Emma Walker: Anatomy of a teen cheerleader’s murder

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Emma Walker: Daughter, sister, friend

Emma Walker had two loves: helping animals and helping people. She dreamed of being either a veterinarian or a NICU nurse. As she got older, she gravitated towards the medical field, so NICU nurse, it was. 

Compassionate, driven, everybody’s friend, and sassy are words used by friends and family over and over again, to describe the bright-eyed, big smiled 16-year-old Central High School student and cheerleader. 

“She was so kind and had so many friends. Sometimes you don’t always know those things firsthand, but hearing from other people how kind and well rounded. She wasn’t a follower; she was a leader,” said Jill Walker, Emma’s mother in January 2017. 

At that time, she was still processing her daughter’s death. In their family home, photos of her daughter hung on the walls and sat on the mantle. Family photos and individuals, and those with smiles or goofy faces and all there. 

Jill Walker told WATE 6 On Your Side her daughter’s legacy wasn’t how she died, but how she lived.

More than meets the eye 

At 16, Emma Walker was everyone’s friend. She was well liked, according to her parents. Her own friends, members of the Central High School cheerleading team, say the same. She was a sophomore when she started dating a member of the football team.

In photos, the pair seemed like the perfect match. The show Walker’s smile, hair pulled back in a high blonde pony tail, and her cheerleading uniform crisp white and red. The football player was a potential star, the “Golden Boy.” Their smiles were nearly infectious. 

More telling than what the photos show, is what they didn’t – months of on-and-off fighting through phone calls, text messages, fights in front of friends spanning two years. In 2016, even after Gaul graduated from Central, set to begin school at Maryville College and join the football team, they stayed together. 

Gaul was an 18-year-old freshman and Walker was a 16-year-old junior. By this time Walker’s parents were growing increasingly concerned, their bright-eyed daughter wasn’t the same. 

“We had reached our limits in trying to get something that worked for her, for her to see the light,” Jill Walker said during Gaul’s May 2018 trial. “This wasn’t the best thing for her, not the healthiest thing for her as a person, to be in a relationship with him.”

Even before his graduation, Walker’s parents saw signs they knew weren’t right. Their daughter lied to them about her whereabouts and sneaked out. Gaul sneaked into their home to be alone with Walker. 

They took her cell phone, hoping the act would keep the two teens from contacting each other. Instead, Gaul bought Walker an iPod touch that she would access through WiFi. 

Jill Walker asked for support from Gaul’s family, too. She testified during his May 2018 trial that Gaul’s family wouldn’t take her concerns seriously. 

In the fall of 2016, Walker started to see the same. She was spending less time on her phone, according to her father Mike Walker, and more time with them, like the times before Gaul entered the picture. 

After multiple attempts, Walker finally broke-up with Gaul. In October 2016, Walker told friends she was finally “done for good” according to friend, Kegan Lyle, who spoke to ABC “20/20” in a one-on-one interview. 

“Never told no” 

Two weeks after Walker broke up with Gaul, his behavior towards started to escalate. In the week before her death, he staged multiple attempts to get her attention – opportunities, his defense attorney Wesley Stone argued, that would win her back. 

One such event was a Halloween party after a Friday night Central High School Football game against Fulton High School. Emma Walker’s friends held a sleepover at another friend’s home. 

During this time, friends say Walker was receiving multiple phone calls from an unknown number. They describe Walker as “scared” and “sad.” 

Walker’s friends all support the same narrative, that Walker then went outside when she realized there was a person at the end of Sarah’s long driveway. 
The prosecution noting that person was Riley Gaul. Gaul claimed to have been kidnapped. Walker told him to leave. 

The defense noted during questioning, Walker chose to go outside on her own when she realized there was someone in the front yard. 

“She always seemed upset. It wasn’t consistent,” said a witness and Walker’s friend. 

Tipping point 

In May 2018, after only four hours of deliberation, a jury found Riley Gaul guilty of first-degree murder. He was convicted of shooting and killing his ex-girlfriend, Emma Walker, through her bedroom wall in November 2016.

There was an audible gasp in the courtroom when the verdict was read.

“Every day we seek justice for victims and today is no different,” said District Attorney General Charme Allen after court was dismissed.

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