Victim Date of Birth
Date of Death
Knoxville, Tennessee, USA
Date of Conviction
Body Discovered Date
Who was Emma Walker?
Emma Jane Walker was born on March 20, 2000 to Mark and Jill Walker. Her parents beam with pride as the describe her exuberant, joy filled personality. Emma was a student at Central High School in Knoxville, Tennessee and was living her dream of being a cheerleader. Emma loved cheerleading from a young age and her teammates at Central say she was excellent. She was a true leader and everyone loved her.
Friday Night Lights
On a Friday night in the Fall of 2014, Emma Walker, along with her teammates, was doing what she loved – cheering on the sidelines for her Central High School Bobcats. An older student and star wide receiver on the field, Riley Gaul, caught a glimpse of Emma Walker on the sideline, cheering his team on. Quickly after noticing her, they became friends and then boyfriend and girlfriend.
Mark And Jill Meet Riley
Raised by his mother and grandparents, William Riley Gaul, was a fantastic student and football player. He was described by classmates as not the typical jock type but instead a bit goofy and liked video games. When Walker’s parents first met Gaul, they said their first impressions of him were positive.
“Boy next door,” Emma’s mother Jill Walker said. “He came in very polite, very nice in the beginning. He was very likable.”
“I thought he was a very nice looking young man, well-mannered,” her father Mark Walker added. “We would let them have some supervised visitation. He would come over to the house, they would meet up after football games, to eat, and things like that.”
Emma Walker’s family and friends say that she seemed happy and in love with Gaul in the beginning. Emma’s social media was loaded with pictures of a supposed perfect couple at school functions, paddle boarding together, hugging and kissing, and using those silly filters to take funny selfies.
Emma’s Friends And Family Start To Notice Changes
Keegan Lyle, one of Emma’s best friends noted that the relationship seemed “just kind of normal at first”.
“Riley didn’t really talk to us, her friends, a lot,” she said. “But I was just like, ‘Oh he’s shy’… it just seemed normal. But then after a while was when we got kind of concerned.”
Concern continued to grow as Emma’s friends noticed that Riley was slowly alienating Emma from all of her friends, and even some activities. Riley wanted Emma all to himself.
“He became kind of controlling over her, what she did, her activities,” Keegan said.
“He got more possessive and more clingy towards her, and wouldn’t let her do certain things,” Lauren Hutton, Emma’s teammate and close friend added.
Over the next two years, Riley and Emma had what many called a “dramatic, tumultuous relationship”. Fighting, breaking up and then getting back together in dramatic fashion became all too common for the high school sweethearts. Many of the dramatic fights were visible through text, Instagram and Snapchat messaging. Jill Walker said Gaul would regularly comment on what her daughter wore, telling her what she should and shouldn’t wear. Jill even tried talking with Emma about her concerns.
Lauren Hutton said that as time passed in the relationship, things became “intense” between Riley and Emma. She said Gaul even started waiting for Walker outside of the supermarket where she worked.
“He would just wait outside for hours,” Hutton said.
Keegan Lyle said Emma’s friends told her that they didn’t like the way Riley treated her, but “she just kind of brushed it off,” Lyle said. “She did her own thing.”
According to Walker’s friends, Gaul became extremely aggressive and would even send her Snapchat messages that said, “I hate you I hate everything about you” and “you’re the biggest bitch I’ve ever come in contact with.”
One specific message alarmed Emma’s mother. “You’re dead to me. I’ll check the obituary.” Riley wrote.
Emma’s parents questioned Riley about this horrible message and he said, ‘I was just angry.’ Jill says that’s when she started to see many more red flags.
The Walker’s Say “No More”
With all of the red flags. Emma’s parents decided to ban Riley from their home and encouraged Emma to break it off with him and stop contact, altogether. They even took her phone away to stop communication between the two. But, Riley snuck an iPod Touch to Emma so the two could secretly communicate. For every nasty message Gaul sent Walker, there was also a quick apology.
“Emma, I’m sorry for however I act,” one message from Riley said. “I love you more than words can describe,” said another.
Jill Walker said they told Emma to break-up with Riley “several times.”
“But as you do that with a teenager, the more you butt heads, the more she is going to think he is in the right,” she said. “Because he had a way of isolating her and making her think that he was the only one.”
By the Fall of 2016, Emma and Riley were still dating despite friends and family’s efforts to break up the toxic relationship. Riley had graduated in May and was an 18-year-old freshman at a nearby college and Emma was in her junior year at Central High School. Around Halloween that year, in another effort to split Emma from Riley, the Walker’s decided to ground her – not allowing Emma to leave the house except to go to school and cheerleading. They also started monitoring every message and everywhere she went. At first, it worked.
“She did become like her old self again,” her father Mark Walker said. “She would come out of her room, eat dinner and socialize with us.”
Walker had even texted her friend Keegan Lyle to say she and Riley were “done for good.”
“She just came to the realization that she deserved better,” Lyle said. “Then we’re all like, ‘yes finally, it’s happening.’ We’re like, ‘What we’ve been waiting for.’”
Riley Didn’t Take The Break Up Well
Riley didn’t take the breakup well. While in his Maryville College dorm room one day, he swallowed a bunch of Vicodin pills and washed them down with alcohol in an attempt to commit suicide. His suicide attempt was unsuccessful. Soon after, his friends reported seeing major mood swings in Riley.
“He would be off to the side, moping, saying things like, ‘Oh, I just feel so depressed. I want to hurt myself.’ Blah, blah, blah, blah,” said Riley’s friend Alex McCarty. “Just things that he would just say a lot as a cry for help, I guess, in a way.”
Riley Was Kidnapped?
On Friday, Nov. 18, 2016, Emma was allowed to attend a get-together at a friend’s house. Around 11:30 that night, Emma’s friend and classmate Zach Greene arrived at the get-together. Emma immediately pulled him aside. She told him she had been receiving strange text messages from a number she didn’t recognize.
“She’s like, ‘Zach, I’m getting these really weird text messages that say come outside alone if you don’t want to see a loved one get hurt,’” Greene said. Emma showed Zach all of the messages.
One of the messages read, “Go to your car with your keys.” Then, “Go alone,” said another message, and another text said, “I’ve got someone you love. If you don’t comply I will hurt them.”
Zach said that Emma really just thought it was one of Riley’s friends playing a prank on her. Regardless, Emma texted back and threatened to call the police. Despite the threat, the text messages got much worse.
“If you’d like to hear his crying and screams give him a call,” one of the messages read.
Zach said Emma started begging him for help. “Eventually she comes out and says, ‘Zach, listen. They said they dropped Riley outside.'”
He and Emma went outside and to their surprise, they found “a body lying face down” in a ditch near the house. That body was Riley Gaul.
“We finally get to him and he’s pulling up his head, kind of, has this confused face on,” Greene said. “Emma’s like, ‘Why are you here?’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know what happened’ I don’t know how I got here. I’ve been kidnapped. Someone dropped me off here’ I don’t know what’s happening’ Where am I? How’d I get here?’ He was holding his head like he got hit upside the head kind of. It was just very weird.”
Zach reported that Emma was immediately alarmed and seemed afraid.
“She’s just like, ‘We just broke up. Leave me alone,'” Greene remembers Emma saying.
Riley had a look of rejection on his face and walked off down the street, alone. He then called his friend Noah Walton and told him the story that he had been kidnapped that night, but Walton didn’t believe a word of it.
“He sounded like he’d been crying or he was sounding fatigued, I guess,” Walton said. “He basically told me that these people knocked him out, took his car and threw him in a van and he didn’t know where he was.”
He said Riley told him not to call 911 to report the alleged incident.
“He was just like, ‘No, no cops. No cops,'” said Walton.
A Stranger At Emma’s Door
The day after Riley’s supposed kidnapping, Emma was at home when she texted her friends, saying a stranger was at her door ringing the doorbell continuously.
“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,” Emma texted, adding “I thought I was going to die.”
She also texted Riley, saying, “I hate you but I need you right now.”
“I’m coming! I’m speeding just give me a minute,” Riley texted her back.
Emma’s mom had made plans to meet up and when Emma didn’t show up, Jill immediately returned home. Upon her arrival, Jill saw Emma and Riley in the front yard.
“[My first thought was] ‘You’re kidding me. He knows he’s not allowed here,’” Jill Walker said. “So I just get out and ask him to leave politely, and he says ‘no, I’m here to help. I’m making sure Emma is OK,’ and he’s trying to talk to me, and I just said, ‘You know you’re not allowed, you need to leave.’ And he did leave.”
Emma was extremely shaken up and thought it could have been a burglar or stalker. Jill, however, wasn’t convinced.
“I said to Emma, don’t you find it odd that Riley was involved, or appeared at both events. She said, no it wasn’t him Mom, it wasn’t him,” Jill said.
“He was trying to get her attention to talk to him. And going way overboard to do that,” she added.
“I was worried and we were watching her,” Jill Walker said. “Sunday, we followed her to work, followed her back home to watch and make sure she was safe.”
By that night, everything had calmed down and seemed like a typical Sunday evening. Emma texted with her friend Keegan Lyle about a homework assignment, then went to bed a little after midnight.
A little after 6:00 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 21, 2016, Jill Walker went into her daughter’s room to wake her.
“I said her name, didn’t hear anything, bumped her leg, didn’t hear anything,” Jill Walker said. “And then looked at her face and realized. I checked for a pulse and couldn’t find anything. I don’t remember a whole lot from that. I know I called 911.”
“I just tried to wake my daughter for school,” Jill Walker told 911. “She’s, she’s 16.”
“You said that she’s non-responsive?” the 911 operator asked her.
“Yeah,” Jill Walker said, crying.
Police were immediately dispatched to the Walker house. Knox County Sheriff’s Deputy Nikki Bules, the lead forensic technician on Emma’s case, said the call originally came in as a possible suicide.
“When I first got there, I started my photographs on the outside of the residence. I walked in, photographed the interior of the residence. Walked into the bedroom photographed the bedroom,” Bules said. “There was a hole in the wall. It appeared to be a bullet hole.”
“At that point, I knew that it probably was not a suicide,” she added.
Knox County Sheriff’s Lt. Allen Merritt reported that as he was looking at the outside of the house, he noticed a bullet hole in the wall that was “about shoulder high.”
“It’s just a small bullet hole. Just, you know, about the size of a ballpoint ink pen,” Merritt said.
Two shell casings were found outside the home, so police knew two shots had been fired. Walking around outside the home, they found a second bullet hole on a different side of the house at approximately the same height as the other.
“To an investigator, that tells me that the two shots were more than likely fired by the same suspect,” he said.
“Once the detective got there, we were asked to leave the residence,” Jill Walker said. “So obviously it had turned into a crime scene at that point. So they were wrapping tape around our house, and walking around outside, but we still had no idea what had happened to her.”
Emma had been killed by a gunshot wound to the head after two bullets had been fired into her bedroom from outside the family’s single-story home. One bullet hit her behind her left ear and the second had lodged into her pillow.
The Investigation Begins
The Knox County Sheriff’s Office immediately started questioning Emma’s friends and family. Due to the toxic relationship between the once high school sweethearts, one name was repeated to officers – Riley Gaul. Riley had immediately posted a tribute to Emma on his social media accounts. According to his friends, Riley was taking Emma’s death very hard. Gaul’s friends actually became worried with his well-being. So following Emma’s death, they told detectives a secret Riley had shared with his friend, Alex McCarty, the day after his alleged kidnapping.
“He ended up telling me that he was so fearful for his life that he had stolen his grandfather’s gun and he showed it to me,” McCarty said. “I was very worried. He reassured me over and over again that he was the farthest thing from suicidal. He was just so scared of these people who were out to get him, and were out to get Emma.”
However, another friend told detectives that Riley had asked him how to get fingerprints off a gun.
“He said he was asking for his roommate,” Walton told detectives “I told him, ‘Obviously not and not to ever ask me anything like that again.’ And he said, ‘I know. I know. It was for my roommate. I thought it was weird.'”
Investigators decided it was time to bring Riley Gaul in for questioning. Riley said he thought he had spent Friday night, the night of the alleged kidnapping, at his friend Noah Walton’s house. During the interrogation, Riley didn’t refer to Emma Walker by her name but would only call her “the girl.”
“The girl, she texted me,” Riley told detectives.
“Which girl?” Merritt asked.
“The one that passed away,” Riley replied.
“When I first met him, I thought he might’ve been a grieving boyfriend,’ Detective James Hurst reported “When we got into the interview room and sat down, I felt like there was a dark side. He didn’t have a whole lot of passion or concern.”
Riley Gaul told detectives he had been trying to speak with Walker all weekend, but she wouldn’t give him the attention he was seeking Then Emma told Riley that if he would help her with a paper she needed to write for school, she would talk to him. So, Riley borrowed a friend’s phone to call Emma. Unfortunately, that call didn’t go well.
“Our phone call didn’t go very well,” he said. “She just told me a bunch of cruel stuff, and she blocked my friend’s number.”
After the phone call, Riley went to his grandparent’s home for a bit and then back to his college. He told detectives that he sat and cried for “two or three hours” in his car over the break up with Emma. Detectives reported that Riley was emotionless during his interrogation.
“His interview was probably one of the most disconnected. It almost seemed rehearsed, deliberate,” Detective Merritt said.
Investigators were still holding on to the fact that Riley had shown his friend his grandfather’s gun. Riley’s grandfather, who had kept the gun in his car, had reported the 9mm handgun missing prior to Riley even being questioned. When detectives asked Riley about the gun, he denied knowing where it was and all stories his friends told police. He also continued to deny having anything to do with Walker’s death.
However, when Riley left the sheriff’s office, his friends said they started getting text messages from him, asking why they had told the police about the gun. In those text messages, Gaul asked his friends not to speak to the police anymore.
Riley’s Friends Join Efforts With Authorities
Riley’s friends, Alex McCarty and Noah Walton knew Riley was lying to authorities and together, they decided to help the police. On Tuesday night – just one day after Walker’s murder, detectives wired the two teens up with microphones so police could listen in, hid a tiny camera and set up an operation to recover the gun. Even with the warnings police gave Alex and Noah about getting involved, they wanted in on it to get justice for Emma. The operation was successful and Riley Gaul was arrested. In addition to the gun, police recovered a treasure trove of evidence, including gloves and black clothing, which authorities say point to Riley also being the “man dressed in black” who was mysteriously at Emma’s door the Saturday morning before she was killed which Riley still vehemently denies to this day
Riley Gaul Is Convicted
In May 2018, Riley Gaul’s defense attorney argued in court that he had never meant to kill Emma, but had fired the gun to try to scare her and get her attention.
“He never intended to cause her harm, never intended to cause her death,” Wesley Stone, Gaul’s attorney, stated. “Consistent with her reaching out to Riley regarding the events Saturday morning, he was attempting to get her to ask him for help again, sort of to be her protector. It’s been in his heart. It’s been in his mind. It’s been in just everything about him. Every day for the rest of his life, wherever that may be, he will have to live with that reality.”
After only five hours of deliberation, jurors found Riley Gaul, now 19, guilty of first-degree murder as well as stalking, theft, reckless endangerment and being in possession of a firearm during a dangerous felony.
In the state of Tennessee, a first-degree murder conviction carries an automatic sentence of life in prison.
Riley Gaul didn’t speak during trial but after sentencing, he gave a statement in which he apologized to the Walker family for killing their daughter but stuck by his defense that it was an accidental shooting.
“I’m sorry I took Emma away from you, that I robbed you of the experience of watching your daughter grow up,” Gaul said in court. “What I can do is tell the truth about that night. I wanted to scare her. I never meant to take Emma’s life. Again I am sorry.”
Emma’s Parents Warn Others
The Walkers feel justice was served for Emma. However, Jill Walker hopes what happened to her daughter will never happen to another girl again.
“If your boyfriend or girlfriend is telling you that you can’t go there, or what to wear, or who to hang out with, or who to talk to, it’s not OK,” she said. “I think when they become quiet and withdrawn, it’s a big sign too. It’s not just bruising, it’s emotional and controlling.”
Emma Walker’s Legacy
Emma Walker’s family has tried to keep her legacy alive. Her mother said she loved animals and wanted to be a NICU nurse. The family has since invested in a dog park in Emma’s name, as well as, a NICU patient room at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital named after her. Emma’s parents say that they hope their daughter is remembered by her beautiful smile and being kind to everyone. They hope her legacy will live on in others as a reminder to be kind to all you meet.
Frequently asked questions
Who killed Emma Walker?
Riley Gaul, Emma’s estranged high school boyfriend, shot and killed her.
How did Emma Walker die?
Emma Walker died by gunshot at the hands of her once high school sweetheart, Riley Gaul.