the breakup, Emma was threatened and stalked by an anonymous person which later turned out to be Riley

Around October 2016, Emma broke up with Riley and began to spend more time with her family and friends. On the other hand, Riley, who was attending the nearby Maryville College at the time, did not take the news well and attempted suicide by taking Vicodin pills with alcohol.

A few days after the breakup, Walker received strange and threatening text messages from an anonymous number, the sender of which later turned out to be Gaul. On the night of November 18, two days before her death, Walker met a disheveled Gaul outside a friend’s house party. He claimed to have been kidnapped.

“It was a bald-faced lie – over and over again,” Isaac Ewers, a friend of Gaul’s, told Knox News Sentinel that they were skeptical of his kidnapping tale as he was adamant against reporting his kidnapping to the police.

The next morning, Walker was stalked by an unknown man dressed in black in her home. Frightened for her life, she messaged Gaul to help her. Gaul arrived at her home in minutes.

“I’m home alone and somebody in all black walked down my street and came to my door and rang the doorbell over and over again. I thought I was going to die,” she wrote in a text to her friends, the ABC News reported.

Jill Walker became suspicious of Gaul’s immediate presence in both of the incidents and warned her daughter about the possibility of it being Gaul’s ploy to get Emma’s attention. However, Emma was convinced that he was not involved in the strange happenings.

On November 21, 2016, Emma Walker was found dead in her bedroom – she was killed by a gunshot fired by Riley from outside the house

On the morning of November 21, 2016, only two weeks after the breakup, Walker was found dead in her bedroom by her mother. There were no signs of struggle and the case was initially thought of as a suicide by drug overdose.

Upon investigation, the officials found a bullet hole in the wall of her bedroom and two shell casings outside the house.

Walker was hit by a bullet on the back of her head behind her left ear and was fatally wounded while she was sleeping. A second bullet was found in her pillow. It was later confirmed that Gaul had fired the shots from outside.

After news of Walker’s death became public, Gaul made a series of lengthy social media posts mourning her death and repeatedly reaffirming his love for her. He, however, became a suspect in the eyes of Emma’s family and friends owing to his aggressive behavior towards her in the past.

“Everybody kept giving us the name Riley Gaul because of their relationship – they had seen the way that Riley had treated her, the way he’d talk to her,” said the investigating Sheriff Allen Merritt to ABC News.

Additional suspicions arose after the authorities learned that just a day before Walker’s death, Gaul had admitted to his friend Alex McCarty about stealing his grandfather’s gun. He claimed that it was for his and Walker’s safety.

Gaul had also enquired another friend, Noah Walton, about removing fingerprints from a gun around the time of her death. Furthermore, Gaul’s grandfather had reported his missing gun earlier and the police began a search for the possible murder weapon.

“[Riley] asked me – for his roommate – if I knew how to remove fingerprints from a gun. I obviously had no idea and I told him never to ask me something like that,” Walton told Knox News Sentinel.

Friends of Gaul collaborated with the authorities to recover the gun, leading to his arrest

During the interrogation, Gaul lied about his whereabouts at the time of the murder and denied anything to do with a gun. Detectives observed that Gaul was detached about the whole incident and referred to Emma as “the girl” or “the one that passed away”.

After the questioning, Gaul tried to persuade his friends to recant their statement about the gun and claimed that he had already returned his gun to his grandfather. But Walton and McCarty sensed Gaul’s deceit and approached the police to help recover the gun.

In the secret recording made by Walton and McCarty, Gaul could be heard saying:

“I had the gun because I was scared. I would hurt myself before I hurt Emma. You just tell them you were on acid, high, and drunk, and you didn’t understand me. Yeah, just do that, because they don’t know anything or I would be in jail right now … You’re in an altered state of mind, so you didn’t know what you were saying.”

Riley Gaul was arrested at the River Bluff Wildlife Area while attempting to throw the gun in the Tennessee River. The police also found a bag of evidence that contained black clothing and gloves, proving that he had been the mystery man who stalked Walker on the morning of November 17th.

“I’m trusting you guys with my life because this is 70 years in jail if I’m convicted of something I didn’t do. I want to be upset but I can’t. If I throw [the gun] with enough force, if it’s in the Tennessee River, they will never find it,” Gaul told McCarty and Walton before being caught.

William Riley Gaul, in Knox County Criminal Court | Photo by Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel

Gaul was found guilty of the first-degree murder of Emma Walker and sentenced to life in prison

On May 8, 2018, Gaul was convicted of first-degree murder for fatally shooting Emma Walker through her bedroom. The jury also found him guilty of stalking, tampering with evidence, reckless endangerment, possessing a firearm during a dangerous felony, and theft between $500 and $1000.

Gaul’s defense attorney, Wesley Stone, had pled for reckless homicide as he argued that Gaul’s actions were “reckless but not murderous”. Stone said that Gaul only intended on scaring Walker that night and was not aware that bullets could travel through walls.

“This case is about the state of mind. Riley did not mean to hurt her or cause her death. He was trying to get her attention. I’m not saying it’s logical. My client was her hero. As crazy and bizarre as it sounds, he was hoping to come to her rescue,” Stone told the jury in his closing arguments.

The prosecutor, Knox County’s assistant district Attorney General Kevin Allen, said that Gaul was “possessive, manipulative, controlling and toxic” to Emma.

“This was no accident. This is about criminal intent to kill,” said Allen.

Gaul apologized to Emma’s family during the sentencing hearing and admitted to being a “terrible boyfriend”

At the sentencing hearing held on September 14, 2018, Gaul received a life sentence for the murder charge with eligibility for parole after serving 51 years in prison. He apologized to the Walker family for causing “pain and turbulence”.

Emma Walker parents
Emma’s parents, Jill and Marker Walker | Photo by ABC News

“I am sorry that I took Emma away from you, that I robbed you of the experience of being able to watch your daughter grow up,” he said.

Despite the verdict, he maintained “the truth” of what happened that night and explained that he never planned on causing Emma any physical harm. He admitted to being a “terrible boyfriend who caused her emotional and psychological pain”.

“My intentions that night was never to harm Emma, let alone take her life. I wanted to scare her so she would have no choice but to talk to me again…so that I’ll be there to comfort her and win her back again,” he added.

Gaul also apologized to his family for the “pain and embarrassment” he caused and ended his statement by saying that he loved Emma and not a day went by when he did not think of her.

As per The Associated Press, Jill Walker made a statement to the court during the hearing in response to Gaul being called Emma’s hero by the defense. She said:

“Riley, you are not Emma’s hero. You ended her life. No punishment will ever bring Emma back, but what helps is knowing that he can’t do this to anyone else. Emma is the hero here, and she is definitely mine.”

Riley Gaul’s motion for a re-trial was denied by the Knox County Criminal Court in June 2021

In May 2021, after serving only two years of his life sentence, Riley filed a motion for a judgment of acquittal in the Knox County Criminal Court. The motion claimed that the initial trial had insufficient evidence to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”. He also filed a motion for a new trial if the former request was not granted.

In the documents for the motions, Defense Attorney Wesley Stone stated that, among other apparent misgivings, the “court erred in denying Gaul’s objection to coverage by Law and Crime Network, his motion to sequester the jury and his objections to certain testimonies and evidence”.

However, the county court denied both the motions at the hearing held on June 4 as the judge ruled that there was inadequate disputable evidence to require a new trial. Stone informed that he planned on appealing the court’s decision.