High School Tragedy

Victoria McConathy, Staff Writer

Emma Walker’s story is one of the most memorable crime cases I have ever researched, and it is also important that her story is shared, so we can prevent future things like this from happening. Emma Jane Walker, an incredibly gorgeous girl, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on March 20th of 2000. Her parents were Mark and Jill Walker, and she also had a brother named Evan. Emma was described as being very sweet, as well as very down-to-earth. She was known for being an extremely kind and friendly person that people just loved. People who didn’t know her assumed she was the stereotypical pretty cheerleader, but then they would meet her, she was the nicest person they had ever met. People of her town, plus her family, had nothing but positive things to say about her. Emma’s dream in life was to be a neonatal nurse, which includes working with infants in intensive care or premature babies. She did quite a bit of volunteer work, and she regularly volunteered at an animal shelter. Not only did she do all these amazing things, she was also really into competitive dance and cheerleading. 

Emma Walker entered Central High School as a freshman in 2014, and she tried out for their cheer team. To her surprise, she was the only freshman who actually made it on the team. Obviously she was very successful with her cheerleading and in high school, among other things. She had quite a few different friends and was an honor student. During her freshman year, Emma met a boy named Riley. 

Riley Gaul was two years older than her, and he was a star wide receiver on the football team. Riley was actually very active in his church, and he was known to be a great student, overall just the typical “boy next door.” His friends described him as someone who was somewhat of a nerd as he was growing up. He was really into Star Wars, and then as he got older in high school, he became very very involved with football. Emma eventually ended up having a fairly large crush on Riley, but at the time Riley was involved with another girl. However, it didn’t take Riley very long to decide that he wanted to break up with the other girl for Emma. They hit it off right away, especially because they’re something like that “storybook romance” out of the high school world. He was the football boy, and she was the cheerleader. 

One thing that stood out at the very beginning of this relationship is that even though Riley broke up with his ex-girlfriend,  he promised her that he would still take her to the prom. Even though he was already dating Emma at the time, he took his ex to the prom instead of Emma his junior year. This made Emma’s parents really concerned. They figured he wasn’t prioritizing her, and they were worried about her getting hurt by him. They expressed their concern to her, but Emma was very stubborn, and she liked to make her own decisions. Therefore, she kind of disregarded their concerns. When it came to Riley, there was some tension in the family regarding this subject. 

The perfect couple didn’t last too long, as they started breaking up on and off all the time. His friends started expressing concern about the fact that Riley never really seemed interested in getting to know them or hanging out with them. He didn’t really want much to do with her friends, and he also didn’t want her to have much time with her  friends. Emma’s friends said that Riley started becoming very possessive of her, and then it got to the point where he would get mad at her if she was wearing certain things. He attempted to control the way she was dressed when she was at work; he would go to her job and hang out there for hours simply waiting for her to get off. Whenever she did go out with her friends without him, he would be obsessively calling and texting her. He didn’t trust her, and he was always wanting to know where she was and what she was doing at all times. Clearly, that’s very unhealthy in any relationship, but especially in a high school relationship. 

Eventually, Riley started sending pretty aggressive messages to her, typically on Snapchat. Riley and Emma got into the typical “abusive relationship cycle,” as some call it. As any other parent would, both of her parents really wanted her to try to end the relationship, especially since it was so unhealthy. To encourage her to end it completely, they decided to ban him from coming to their house, and they also took Emma’s phone in an effort to try to control her communication with him. However, Riley gave her an iPod Touch so he was still able to communicate with her, just without her parents knowing. 

Eventually, after dating on and off for two years, Riley ended up graduating high school. He attended Maryville College, and that was about half an hour away from Emma, so her parents were happy that there was some separation present in the situation. However, Emma and Riley decided that they were going to continue dating, even after he left for school. At this point, Emma’s parents felt like there was absolutely no point in this, and they banned her from talking to him at all. However, they still found ways to sneak around her parents and still communicated. Her parents became so desperate for them to break up, they banned her from leaving the house for any reason unless it was school or cheerleading practice, and after a while, her parents noticed that their plan was starting to work out, and Emma was beginning acting like her old self again. They said that at this time, she seemed much happier. 

Despite their best efforts, things eventually started taking a turn for the worse. Right before Thanksgiving break in 2016, Emma ended up seeing Snapchats of Riley with other girls on his college campus, and this really made her upset. This time, Emma decided to finish things with Riley for good. She decided that she deserved better than that, and especially if he wasn’t going to take their relationship seriously and respect her enough to not take pictures with other girls, as well as everything else that was going on. Emma’s parents were obviously very relieved because they felt like this was the time that she was really serious about breaking up with him. At this point, they were hoping to get the old Emma back, but Riley did not handle the break-up well at all. Right after they broke up, he decided to attempt to commit suicide by drinking a bunch of alcohol, along with taking a bunch of Vicodin pills. Luckily he failed. Needless to say, he was not taking things very well at this point. His friends and family were obviously concerned about him. 

Things kind of stepped up to a whole new level when November 18th rolled around. It was a Friday night, and Emma’s high school had won a big football game, and one of her friends was having a little party at her house. Emma’s parents decided that she would be allowed to go since it seemed like things have gotten a lot better, and it seemed like she wasn’t talking to Riley anymore. 

While Emma was at the party, she all of a sudden started receiving these extremely sketchy texts around 11:30p.m. These text messages said things like, “I’ve got someone you love. I’m going to harm them if you don’t come outside.” Obviously she was very concerned, but she did think that there was a high possibility that it was Riley’s friends playing some type of prank on her. Shortly after this text message, she got another text that said, “It’s a shame you can read all of this and still not value someone else’s life.” This is the point when Emma and her friend decided that they were going to go outside and check around to see if there was anything going on outside. When they went outside, they saw someone that looked to be a man completely facedown on the ground near the bushes by the end of the driveway of the girl’s house. Then they saw that it was Riley. At this moment, Riley started conveniently waking up and acting really confused, having no idea how he ended up there. He said someone had kidnapped him and that he had no idea where he was or how he ended up there, and they said that he was just holding his head like someone hit him or knocked him out. Emma was very upset and uneasy, as to be expected. She was crying, and she had no idea what to think since they had just broken up. After he eventually got up, he called one of his friends to pick him up, and he told his friend that someone had knocked him out, put him in a car, and taken him to this house. His friend later expressed to police that he didn’t believe this at all. As most would, Emma just had a feeling something was odd about the whole situation, and she wished that Riley would simply leave her alone, as well as let her move on with her life. 

The next day around 10:15 a.m, Emma was home and getting ready to go meet her mom somewhere when she heard someone start banging on her front door. Obviously, this really freaked her out since she was home alone. She actually ended up texting Riley: the message said “I hate you, but I need you.” At this point, Riley decided to drive over to her house. On the slip side, when Emma didn’t end up meeting her mom where she was supposed to; her mom drove back to their house, and this is when she ended up seeing Emma and Riley talking while just sitting on the driveway. Emma’s mom went over there and told him that he had to leave, and he did. Sunday, the next day, Emma was still really worried and stressed out about the person hitting her door so hard and so fast. The weird text messages, Riley being “kidnapped,” and all of it was just very intense, but it seemed like she was kind of calming down on Sunday. Her parents ended up following her to and from work to make sure she was okay. 

Later that night, Emma and her dad went out to get some Sonic ice cream, and her dad said he noticed that Emma was starting to act a little bit more like herself. She was definitely calming down after the weekend’s events and overall she seemed better. So that night, Emma got ready for bed like normal, her dad said good night to her like normal, and she went to sleep. However,  during the middle of the night, her dad heard a really loud banging noise. He said it sounded as if someone was in the house had slammed a door really hard. Her dad woke up and was startled when he heard the noise a second time. He ran to check on Emma and her brother. Upon opening Emma’s bedroom door, he saw her just sleeping in her bed. Nothing seemed out of the usual for the Walkers. She just looked like she was laying there, completely asleep. Emma’s dad just convinced himself that maybe he was hearing things. Everything seemed usual in their house, so he just went back to bed. 

The next morning (around 6 a.m) her parents were getting up getting ready for the day. Nothing about their morning routine was out of the ordinary until her mom went into Emma’s room to wake her up, and Emma was usually really easy to wake up, but this morning was different. Her mom thought it was extremely strange that she wasn’t responding immediately when she first attempted to wake her up. She tried moving her legs, she called her name multiple times, and Emma still would not wake up. Her mom jokingly checked for a pulse, but then instantly realized something was wrong. That’s when she looked at her face and she felt that Emma did not have a pulse. Her mom, as any other parent would, frantically called 9-1-1. Paramedics got there fast, and they first believed that this was some type of suicide or overdose, or even that something had happened to her in her sleep with some unknown cause. When Emma didn’t show up at school, rumors started spreading like wildfire that something had happened to her. Some rumors were stating that she had overdosed or committed suicide. This was very shocking to most. There was a candlelight vigil held for her, and there was a lot of public mourning. People were shocked that this happened to such a young girl, and they just wanted to know what exactly happened. 

Needless to say, detectives showed up at the crime scene, and at first, they thought it was some type of accident or unknown natural cause. However, they then noticed that there was a hole in the wall. Now, this hole was only as wide as a pen. Close to that hole, there was another. There were two bullets that were shot into the corner that her bed was in, so detectives figured that whoever had shot a gun through the wall of the house clearly knew that that was Emma’s bedroom, as well as where exactly her bed was. Because of all of this, detectives started trying to talk to her friends, asking if there was anyone out there who would want to harm Emma or who had anything against her. Obviously all of these people mentioned Riley’s name at some point or another, so detectives went to Riley’s dorm to talk with him. However, at this time there was nothing that made police think he was a strong suspect. Riley’s friends were actually really worried about him because he had recently attempted suicide and then the girl that he used to love was tragically murdered. However, there was a missing piece to all of this.

While speaking to detectives, one of Riley’s friends told them something that Riley had told them the Saturday before Emma was killed. Riley allegedly told his friend, Alex, that he had stolen his grandfather’s gun as a way of protecting himself after he was kidnapped. His friends were really really concerned about him having a gun on him, since he was suicidal at one point in his life. However, Riley reassured them that he wasn’t suicidal, and he purely had the gun for his own protection. Since this fact was provided, the following Monday morning Riley was considered a person of interest in Emma’s death. Detectives started asking him about what he was up to the night that Emma was shot, and he said that he was at his friend Noah’s house. When asked by a detective if he had slept over at Noah’s house, he said, “I’m pretty sure I did.” He was then asked if anyone had shown up to Noah’s house, to which he answered, “No, I’m pretty it was just us.” Detectives thought these answers were strange because of his hesitation, as well as the fact that he kept saying “pretty sure.” If he were there that night, which was only a week previous, he should have no trouble remembering that. Another thing that was really strange was that he didn’t mention Emma’s name at all. The entire two hours he was being interviewed, he would continuously describe her as “the girl.” Detectives said during the interview, they were very concerned about him because he seemed completely emotionless and very detached. 

As the interview continued, Riley ended up telling them that he kept trying to text Emma that weekend, but she wouldn’t reply to him, and she eventually just blocked him. He then claimed that she had called him, but the only way she would see him is if he helped her with her paper. So Riley explained that he used one of his friends’ phones to call her. He then says he was so upset that he left his dorm and drove to his grandparents house, and he got there around 12:30 a.m and only stayed for roughly 45 minutes before going back to his dorm. He said at this point he had a mental breakdown. Riley claimed for the next several hours, he just sat in his car crying, looking at photos of the two of them together. Because of the tip that Noah gave them, detectives started asking him about his grandparents’ guns. They asked where they were, how he had access to them, if he ever took one, and if he had a gun on him at all. Riley, of course, said no to pretty much everything he was asked and claimed to not have a gun at all. However, detectives had already talked to his peers who claimed that he showed them the gun at his school campus. When detectives confronted Riley with this information, he basically continued to deny it and said that he had no idea why his friends were claiming that he showed them a gun. 

Clearly, at this point Riley is looking really sketchy, but he still continued to deny that he had any possession of a gun. After this, his friend Noah came forward to claim that Riley had asked him if he knew how to get fingerprints off of a gun. Noah obviously thought this was pretty strange and told them, so as soon as Riley left questioning, he immediately texted him and asked him why he snitched on him about having the gun, as well as the whole fingerprint thing. Noah explained, “Well man, if you didn’t do anything, you should have nothing to hide, and you shouldn’t be worried about it,” which is logical. Riley eventually told Alex that he got rid of the gun, and it was back in his grandparents house. However, right after this, Riley’s mom came into his room and started asking him about the gun and where it was, to which he said, “I don’t have one. There is no gun.” After these questionable things continued to happen, Alex and Noah, his friends, started to feel like Riley probably did commit this crime. Everything was starting to line up, especially since Riley actually asked his other friends to no longer speak to the police. Riley claimed that he did this because he needed to “figure out what to do with the gun, and how to get rid of it,” since “he didn’t want to be blamed for something he wasn’t guilty of.”

This was a pretty specific turning point in this case. Noah and Alex were pretty positive that Riley was the one who killed Emma, so they decided to secretly work with the police. After discussing the plan with the police, they decided that they would “help him” try to get rid of the gun. They knew that that was the one secure piece of evidence that that would need. If they were able to get fingerprints, or at least connect Riley to the crime, it was a pretty clear situation. The next day, Noah and Alex went over to Riley’s house to play video games and chill as normal as possible. Little did Riley know, his friends were actually wearing mics, and they had a camera in a set of keys that was given to them by the police. 

Eventually, as planned, the conversation came up about Emma, and Riley started denying that he had any involvement again. He said he had nothing to do with what happened, and he would have never harmed her. He then told Noah and Alex that he wanted them to take back the statement they gave the police and to tell the police that they were “on drugs,” and that’s why they were “confused.” He said that and then he told them that he wanted to go get the gun and get rid of it with them. Of course, Alex and Noah were playing along, and they agreed to go “help him” get rid of the gun. Upon all of them getting in the car, Riley drove to his step-dad’s house where he got the gun. He hopped back in the car, and the three of them went to go grab some fast food, and the gun was in the back of the car in a trash bag. Meanwhile, while all of this was happening, there were multiple undercover police cars following them. Noah and Alex were also texting the police officers in a group message, telling them what was going on.

They finally reached a parking lot where they were close enough to the river, and this was where they decided to get out and bring the gun down to the river. At this point, Riley was putting on gloves, and he very carefully started taking out the gun. Alex and Noah urgently texted the police to tell them it’s a good time to come over to the car to catch Riley in the act. The police quickly showed up at the parking lot and immediately told them to get out of the car and put their hands up. Noah and Alex did this immediately, since they knew this was going to happen, and Riley cooperated. Police arrested him and took him into their custody. Afterwards, Riley was convicted of first-degree murder, as well as six other felonies. While police were going through the trash bag that the gun was in, they also found a bunch of black clothing of Riley’s from the night of Emma’s murder. This made them believe that Riley was also the man that came and was hitting repeatedly on her door. All strange happenings pointed directly to Riley. He obviously faked his own kidnapping. 

The situation in whole: Riley was desperately in love with Emma, and though she did love him, she eventually stopped after his behavior with other girls on his campus, along with his controlling and possessive actions. This led to Riley’s final snap. 

Fast forward to May of 2018, his trial. Shockingly, Riley’s defense team decided to say that this crime was not actually a murder, but it was an accidental homicide. This kind of threw the court off, because they were surprised that his defense team was actually admitting that Riley was the one who shot the gun. They basically said that he was hoping that the gun would scare her, and she would call him, and he could come to her defense. The team said that he was basically setting the whole thing up with the same end goal as he attempted with his kidnapping plan and banging on Emma’s door. According to his defense, when Riley fired that shot in the backyard, he was hoping that he could come to the “rescue” for Emma. They stated that anyone experienced with firearms may very well know that if you shoot into a house, it’ll go through the wall. The defense said directly in the trail room, “Some of us may not know that, and I submit to you Riley Gaul, who did not.”

 After Riley’s defense left the floor, the prosecution explained that there was no way that this was true because of where the bullets were actually shot. Whoever shot this gun knew exactly where to shoot the bullets to contact her. This was not to get her attention, and they were clearly aimed at her. There were over 30 witnesses at the trial, and it took over a week to get through every piece of the case. On May 8th of 2018, William Riley Gaul was found guilty of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to over 50 years in prison before he will get the chance for parole. 

In my opinion, as well as many others, this is a notable and tragic case of an abusive relationship. For me, it’s a reminder for us all to make sure to look out for other people, as well as our families that are in relationships that could possibly be abusive. I think we all need to look out for the signs: things such as people distancing themselves from others, pulling away from a group of friends, isolating themselves to only hang out with their significant other, having to ask permission from the significant other to do things, or they aren’t allowed to do certain things, the significant other has set rules for them, etc. Knowing these signs can save a life or even just someone’s mental stability. It’s a touchy subject because it’s not always easy to confront someone you know, thinking that they might be in a dangerous situation. However, it always ends up being worth it. Although it’s a hard situation because Emma’s parents really did do everything that they could, I’m sure they had no idea that he would go to this level. The Walkers have been through so much, and it’s so sad to me because of the fact that Emma was one of those people that grew up to do great things, she just wasn’t given that chance. She wanted to be a nurse, and she would have helped so many people in the world. It is a shame that her life was basically wasted because of the selfish actions of Riley, who could not be without her.