Most of us have vivid memories of our first serious teenage relationship. The giddy feeling you got whenever their name popped up on your phone’s screen. The way your heartbeat would speed up when you saw them approaching you in the hallway. The thought of them loving you, as much as you love them in return, made you feel ten thousand feet tall
The highs and lows of that relationship could give you a kick of adrenaline. The heated passion of an argument, the soft warmth of making up. The drama can be addictive. But what happens when the cycle of sunshine and storms becomes too wild?
It was around six a.m. when Jill Walker went to her daughter’s room to wake her up in time for school. Jill said her name, and jostled her leg, trying to wake her. She received no response. This was unusual. Her daughter was a morning person, it never was this much work to wake her. She looked into her daughter’s face and took her pulse. She couldn't feel anything. Jill frantically called 911 and reported her daughter as non-responsive. The officers who appeared on the scene initially thought they had a suicide or overdose on their hands.
It was November 2016 and Emma Jane Walker's, born March 20th, 2000, cause of death was declared a bullet wound to the head. After inspecting the scene and finding two bullet holes punched into Emma’s bedroom walls, police determined it to be a homicide. Like any high schooler, Emma’s universe was centered on school, friends, and athleticism. She was an honor student who was dedicated to her cheerleading and excelled in the leadership and the skills of an entertainer it demanded. She also had a love of animals that extended to volunteer work at a local animal shelter.
Her relationship with her family was a close one. She was bubbly and caring. We all know the cliche line “they lit up the room” recited in true crime. But one with a look at a picture of Emma’s beaming smile, and you'll see the old cliche rang true in her case. Her future plans included becoming a nurse specializing in working with infants.
Enter Riley Gaul. A star wide receiver on his football team. A teen who participated in local church activities. Riley was a top student (whose friends admitted could be a bit of a nerd) and shared a close relationship with his grandparents.
The boy was bright. He had the wholesome looks of a Disney Channel sitcom star.
What more could a teen girl ask for in a boyfriend?
Riley and Emma met during her freshman year and his junior year. Riley was so smitten by the younger girl, that he broke up with his current girlfriend. He wanted to be free and clear just in case Emma decided to look his way. Emma did, and soon they became that teen movie dream couple. The boy next door football star and the beautiful cheerleader. It didn't take long before the sheen of perfection began to dull.
The first time Jill and Mike's eyebrows rose came near the end of his junior year. Riley kept a promise to take his ex to the prom that year instead of taking Emma. He made Emma’s parent worry that Emma wasn't a priority to Riley and was possibly insensitive to her feelings. Emma brushed it off, but now there was some tension when it came to the topic of Riley.
Emma’s friends didn't have much of a higher opinion. It didn't look like Riley wanted to get to know them, and kind of wished Emma didn't know them at all. Whenever she was with him, he’d blow up her phone. Riley clearly hated having Emma out of his sight.
Their relationship dynamic switched from youthful and dreamy to rocky and drama-filled. It was a vicious cycle of make-ups and breakups. But there was a darker side to that classic seesawing of young love.
Riley didn't like when Emma dressed in a certain way, he preferred to make her fashion choices for her. He worried about her working; he'd sit in his car outside of the supermarket throughout her entire shift. Again, Emma brushed it off. But as these things do, the situation escalated.
It began with verbally abusive Snapchat messages.
“I hate you I hate everything about you,” “You’re the biggest bitch I’ve ever come in contact with.”
After the aggressive disrespect came the love bombing.
“I love you more than words can describe,” “Emma, I’m sorry for however I act.”
The number of breakups and make-ups was beginning to tally up. Emma’s
parents had had enough, something about this relationship had their daughter tense and emotionally drained.
Riley was banned from the house, and Emma was forbidden to interact with him. But we all know what happens when you mix teens and anything forbidden.
The couple secretly communicated via an iPod. The relationship continued at a lower key.
Relief came when Riley moved to attend college and sunk his own ship. Riley, being the genius he was, began to post Snapchats of himself cozying up with other girls at this new school. After seeing the videos, Emma broke off things for good. She realized she deserved more than this; better than Riley. Riley’s response to the breakup was a failed Vicodin overdose in his college dorm room.
Emma was relieved he didn't succeed at his attempt, but their romantic relationship was still over.
One evening Emma was at a party and found herself being bombarded by bizarre texts. She confided in a friend that she thought Riley’s buddies were pranking her. The messages had her upset and uneasy, so the friend accompanied her outside to get some air.
They stumbled on Riley lying face down in a ditch. The two ran down to Riley and Emma demanded to know what was going on. According to a groggy and confused Riley, he’d for unknown reasons, had been kidnapped. He’d then been dumped in a ditch that happened to be near the party Emma was attending.
But no, no, he pleaded, please no one call the cops. There was no need. I guess it was one of those friendly kidnappings that nobody takes seriously.
Emma was also unconvinced of the authenticity of the friendly kidnapping.
On another day, Emma was home alone. She was getting ready to go meet her mom when she began to hear pounding at the front door. When she peeked out, she saw a tall figure dressed all in black, banging away. She hid deeper in the house as she texted Riley for help. Saying “I hate you, but I need you right now.”
Emma’s mom was puzzled when she came home and found Emma and Riley sitting in the Walker’s driveway and talking. Emma was genuinely shaken by this incident. So much so, that her parents followed her to and from the drive to work for peace of mind.
Her murder followed not long after this. Not much time passed before Riley began to raise red flags. It came as soon as the police brought him in for questioning.
His interrogation was bizarre. He couldn't remember simple details and begged them to not even consider him a suspect. He was devoid of emotion and demonstrated what seemed to be a refusal to say Emma’s name.
Everything was “the girl that was killed” this “the girl” that. It was such a flippant way to refer to the supposed love of your life who you faked a whole kidnapping to win back. Come on, everyone, Riley would never hurt “that girl”—move along. Yeah, no.
Riley would later tell his friends he’d borrowed his grandpa’s gun. He was so freaked out by everything; the protection was necessary. Even his closest friends weren't buying that. Two of them volunteered to participate in a sting operation.
During this sting, Riley's friends pretended to go along with his plan to dump the murder weapon. He was arrested before he got the chance. In his car, along with the gun, the police found a bag full of all-black clothing. The officers suspected this was the outfit he wore in his role as the wannabe intruder at the Walker’s front door. In court, Riley’s defense argued he never intended to kill Emma. He crouched outside her home and fired two gunshots into her bedroom to frighten her. Gaul wanted her to call him and give him a chance to play her rescuer, like during the intruder episode.
This ploy was unsuccessful. The jury found Riley guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison. Riley Gaul was found guilty because Emma’s death wasn't an accident of some love scheme he cooked up. It was cold-blooded murder.
He was in love with a girl who was no longer interested in him, and that was unacceptable in his eyes. As it is in so many abusers. It was the abusive relationship old adage; if he couldn't have her, no one could. Emma was young and found herself in a nightmare of a relationship. But despite her youth, Emma knew she deserved better in a relationship and broke things off.
Her story reminds us to keep an eye on friends and family. to try and register the signs of abuse because you never know how fast and how far things will spiral out control. Emma Jane Walker’s gentle, loving nature and dreams for the future are remembered and live on. Emma has both a neonatal ICU patient room at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital and a dog named in her memory.
Her story reminds us to keep an eye on friends and family. For us to try to register the signs of abuse. Because you never know how fast, or how far, things can spiral out of control.
Emma Jane Walker’s gentle, loving nature and dreams of the future aren't forgotten. They live on through her community. Emma has both a neonatal ICU patient room at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital and a dog park named in her memory.
At Army Pink, we believe in creating a better world for present and future generations by working together for peace. Our brand stands for women and girls who actively promote peace in their everyday lives. With our Peace Pendant collection, we inspire individuals to reflect on the meaning of peace and how they can embody it personally. Every purchase of a Peace Pendant not only empowers you but also contributes to a worthy cause. One dollar from each pendant sold goes towards providing transportation to assist someone in escaping an abusive relationship. Join us in making a statement for peace and supporting those in need with Army Pink.
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