Many people consider high school the greatest years of their life. You are young, innocent, attending school, and don’t yet have to deal with the stress of adulthood. What many of us forget is that teenagers have their own share of struggles, drama, mean girls and heartbreak. And while most of us make it out alive, some aren’t as lucky.
Emma Walker was a bright and beautiful high school cheerleader dating Riley Gaul, a football player two years older than her. Like many high school relationships, the pair were dating on and off before eventually splitting up for good when Riley went to college. However, Riley didn’t take the breakup well. He continuously stalked Emma and did some very questionable things to get her attention.
Here is how a perfect high school romance ended in tragedy.
Friday night in autumn means football games at Central High School in Knoxville, Tennessee. The students are excited, decked out in red and black, the colors of their home team, the Bobcats. Seth Armstrong, a Bobcat alumni, said:
“Everybody’s excited at school to see how well we do. It’s what our school revolves around. It’s exciting.” In front of the crowd, there is a marching band and cheerleaders hyping everyone up. In the fall of 2014, a fresh face joined the squad: a 14-year-old freshman named Emma Walker. The bright student had her whole life ahead of her.
Lauren Hutton was a senior on the cheerleading squad when she met Emma, and the girls became good friends. “Emma really took cheerleading seriously,” Lauren explained. “She really loved doing it. It was one of her passions. She loved leading, and she loved football games. She loved just being part of crowd appeal.”
Emma was a beautiful, perky, vibrant teenager with big dreams of becoming a nurse. When she turned 16, the gorgeous cheerleader started dating the football player. A classic high school love story, right? Wrong. This whirlwind romance had a dark twist.
Early that autumn, Walker caught the attention of jersey number 8, Riley Gaul. Yes, they were that kind of couple: the beautiful blonde teenager dating the jock football player. Riley was a top student raised by his mother and grandparents. He loved playing football, but he was described by his classmates as a jokester, not the “classic jock” type.
One of Emma’s friends, Zach Greene, said that “He was a little nerdy on the side. A little to himself… from the outside looking in, you’d think he was just a normal guy.”
Even Emma’s parents liked Riley at first. They said that when they first met him, he gave off a great first impression. “Boy next door,” Emma’s mother Jill Walker said. “He came in very polite, very nice in the beginning. He was very likable.” Her dad also thought Riley was a good guy.
“I thought he was a very nice looking young man, well mannered,” her brother Mark Walker explained. “We would let them have some supervised visitation… he could come over to the house… they would meet up after football games… to eat, and things like that.”
Emma’s friends said she seemed happy with Riley, at least in the beginning. The cheerleader started posting pictures on social media of the two of them looking like the perfect couple. They shared pictures of paddleboarding and took fun selfies. Emma captioned one post: “Look how lucky I am.”
One of Emma’s best friends, Keegan Lyle, said that at first, the relationship appeared to be “just kind of normal.” She continued, “He didn’t really talk to us, her friends, a lot. 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.”
Friends started getting worried when Riley wouldn’t let Emma hang out with anyone else besides him. Keegan said, “He became kind of controlling over her, what she did, her activities.” Lauren Hutton added that “he got more possessive and more clingy towards her and wouldn’t let her do certain things.”
In addition to being the stereotypical couple – the cheerleader and the football player – for the next two years, they were also that classic high school couple that was always breaking up and getting back together. But there was something toxic about their relationship.
Friends described the arguments they had as “really dramatic,” usually through text messages or Snapchat. Jill Walker revealed that Riley would often tell Emma what she could and could not wear. It got to the point where Jill even called Emma out on it.
Lauren Hutton explained that it was then that things got “intense” between the happy couple. Apparently, Riley would sit outside of the supermarket where Emma worked. “He would just wait outside for hours,” according to Hutton. Lyle said that Emma’s friends told her that they didn’t like the way Riley was treating her, but “she just kind of brushed it off,” Lyle said. “She did her own thing.”
Emma’s friends said that Riley started becoming more aggressive. He even sent her Snapchat messages, saying things like, “I hate you, I hate everything about you” and “you’re the biggest b***h I’ve ever come in contact with.” One message, in particular, worried Emma’s mother: “You’re dead to me… I’ll check the obituary… f*** you.”
Jill described how “We, on one occasion, saw one [that said] ‘I’ll see your name in the obituary. He wrote that to her, and we questioned him about it… and he said, ‘I was just angry.’ And that’s when [I] started to get many more red flags.”
In order to keep Emma away from this clearly unhealthy relationship, her parents banned Riley from their house and took away Emma’s cellphone to keep the teens from communicating. But as you might have imagined, it didn’t work. Emma’s friend Seth Armstrong recalled how Riley gave Emma an iPod Touch, and she texted him through Wi-Fi.
As toxic relationships go, for every mean thing Riley told Emma, there was also a quick apology. “Emma, I’m sorry for however I act,” Riley wrote in one message. In another one, he said, “I love you more than words can describe.”
Jill said that she wanted her daughter to break up with Riley and even told her to do so “several times.” Unfortunately, teenagers don’t usually listen to their parents when it comes to their love life. We’ve all been there; we think we know better… then we grow up and realize our parents were right all along.
“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,” Jill explained. “Because he had a way of isolating her and making her think that he was the only one.”
When the fall of 2016 rolled around, Emma and Riley were still dating. Riley had graduated and was an 18-year-old college freshman at that point. Emma, on the other hand, was in her junior year of high school. However, their turbulent relationship continued, no matter how hard her parents tried to break them apart.
Around Halloween that year, Emma’s parents grounded her, meaning she wasn’t allowed to leave the house unless she was going to school or cheerleading. They even started to monitor Emma and track where she went. To their surprise, it seemed to be working.
Her dad was thrilled and expressed that it felt like he finally got his little girl back. “She did become like her old self again,” Mark Walker said. “She would come out of her room, eat dinner with us, and socialize with us.” Emma even told her friend Keegan that she and Riley were “done for good.”
Do you know those times when you don’t realize how toxic a situation is until you get out of it? Well, “she just came to the realization that she deserved better,” Keegan said. “Then we’re all like, ‘yes, finally, it’s happening.’ We’re like, ‘What we’ve been waiting for.’”
Emma was clearly better off without Riley, but he didn’t take the breakup well. Apparently, he even attempted suicide in his dorm room by swallowing a bunch of Vicodin pills and downing them with alcohol. His friends noted his fluctuating moods.
“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,” his friend Alex McCarty said. “Just things that he would just say a lot as a cry for help, I guess, in a way.”
Then, on Friday, November 18, 2016, Emma went to hang out at her friend’s house. At about 11:30 p.m., her friend Zach Greene joined the gathering, and Emma pulled him aside to speak to him. She revealed that she had been getting strange text messages from an unknown number.
“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. She showed him her phone, and he got a really bad feeling.
The messages said: “Go to your car with your keys.” Then there was a message that said, “Go alone.” And another one said, “I’ve got someone you love. If you don’t comply, I will hurt them.” Zack said that Emma assumed it was one of Riley’s friends trying to scare her or something. But she texted back that she was going to call the cops.
Zach explained that this was when the messages become more intimidating: “If you’d like to hear his crying and screams give him a call.” According to Zach, Emma begged him for help until he said, “Eventually she comes out and says, ‘Zach, listen. They said they dropped Riley outside.’”
He and Emma went outside, and sure enough, they saw “a body lying face down” in a ditch outside the house. They said they realized it was Riley right away. “We finally get to him, and he’s pulling up his head, kind of, has this confused face on,” Zach 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?’ Holding his head like he got hit upside the head kind of. It was just very weird.”
Unsurprisingly, Emma felt uneasy and didn’t know what to think. “She’s just like, ‘We just broke up. Leave me alone,’” Zach said. Seemingly disappointed, Riley ran off. Then, he called his buddy Noah Walton to tell him he had been kidnapped that night, but Noah didn’t believe a word that came out of his mouth.
“He sounded like he’d been crying, or he sounded 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.” Riley told Noah not to call 911: “He was just like, ‘No, no cops. No cops.’”
None of Emma’s friends contacted authorities about the kidnapping, either. The next morning, Emma went home but texted her friends that there was a stranger at her doorstep. “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 Riley.
She added, “I thought I was going to die.” She also wrote to Riley: “I hate you, but I need you right now,” which shows how scared she was. He immediately responded with, “I’m coming… I’m speeding; just give me a minute.”
Emma was supposed to meet her mother that morning, but when she didn’t show up, Jill went home and found Emma and Riley in the front yard. “[My first thought was] ‘You’re kidding me. He knows he’s not allowed here,’” Jill said.
“So, I just got out and asked 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.”
But it was clear that Emma was shaken up. She thought it could have been a burglar or stalker, but her mother had other theories. “I said to Emma, don’t you find it off that Riley was involved or appeared at both events?” She said, “No, it wasn’t him, Mom, it wasn’t him,” Jill said.
“He’s trying to get her attention to talk to him. And going way overboard to do that,” the concerned mother added. “I was worried, and we were watching her.” She continued, “[On] Sunday, we followed her to work, followed her back home… to watch and make sure she was safe.”
By Sunday evening, things appeared to be back to normal at the Walker house. Emma and Keegan were texting about homework, and she went to sleep a little after midnight. On Monday, November 21, 2016, Jill went to wake up Emma a little after 6:00 a.m., but she wouldn’t get up.
“(I) said her name, didn’t hear anything, bumped her leg, didn’t hear anything,” Jill explained. “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 said. “She’s, she’s 16.” The 911 operator asked her, “You said that she’s nonresponsive?” And sobbing her eyes out, Jill answered, “Yeah.” Police went to the Walker house, and the forensic technician was Knox County Sheriff Deputy Nikki Blues, who said the call initially came 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,” Blues recounted. “There was a hole in the wall… it appeared to be a bullet hole.”
Blues said that “at that point, I knew that it probably was not a suicide.” When Knox County SheriffLt. Allen Merritt got to the scene, he noticed a bullet hole in the wall on the outside of the house that was “about shoulder high.” He described it as “just a small bullet hole. Just, you know, about the size of a ballpoint ink pen.”
He then discovered two shell castings outside the house, so he knew that two shots had been fired. After looking around, he eventually found a second bullet hole at a different part of the house, but at the same height as the first one.
He explained, “To an investigator, that tells me that the two shots were more than likely fired by the same suspect.” Emma Walker, a stunning, vibrant cheerleader, was killed by a gunshot wound to her head. Two bullets were fired into her bedroom from outside the single-story house. One bullet hit Emma behind her left ear, and the other one hit her pillow.
“Once the detective got there, we were asked to leave the residence,” the devastated mother 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.”
Police immediately started interviewing Emma’s friends and family that day, and according to Merritt, the same name kept coming up over and over again. “Everybody kept giving us the same Riley Gaul because of their relationship, because they had seen the way that Riley had treated her, the way he’d talk to her.”
Meanwhile, Riley took to his own social media to mourn Emma, with a long Facebook post and multiple Tweets. In one Tweet, he wrote, “Rest easy now, sweetheart. I love you forever and always.”
“What stood out to me from these tweets immediately was the repetitive nature of him saying, ‘I love you. I love you. I love you,’” Madisen Keavy, a reporter at ABC Knoxville affiliate WATE, noted. “Only knowing those posts about him, if you just read that, if you saw that, you would think that this was an ex-boyfriend who just lost his first love.”
As you can imagine, Emma’s family and friends were completely heartbroken. The night after her death, the devastated community held a candlelight vigil at Central High, and the cheerleading squad released balloons to honor her memory at the Bobcats’s football game that week.
Riley’s friends started getting a little worried about him. After Emma’s death, they told detectives a secret that Riley had told 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, were out to get Emma.” But Walton, another one of his friends, told detectives that Riley asked him how to get fingerprints off a gun.
“He said he was asking for his roommate,” Walton explained. “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.’”
Detectives brought Riley in for questioning to discuss his whereabouts during the previous 72 hours. Riley said that on Friday night, he was hanging out at his friend Walton’s house. During his two-hour police interrogation, Riley wouldn’t even call Emma by her name and referred to her as “the girl.”
“The girl, she texted me,” Riley told investigators. “Which girl?” Merritt said. “The one that passed away,” Riley responded. “When I first met him (Riley), I thought he might have been a grieving boyfriend,” Detective James Hurts said.
“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 explained to detectives that he had been trying to speak to Emma that weekend, but she refused to engage with him. “But she said if I would help her write her paper, she would talk to me,” Riley revealed. “And (Sunday night) I used one of my friends’ phones on campus to call her.”
“Our phone call didn’t go very well,” he said. “She just told me a bunch of cruel stuff, and she blocked his (friend’s) number.” Afterward, Riley told detectives that he went to his grandparents’ house for a little while before heading back to campus. Once he got there, Riley claimed to have cried in his car for “two, three hours” over his breakup with Emma.
But Merritt said that as he was describing this in the interrogation room, Riley was “emotionless.” “His interview was probably one of the more disconnected. It almost seemed rehearsed, deliberate,” Merritt explained.
At this point, the detective said they already knew from McCarty that Riley showed his friend his grandfather’s gun. Riley’s grandfather, who kept the gun in his car, had already reported the 9mm handgun missing before Riley even got questioned. Detectives asked Riley about the gun, but he said he had no idea where it was.
Not only did he deny showing the gun to McCarty, but he denied asking Walton about removing fingerprints from a gun. When detectives asked Riley to see his cellphone, he asked if he was a suspect. The detective replied, “Should you be?” but Riley continued to deny knowing anything about Emma’s death.
After Riley left the sheriff’s office that day, McCarty said he started receiving text messages from him. He asked if he told the police anything about the gun. In the messages, Riley went as far as to ask to tell his friends not to speak to the police anymore.
It was clear that he was worried. Walton even said that “he was on edge.” It was clear to everyone that Riley was consumed by anger and jealousy and had killed Emma. However, there was nothing police could do without more evidence or, even better, a confession.
Assuming that Riley was lying to the investigators, Walton and McCarty teamed up with the police and helped them lay a trap. On Tuesday night (just one day after Emma’s murder), detectives wired up Walton and McCarty with a microphone that allowed police to listen in to their conversations. A video camera was also hidden on a key chain. It was a planned sting operation to recover the suspected murder weapon.
“Those two young men contacted us and asked if they could help us get what they believed to be the murder weapon back,” Merritt said. “Obviously, there are concerns for safety. We went over all that with them, and they were still adamant, very adamant that they wanted to do this. They understood the dangers and the concerns, but they wanted to do it.”
The operation was successful. Riley opened up to Walton and McCarty, and Riley was arrested. They uncovered the gun, and police recovered a treasure trove of evidence, including black clothes and gloves.
Detectives say that the evidence points to Riley also being the “man dressed in black” who happened to be at Emma’s house the Saturday morning before she was killed. Riley wanted to scare Emma, so she would call him for help, and his plan worked. Well, until her mom came home and kicked him out.
Jurors saw a video of police interrogating Riley, who is accused of murdering Emma. At his trial in May 2018, Riley’s defense attorney argued in court that he never meant to hurt Emma. He only shot the gun to scare her and get her attention.
“He never intended to cause her harm, never intended to cause her death,” attorney Wesley Stone said. “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.”
Stone said that Riley denies being the “man dressed in black.” After five hours, Riley, who is now 19, was found 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, you get an automatic life sentence for a first-degree murder conviction.
After his sentencing hearing, Riley, who did not speak during his trial, apologized to the Walkers for killing their daughter, but stuck to his story that it was all a tragic accident.
“I’m sorry I took Emma away from you, that I robbed you of the experience of watching your daughter grow up,” Riley 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.”
His apology didn’t come across as genuine, though. He was jealous and mad, and he committed a horrific crime. Justice was served for Emma Walker. Her mother hopes that what happened to her daughter can serve as a warning for parents and teenagers dealing with tumultuous relationships.
“If your boyfriend or girlfriend is telling (you) 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 bruises; it’s emotional and controlling.” Since her untimely death, Emma’s family continues to keep her legacy alive.
Her mother said that Emma loved animals and had dreams of becoming a nurse. The family got a dog park and a NICU patient room at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital in honor of Emma. “It’s all things that are a part of Emma and all mean something,” Jill expressed. She only hopes that people remember her by “being kind to others.”