Hey, y’all. Today I’m going to explore the shocking 2016 murder of Knoxville teen Emma Walker. After her mother found her dead in her bed, she immediately thought Emma had accidentally overdosed, but a small hole above her pillow told a different story. So who killed Emma Walker? The community was shaken when they learned it was her boyfriend Riley Gaul.
About Emma Walker
Emma Walker was a vibrant young woman, known for her beautiful smile and infectious energy that could light up any room (I really hope someone says that about me if I’m ever murdered, but I suspect they won’t). As a cheerleader at Central High School in Knoxville, Tennessee, she was often seen on the sidelines of football games, enthusiastically cheering on the Central Bulldogs.
During her freshman year, Emma attracted the attention of Riley Gaul, an 11th-grade wide receiver on the school’s football team. Interestingly, Riley stood out from the usual jock stereotype, as he had a geeky side to him that his friends found endearing.
Emma’s parents, too, were initially fond of Riley. They saw him as a likable young man with a charming personality that seemed to complement their daughter’s bright and caring nature.
One early morning on November 21, 2016, Jill Walker entered her 16-year-old daughter’s room to wake her up for school, only to find Emma Walker unresponsive. Panicked, she immediately dialed the police, who quickly arrived at the scene to investigate.
At first, they thought Walker might have taken her own life because there was what appeared to be vomit on Emma’s pillow, but then they discovered something peculiar—a hole in her bedroom wall. The fact that there was a hole that seemed to be from a bullet, made the police realize that this likely wasn’t a suicide. What they thought was vomit was actually brain matter.
A more thorough investigation uncovered another hole in the wall and two bullet casings in the yard outside. Although there was only a small amount of blood on Walker’s pillow, it became evident that she had been tragically shot behind her left ear, resulting in her death.
As the police began questioning Emma Walker’s friends and family members that day, one name kept coming up repeatedly: Riley Gaul. People mentioned him due to their relationship and how they had witnessed the way Riley treated Emma and spoke to her.
Riley Gaul turned to social media to express his grief over Emma’s passing, sharing a series of tweets and a long Facebook post. In one of his tweets, he wrote, “Rest easy now sweetheart. I love you forever and always.”
The news of Emma’s passing left her friends and family heartbroken. To honor her memory, they held a candlelight vigil at Central High the night following her death. Additionally, her fellow cheerleaders released balloons during that week’s Bobcats’ football game as a tribute to the young girl who had once been such a bright presence on the sidelines.
A Tumultuous Relationship
While Emma and Riley’s relationship started out as a typical high school romance, it didn’t take long for the darker aspects of their relationship to emerge. Friends and family noticed Riley’s increasingly controlling behavior, which began to take a toll on Emma’s happiness and well-being.
At first, Emma and Riley’s relationship seemed normal according to friends. Although Riley didn’t interact much with Emma’s friends, they brushed it off as shyness. However, their concern grew as it became clear that Riley didn’t want Emma spending time with anyone but himself. He became controlling and possessive, dictating what she did and even what she wore.
Emma’s parents, Jill and Mark Walker, started noticing red flags in their daughter’s relationship. As things intensified, they decided to take action to protect her. They banned Riley from their home and took away Emma’s cell phone to limit their communication.
Despite these efforts, Riley gave Emma an iPod Touch to stay in contact through WiFi. Emma’s parents advised her to break up with Riley, but doing so proved difficult. Eventually, Emma could no longer endure the suffocating dynamic and made the difficult decision to break up with Riley. Unfortunately, this did not bring an end to their troubles.
But Riley didn’t handle the breakup well. He attempted suicide in his college dorm room and exhibited mood swings. His friends noticed his erratic behavior. Riley would often say he was depressed and wanted to hurt himself. Despite the many challenges and setbacks, Emma’s parents continued to support their daughter, grounding her and monitoring her activities, hoping to help her regain her sense of self and well-being.
Days leading to her murder
The Threatening Text Messages
A few weeks after the breakup and only two days before Emma’s murder, her parents allowed her to attend a party at a friend’s house after a football game.
Late that night, she received a mysterious text message from an unknown number, telling her to go outside alone with her keys and threatening to hurt someone she loved if she didn’t comply. Emma suspected the texts were from Riley, so she and a group of friends went outside to investigate.
Emma confided in her friend and classmate Zach Greene about the strange text messages, showing him her phone. He recalled that the texts became increasingly menacing, with one message even suggesting they call to hear a loved one’s screams.
Eventually, the text messages said that the person sending the messages had dropped the person they had kidnapped outside of the party. Together, Emma and Zach found Riley in a ditch near the house, who repeated his claims about being kidnapped.
Emma, feeling uneasy, told him to leave her alone since they had just broken up. Riley walked off, seemingly defeated.
Later that night, Riley called his friend Noah Walton, telling him he had been kidnapped. Noah said that Riley sounded like he had been crying or fatigued, but he didn’t believe his story. Riley urged Noah not to call the police, insisting there should be no involvement of the authorities. Similarly, none of Emma’s friends reported the alleged kidnapping to the police that night.
The Man in Black
The very next morning, Emma found herself face-to-face with a frightening situation. She came home and immediately texted her friends, describing a mysterious stranger dressed all in black at her doorstep. The stranger persistently rang her doorbell, leaving Emma terrified for her life. Feeling desperate, she reached out to Riley Gaul, telling him, “I hate you but I need you right now.” Without hesitation, Riley responded, promising to arrive as quickly as he could.
Upon returning home, Emma’s mother, Jill, discovered her daughter in the front yard with Riley, who was not allowed at their house. Frustrated, she confronted him. Despite his claims of wanting to help and ensure Emma’s safety, Jill insisted he leave, and he reluctantly complied. Later, Jill shared her suspicion with Emma that Riley might be orchestrating the mysterious stranger’s appearance. However, Emma was unwilling to believe that Riley was behind it.
Worried for their daughter’s safety, Jill and her husband decided to keep a watchful eye on Emma. They followed her to work and back home the following Sunday, making sure she was safe at all times. That night, Emma went to bed, completely unaware of the tragic events that were about to unfold.
Riley’s Friends’ Concerns
Rileys friends grew increasingly worried about his well-being, and after Emma’s tragic death, they decided to share a secret with detectives that Gaul had previously confided in his friend, Alex McCarty.
The day after Gaul’s supposed kidnapping, he had told Alex about his fear for his life, leading him to steal his grandfather’s gun for protection. Riley told Alex that he was afraid of whoever had killed Emma.
Another friend, Noah Walton, also had some concerning information to share with detectives. He told them that Riley had asked him how to remove fingerprints from a gun. Riley claimed that he was asking on behalf of his roommate. Understandably, Alex thought this was weird. Just asking for a friend. Right.
Detectives called Riley Gaul in for questioning on Monday, the day after Emma’s murder, asking him about his whereabouts over the past 72 hours. Riley claimed he had spent Friday night at his friend Noah Walton’s house. Throughout the two-hour interrogation, he never mentioned Emma Walker by name, referring to her only as “the girl.”
According to the detectives, Riley showed no emotion during the interrogation about the murder of someone he loved. Riley told detectives that he had tried to speak with Emma that weekend, but she wouldn’t engage with him. He said she agreed to talk to him if he helped her write a paper for school.
Riley described a phone call on Sunday night that didn’t go well, as Emma told him cruel things and then blocked his friend’s number. After the call, Gaul said he went to his grandparents’ house briefly before returning to his college, where he broke down in tears in his car for hours over the breakup. The police found Gaul’s account emotionless and seemingly rehearsed.
Detectives knew from Alex McCarty that Gaul had shown him his grandfather’s stolen gun. When questioned about the gun, Gaul denied knowing its whereabouts and insisted he hadn’t shown it to McCarty or asked Walton about removing fingerprints from a gun. The detectives then requested to see his cell phone, prompting Riley to ask if he was a suspect. Despite their questioning, Riley continued to deny any involvement in Emma’s death.
After leaving the sheriff’s office, Riley started texting Alex McCarty, asking why he had told the police about the gun. He also urged his friends not to talk to the police anymore. But, boy, did they keep talking.
The Sting Operation and Arrest
By this point Riley’s friends were very suspicious of him, so Alex McCarty and Noah Walton decided to collaborate with the investigators to uncover the truth about Emma Walker’s tragic death.
As part of a carefully orchestrated sting operation, they were fitted with cameras and microphones to document their interactions with Riley. The two friends, along with detectives, set up a group chat to maintain constant communication during the operation.
Together, they accompanied Riley as he intended to dispose of the gun he had used to kill Emma. Throughout their journey to the Tennessee River, Alex and Noah covertly updated the detectives in the group chat, ensuring that the officers were always aware of their whereabouts and Gaul’s actions.
At one point during their trip, they stopped for fast food, even murderers like Cook Out, I guess. But even during this pit stop, the two friends were carefully gathering evidence to bring the truth to light.
Once Alex and Noah had laid eyes on the gun, they texted the detectives a code word. The cops swooped in just in time. They found Gaul in possession of the murder weapon, gloves, and black clothing—the same attire Emma had described seeing on the mysterious stranger outside her house.
The Trial of Riley Gault
Riley Gaul’s trial was filled with tension and emotion as both sides presented their arguments to the jury. The prosecution worked diligently to build a solid case against Gaul, emphasizing his strange behavior, the evidence discovered, and the testimonies from Emma Walker’s friends and family members.
A significant part of the prosecution’s case focused on Riley’s bizarre behavior like wearing all-black clothing, connecting him to the mysterious figure spotted outside Walker’s home. And the heartfelt testimonies from Emma’s loved ones shed light on their troubled relationship and Riley’s obsessive tendencies.
Most importantly, the discovery of the shell casings and Riley’s grandfather’s gun, which was identified as the murder weapon, provided undeniable evidence linking him to the crime.
On the other side, the defense team aimed to present a different perspective, concentrating on Riley’s emotional state during the time of the incident. They argued that the shooting was unintentional, claiming that Riley never meant to harm Emmaa and only meant to scare her.
However, despite their best efforts, the defense’s arguments failed to convince the jury. There were two gunshots in Emma’s room, each from a different angle. That’s not trying to scare someone.
In the end, the jury found Riley guilty on a number of charges, only deliberating for five hours. He was convicted of first-degree murder, stalking, theft, tampering with evidence, and committing a dangerous felony while possessing a firearm.
Riley Gaul was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The verdict and sentencing brought a sense of closure to Emma’s friends and family, who had suffered the devastating loss of their loved one at the hands of someone they had once trusted.
During his sentencing hearing, Gaul, who remained silent throughout the trial, finally apologized to the Walkers for causing their daughter’s death. However, he maintained that the shooting was accidental.
Now that justice has been served for Emma Walker’s tragic death, her mother Jill hopes that her daughter’s story can act as a cautionary tale for others who may find themselves in unstable relationships.
Central High School and the Knox County Commission were deeply affected by Walker’s death. Memorial events were held at Tommy Schumpert Park to remember the bright and promising young woman. This tragedy also prompted efforts to promote awareness of dating violence and stalking within the community. Local institutions have focused on ensuring that students, parents, and teachers are better equipped to identify the warning signs and intervene when necessary.
Emma’s case has also sparked broader conversations about teen dating violence and stalking. The importance of recognizing the signs of such behavior cannot be understated, as early intervention can save lives. Educational resources and programs have been developed to teach parents and teens about the risks and dangers associated with abusive relationships.
Understanding the dynamics of relationship abuse, violence, and controlling behavior is crucial for everyone, as it can affect people from all walks of life. Recognizing the signs and taking action to protect oneself or a loved one can be the difference between life and death.
By educating ourselves and raising awareness about these destructive behaviors, we can help to create a safer environment for everyone. Open and honest conversations about the warning signs, resources available, and how to intervene can empower individuals to stand up against abuse and violence, ultimately leading to healthier, happier relationships for all.