"There is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures and communities: violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, never tolerable."
It was the 21st of November 2016. A Monday. Sixteen year old Emma Walker was at home with her brother and parents, Mark and Jill Walker. They lived in a single story house in Knoxville, Tennessee, United States. She had school that day. Emma was a popular and disciplined student. She knew she had to work hard to achieve her dreams of either becoming a veterinarian due to her love of animals or an NICU nurse.
Emma asked her mother Jill to wake her around 6 am that morning. It was earlier than the time she would normally get up but Emma wanted to wash her hair before school that day. It was around 6.15 am when Jill went into Emma's bedroom. Even though it was early, it was normally very easy to wake Emma. But that morning, Jill called her name and Emma didn't move. Emma was lying face up on her bed. She touched her leg and tried to wake her again. But there was no movement at all. Jill looked at her daughter and realized there was something seriously wrong. She felt for her pulse and couldn't find it. Jill called the police.
Jill and Mark Walker
When the police arrived, they almost immediately declared the house was a crime scene. Emma was dead. They discovered a bullet hole in the wall of Emma's bedroom. Two shell casings were located outside the home. They knew at least two shots had been fired. They found a second bullet hole on a different side of the house. It was the same height as the other bullet hole which led them to believe that both shots were fired by the same person.
Police established that Emma had been shot dead in her sleep. She was shot while she was lying in bed by someone standing outside the house in her backyard. The bullet, which came from a 9mm handgun, went through the wall and struck Emma behind her left ear. She died instantly. The second bullet lodged in her pillow.
Nobody in the house that night knew shots had been fired. Emma's father Mark woke at one point during the night when he heard a sound but he thought the sound he heard was the sound of a door slamming. He looked around the house and inside Emma's bedroom but everything looked in order. Some of the neighbors however believed they heard the sound of gunshots at around 3am that morning.
Police spoke to Emma's family and friends to try to establish who would want to harm Emma. The same name was provided to police multiple times. William "Riley" Gaul. Eighteen year old Riley had dated Emma for the past two years. Their relationship was on and off. They would have dramatic arguments and cut contact and then begin seeing each other again. He was a freshman football player at Maryville College and they met when Emma was just fourteen. She was on the cheerleading team.
Look how lucky I am♡ pic.twitter.com/l1gj5e72Jw— Emma✨ (@Emma_walker18) May 31, 2016
They had a lot of fun together and enjoyed doing a lot of the same activities such as paddle boarding but when their fights became more frequent, Emma decided to end the relationship.
Emma Walker and Riley Gaul
Police spoke to Riley. He told them that he had no idea who would want to harm Emma. He said that he tried to talk to her over the weekend but she wouldn't speak to him. Riley said that he went out on the Sunday night, he was hanging out with friends and used his friend's phone to contact Emma. He used a friend's phone as Emma had blocked his number. He tried to contact her a number of times but she wouldn't engage with him. He stopped off at his grandparent's house for a while and then drove to the college. He lived in a dorm room on the campus. Riley told police he was in his car for two to three hours crying due to the breakup.
His roommate told police that Riley got back to the dorm room at around 4.45am. He asked him to wake him up at 8am for class and then he went to sleep.
Two of Riley's friends contacted the police. Alex McCarty and Noah Walton told police that Riley had a gun in his possession before Emma's death. He showed the gun to Alex and he asked Noah if he knew how to remove fingerprints from it. It was a 9mm handgun, the same type of gun that was used to shoot Emma. They told police that they would like to assist with their investigation.
Riley Gaul and Emma Walker
Police wired them up with microphones and hid a video camera in a key fob. Noah invited Riley to his house. The three boys played video games and Riley asked them if they would go to the Bluffs. The Bluffs is a wooded area down by the Tennessee River. He wanted to throw the gun into the River. Riley told them that he was afraid that the murder would be pinned on him so he had to get rid of the gun. The gun belonged to Riley's grandfather. He had taken it from his car. He told Alex he had the gun because he was in fear for his life. He was afraid that someone would harm him or Emma. But he denied shooting Emma.
The three boys got into Alex's car. Unbeknown to Riley, police followed them. They stopped off at Riley's house. He told them the gun was in the basement. When Riley was back in the car with the gun, police arrested him. He was charged with first degree murder.
It was the Prosecution's case that Riley wanted Emma dead. They believed he went to her house that night with the intention of shooting her dead. They believed her death was intentional because he knew exactly where she would be lying in her bedroom and he fired the shots in that direction. It was their case that he was furious that she ended the relationship and that she had blocked his number and refused to talk to him.
The Prosecution outlined the events that had led up to the night Emma was murdered. On the Friday night, the 18th of November, she went out with friends to a friend's house to celebrate a Central High football victory. They were having a great time until she started to receive a number of text messages from an anonymous number. It was around 11.30pm. She showed her classmate Zach Greene the text messages. They included:
"Come outside alone if you don't want to see a loved one get hurt."
"Go to your car with your keys. Go alone. I've got someone you love. If you don't comply I will hurt them."
She told Zach that the text message then said they had dropped Riley outside.
Zach and Emma went outside and found Riley lying face down in a ditch. He told them he didn't know what happened and didn't know how he got there. Emma told him to leave her alone and that they had broken up. Riley left. He called his friend Noah and told him he had been kidnapped. Someone threw him into a van. Noah didn't believe him.
Emma Walker and Riley Gaul
The next morning, the Saturday, Emma was at home alone. She saw someone dressed all in black walking down her street and that person began ringing her doorbell. She sent a text message to her friends:
“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.”
Emma sent another text message to Riley:
“I hate you but I need you right now."
Riley went straight over to Emma's house to see her. She was afraid. That night, she asked her parents to set their alarm system. The following day, the Sunday, Riley tried to contact her 60 times using a friend's phone. She did not want to speak to him. She went to bed just after midnight and a few hours later she was dead.
Riley Gaul in Court
It was the Prosecution's case that Riley was behind those events and he wanted to frighten and control Emma. He wanted her to believe that she needed him. Emma's family had initially liked Riley. He was polite and was very much in love with their daughter but they began to see a different side to him.
He was possessive. He didn't want Emma to do anything without him. When she was at work at the supermarket, he would wait for her outside. He was controlling too. He told her what she should wear and who she should see. But it was a text message that Jill saw that really frightened her. Riley sent a text message to Emma that said:
"I'll see your name in the obituary."
Jill and Mark told Emma that she could not contact him and they told Riley he was no longer welcome in their home.
The Prosecution believed that Riley murdered Emma that night because if he couldn't have her, then nobody else would.
It was the Defense's case that Riley fired the shots at Emma's house that night but the killing was not premeditated. It was their case that Riley did not intend to harm or kill Emma. He wanted to scare her so that she would need him and take him back.
The Jury found Riley guilty of first degree murder, stalking, reckless endangerment, theft, tampering with evidence and possession of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony in Emma’s death.
In the state of Tennessee, a first degree murder conviction carries an automatic life sentence. His sentence allows for the possibility of parole after serving 51 years.
Riley apologized to Emma's family in Court:
"I'm sorry I took Emma away from you. I loved Emma. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about her or what I did."
He had no criminal record prior to his conviction for Emma's murder. But there were plenty of red flags that his behavior would escalate. And it did. Emma made the decision to end their relationship but Riley did not accept her decision. Emma was a beautiful and kind young woman and her family want people to remember her by "being kind to others."
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"My family and myself are good, decent and very honest people."
"He is the single most blatant, arrogant, yet curiously effective liar and manipulator of the truth.”
- Deputy District Attorney Christopher Evans
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