Inside A Toxic Teenage Relationship That Met The Ultimate Tragic End

In the fall of 2014, Emma Walker, a student at Central High School in Knoxville, Tennessee, began dating Riley Gaul (via ABC News). Walker, who was then a freshman, was also a cheerleader. One friend, Lauren Hutton, said cheerleading was more than just an activity to Walker. Hutton stated, "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." According to Oxygen, Walker's loved ones continually praised her outgoing personality and commitment to her dreams. Meanwhile, her new boyfriend, Gaul was a junior and a wide receiver on the school's football team.

ABC News writes that when Walker and Gaul first got together, it seemed like a match made in heaven, with both Walker's parents and friends approving of their relationship. However, All That's Interesting reports that her friends and family soon noticed that something was amiss with the two. They noted that Gaul began to alienate Walker and sent her explosive messages. When Walker's parents became aware of this behavior, they pleaded with her to break up with Gaul, to no avail. For the next two years, Walker and Gaul continued to date. Although Walker eventually broke up with Gaul, he refused to let her go.

Emma Walker and Riley Gaul's relationship became volatile

ABC News states that during the course of their two-year relationship, Walker and Gaul repeatedly broke up and got back together. Gaul's actions can be described as controlling. He reportedly told Walker what he thought she should wear and he began waiting for her outside of her work. Gaul also sent Walker alarming messages followed by apologies. One message read, "You're dead to me ... I'll check the obituary ... f**** you." Per All That's Interesting, Walker's parents intervened when they saw this text. They then forbade Walker from communicating with Gaul. However, he provided Walker with an iPod Touch for them to communicate.

Oxygen reports that Walker decided to end the relationship once and for all in the fall of 2016 when she saw Gaul pictured with other girls. By then, Gaul was a college student and was devastated by the breakup (via ABC News). His friends noticed a shift in his mood and Gaul also attempted to kill himself. Walker's parents, on the other hand, said that they saw positive changes in their home and with their daughter. This did not last long. According to Knox News, Walker was hanging out with friends in November 2016 when she received multiple disturbing messages from an unknown number.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Riley Gaul faked his own kidnapping

Per Knox News, the messages read, "Go to your car with your keys," and "Go alone ... I've got someone you love. If you don't comply I will hurt them." Walker thought she was being pranked and continued replying to the messages. They intensified and warned her that if she called the police, they would kill the individual they had. ABC News writes that Walker showed her friends the messages and went outside. There, they found Gaul lying face down in a ditch acting confused. He told Walker and her friends that he had been kidnapped and was unaware of his location.

Oxygen states that Walker did not believe Gaul's story and walked away. Knox News adds that she was angry that Gaul had pulled a stunt like this. According to ABC News, Gaul left and called his friend Noah Walton to tell him that he had been kidnapped. 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." However, Walton also thought that Gaul had fabricated the entire thing, especially when Gaul refused to contact the police about the alleged incident. Gaul later admitted to investigators that he was never kidnapped.

Emma Walker was killed in her sleep

The day after the kidnapping ruse, ABC News reports, Walker was disturbed by a figure dressed in all black. Oxygen explains that this individual came to her door and attempted to get inside. Scared and alone, Walker texted Gaul for help, who immediately arrived at the residence. According to Knox News, Walker's friends believed that this mystery person was none other than Gaul himself. Walker, however, did not believe so. Shortly after, Walker's mother, Jill Walker, came home to find her daughter with Gaul. She ordered him to leave as she also thought that Gaul was the figure in black. She told Emma that this was another method to get her attention.

All That's Interesting reports that Walker's parents made sure she was safe for the rest of the weekend and nothing else out of the ordinary occurred. On Sunday, November 20, 2016, Walker went to sleep and never woke up. When her mother went into her room the next morning, Emma was unresponsive (via ABC News). Police were called to the scene and they thought that she had killed herself. However, it soon became clear that this was not the case. Oxygen writes that investigators discovered two bullets had been shot into Walker's bedroom wall. One of the bullets hit Walker behind her left ear, killing the 16-year-old.

Riley Gaul's friends helped bring him to justice

As investigators began to talk to Walker's friends and family, one name continued to come up; Riley Gaul (per ABC News). When questioned by the police, Gaul admitted being heartbroken by their breakup and speaking to Walker shortly before her death (via Oxygen). On the day she was killed, Gaul revealed that she spent the night crying over the demise of their relationship. Nevertheless, investigators believed they had Walker's murderer. However, they had nothing to prove it until Gaul's friends Alex McCarty and Noah Walton came forward with key pieces of information. Although Gaul had also told his friends that he was innocent of any crime, they noted that he was acting suspiciously.

According to ABC News, Gaul told McCarty that he had stolen his grandfather's gun in order to protect himself and Walker after his "kidnapping." Additionally, he asked Walton how to get rid of fingerprints on a gun. Oxygen reports that Gaul also asked the two if they could dispose of his grandfather's gun in the Tennessee River as Gaul believed that having the gun could frame him. Ultimately, McCarty and Walton were convinced of his guilt.

With this information, police asked them if they were willing to go undercover (via Oxygen). McCarty and Walton agreed and planned with Gaul to get rid of the gun. Unbeknownst to him, his friends were wearing wires and were not about to let that gun disappear. All That's Interesting states that police swiftly arrived at the scene. They took Gaul into custody along with several pieces of evidence, including the gun.

Riley Gaul claimed that murder was not his intention

Per ABC News, 19-year-old Gaul (above) was charged with first-degree murder, stalking, theft, and more. According to Knox News, he was found guilty of each of these charges in May 2018. Gaul received a life sentence and will be eligible for parole when he's in his 70s. Another article by Knox News explains that Gaul was indeed the figure dressed in black who had scared Walker. After that ruse had failed, he went to her home to frighten her once more, believing that it would lead to their reunification. Gaul fired the gun he had stolen from his grandfather hoping that it would startle her and make him look like Walker's savior. He did not think that the bullets could go through the wall.

During his sentencing, Gaul stated (via ABC News), "I'm sorry I took Emma away from you, that I robbed you of the experience of watching your daughter grow up." He added, "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." In 2021, WATE reported that Gaul was seeking to be acquitted of Walker's murder and a new trial. He was later denied this request (per another article from WATE). According to ABC News, Walker's mother, Jill, hopes that her daughter's brief life can demonstrate to others how emotional abuse can be just as deadly as physical abuse.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.