Disclaimer: This article contains mentions of murder. Reader discretion is advised.

Knoxville cheerleader Emma Walker’s ex-boyfriend, William Riley Gaul, was behind the 16-year-old’s shooting death. Walker died of a single but fatal gunshot wound to the head on November 21, 2016. As per ABC, the incident occurred after the victim broke up with Gaul, an 18-year-old college football player. The two had been in an on-again-off-again relationship for two years, and Gaul reportedly did not take the breakup well.

Detectives charged Gaul with first-degree murder, among other charges, following his arrest during a sting operation. Two of the suspect’s friends played a key role in the plot that authorities laid out to catch him as he attempted to dispose of the murder weapon. Then, in May 2018, a jury convicted him of Walker’s murder, among several other charges. He received a life sentence with parole after 51 years for murder and additional terms on other charges.

According to the Tennessee Department of Corrections, William Riley Gaul is currently serving prison time in the Northwest Correctional Complex.

Emma Walker’s murder case was recently featured in an episode of ABC 20/20’s Bad Romance. The episode premiered on the network on Monday, February 5, 2024.

What was Riley Gaul’s murder motive in the Emma Walker case?

ESPN reported that at Riley Gaul’s trial, prosecutors alleged that he intended to kill Emma Walker in anger after she ended their two-year relationship. ABC News reported that on the morning of November 21, 2016, Walker’s mother found the crime scene. Later, police discovered that the shooter had fired two bullets into her bedroom. One bullet fatally struck the cheerleader behind her left ear. They found the second bullet lodged in her pillow.

Knox County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Allen Merritt, who was the lead detective on the case, told 20/20 that friends and family believed Gaul could have hurt Walker. Merritt said, “Everybody kept giving us the name Riley Gaul, because of their relationship, because they had seen the way that Riley had treated her, the way he’d talk to her.”

The two had been in an on-again-off-again relationship. Walker reportedly broke it off with Riley Gaul a few days before she was murdered. The victim’s friends claimed that Gaul was controlling and obsessive. He reportedly continued to contact Walker even after their breakup.

ABC’s report mentioned that the investigation revealed a series of strange events that happened during the weekend leading up to the murder. Walker received anonymous texts that Gaul had been kidnapped. Moreover, a mysterious man dressed in black from head to toe tried to scare her off less than 48 hours before the incident.

How was Riley Gaul arrested in connection with Emma Walker’s murder?

Riley Gaul’s friends—Alex McCarty and Noah Walton—would later tell detectives about a gun that the 18-year-old claimed he took from his grandfather. They, along with the police, believed it was the weapon that he used to kill his ex-girlfriend, Emma Walker. Meanwhile, investigators learned that the killer had shot 16-year-old Walker with a 9 mm handgun, per ABC. It was the same caliber as the gun that Riley Gaul’s grandfather had reported missing. 

McCarty and Walton then laid out a plot with authorities to catch Gaul as he attempted to dispose of the murder weapon. They also found other evidence such as gloves, trash bags, tennis shoes, black tape, and black clothing inside the same trash bag that contained the gun. This led police to believe it was the same black clothing he used as the mysterious man dressed in all black as well as during the murder. They then arrested and charged him with murder and other charges.

ESPN stated that Gaul’s May 2018 conviction was on several charges including first-degree murder for Walker’s murder. Other charges were felony murder, stalking, tampering with evidence, theft of between $500 and $1,000, and possession of a firearm in a dangerous felony. The defendant also pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment before the trial. He received life in prison with parole after 51 years for murder and other additional sentences.

According to prison records, William Riley Gaul is currently serving a prison sentence of 60 years.

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