Update: Jurors on Tuesday found William Riley Gaul guilty of first-degree murder, theft, tampering with evidence, reckless endangerment, and felony murder after about four hours of deliberation.
She was a spark of light: strong-willed, silly, and sarcastic.
“I hope to God I’m not a suspect in her death,” William Riley Gaul told detectives in November 2016, soon after his 16-year-old ex-girlfriend, Emma Walker, was found lifeless in her Knoxville, Tennessee, bedroom. “I wouldn’t hurt that girl. I would hurt myself before I hurt her.”
Gaul, then 18 years old, complained to investigators that Walker had done some “cruel things” to him during their tumultuous break-up. But he never wanted to harm her—he couldn’t think of anyone who would.
At the time, Gaul had recently completed his freshman year at Tennessee’s Maryville College, where he was a wide-receiver on the school’s Division III football team. During his two-hour interview with investigators, Gaul repeatedly denied having a hand in Walker’s death—or possessing a gun, as a concerned friend had already told cops.
But that story differs from the one that Gaul’s defense attorney presented to jurors this month at Knox County Criminal Court—where Gaul is standing trial on charges of first-degree murder, especially aggravated stalking and tampering with evidence.
These facts are no longer disputed: that around 3 a.m. on Nov. 21, 2016, Gaul fired shots into Walker’s window from outside. Hours later, the high-school cheerleader was found dead by her mom with a gunshot wound to the head. She’d been killed in her sleep with a 9mm handgun, officials determined.
“There was no response. I said, ‘Emma.’ There was no response,” the honor student’s mom, Jill Walker, told jurors last week. “I was checking for a pulse. There was no response.”
On Tuesday, jurors heard closing arguments from lawyers in the case. They’re expected to begin deliberating in the afternoon.
Each side has a vastly different explanation for what brought Gaul to Walker’s one-story home that night with his grandfather’s gun in hand. Prosecutors allege that Gaul, who was dressed in all black, was a “premeditated cold-hearted killer” who fired several rounds into Walker’s bedroom with the express purpose of killing her, an act of anger stemming from the dissolution of their rocky two-year relationship.
“He was possessive. He was manipulative. He was controlling. He was toxic to her,” prosecutor Kevin Allen said during closing arguments on Tuesday.
“His plan was to get away with his, his plan was to never get caught,” he added.
Gaul’s team argues that Walker’s death was an accident, a foolish attempt to scare her in a bid to win back her affection that went terribly awry.
“Mr. Gaul committed the offense of reckless endangerment with the hope of coming to her rescue, of being her hero,” defense attorney Wesley Stone told jurors last week, 10 News reported.
Prosecutors allege that in the days before the shooting, Gaul did exhibit some extreme behavior—but it was all part of a larger plot to shift the blame for Walker’s death away from himself. On the Friday night before she was killed, Walker was celebrating a football win when she received a series of texts saying a loved one had been kidnapped.
“Go to your car with your keys,” one of the texts said, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. “Go alone.… I’ve got someone you love. If you don’t comply I will hurt them.” “We have him now,” the texts continued. “If you don’t care about him anymore then it shouldn’t bother you. Call the police, and he dies. Your choice.… If you’d like to hear his final screams, give me a call. He’s in a ditch beside [the] house. It’s a shame you can all of a sudden not value someone’s life.”
Suspecting Gaul was behind the texts, she walked outside, her friends testified at trial.
“We see a figure laying down on the ground, facedown, like covering his face,” Zach Greene told jurors.
It was Gaul, who claimed he’d been “hit over the head” and couldn’t remember anything. He later told his own incredulous friends that he’d been kidnapped, too. No one believed him, they testified last week.
“We knew that this was not really a kidnapping,” Isaac Ewers said in court on Thursday.
Gaul’s friend Alex McCarty testified that he told cops about the gun Gaul had after Walker’s death, at which point police gave him a wire to gather evidence. On Thursday, jurors watched a secret recording of Gaul, in which he tells his friends that he wanted “to be upset” over his ex-girlfriend’s death, but was too worried about getting busted by police. He then asked them to help him dispose of the gun.
“I’m trusting you guys with my life because this is 70 years in jail if I’m convicted of something I didn’t do,” he says at one point in the video.
Sitting on a couch, Gaul insisted he’d never hurt Walker—and only had the gun because he was “scared.” He begs them to tell police they got their story all wrong.
“You just tell them you were on acid, high and drunk, and you didn’t understand me,” Gaul said. “Yeah, just do that, because they don’t know anything or I would be in jail right now.”
His plan was to toss the gun in the Tennessee River—at a spot called “the Bluffs.” But Gaul, who had no idea law enforcement had been surveilling him, never got that far. Shortly after he pulled out the weapon in his car to show to his friend, police arrived, arresting him on murder charges.
“There’s not a human on earth that can make the impact that you’ve had on my life,” he’d written about Walker on Twitter the day before his arrest. “I miss you more than anything. You’ll weigh heavy on my mind for the rest of my life because no one can fill the void that’s in my heart now.”