Riley Gaul found guilty of first degree murder, felony murder

PHOTO: William Riley Gaul taken into custody after a jury finds him guilty of first degree...
PHOTO: William Riley Gaul taken into custody after a jury finds him guilty of first degree murder and felony murder.(WVLT)
Published: May. 8, 2018 at 5:44 PM EDT
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The jury has reached a verdict in the Central cheerleader murder trial Tuesday. Jurors made rulings concerning the charges filed against William Riley Gaul in connection to the shooting death of his ex-girlfriend Emma Walker. The Knox County Sheriff's Office said that on November 21, 2016, Gaul fired a 9mm handgun into Walker's bedroom while she was asleep.

Gaul was found guilty of first degree murder. He was found not guilty of especially aggravated stalking, but guilty of stalking; guilty of theft; guilty of tampering with evidence; guilty of reckless endangerment; not guilty of employing a firearm during a dangerous felony, but guilty of possession of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony; and guilty of felony murder.

He was originally charged with seven counts: first degree murder, especially aggravated stalking, theft, tampering with evidence, reckless endangerment, employing a firearm during a dangerous felony, and felony murder.

Judge Bob McGee imposed the mandatory life sentence for his murder charges Tuesday and ordered Gaul into custody.

According to the District Attorney's office, life in prison means Gaul will serve 51 years in prison before he is eligible for parole. Gaul's sentencing hearing was set for July 20 to determine his sentence on the remainder of his guilty counts.

WVLT News Reporter Donovan Long reached out to Emma Walker's mother, Jill, after the verdict was determined.

"We are just taking some time to collect our thoughts right now," Emma Walker's mother said.

In Court: Murder Trial Highlights

The high profile trial kicked off on Tuesday, May 1, and came to a close on Tuesday, May 8.

A jury of 11 people with two alternates was selected Monday, April 30. Jurors took their seats May 1 as prosecutors and the defense presented their cases and cross-examined witnesses.

During the trial, prosecutors gave jurors five reasons they believe Gaul was guilty: murder and attempt to kill, motive, placement and proximity, repetition, and shot trajectory. In opposition, the defense admitted that Gaul pulled the trigger of his grandfather's stolen gun, but argued that Gaul did not intend to harm Walker.

Family, friends describe relationship between Walker and Gaul

Gaul and Walker dated on-and-off for about two years, starting while they were Central High School students. Walker was a 16-year-old Central High School cheerleader and honors student. Gaul went on to play football at Maryville College.

Prosecutors opened arguments on May 1, saying that Gaul was dressed in black, from head to toe, when he shot Emma Walker at 3 a.m. at her home. Prosecutors described the relationship between Gaul and Walker as "toxic," saying that her parents had tried to stop her from seeing him.

During the trial, testimonies from family members and friends brought personal details of Walker's and Gaul's relationship to light.

On May 2, a 17-year-old Central High School student testified about Walker's "unsteady" relationship with Gaul. The teen said about two or three weeks after a breakup, Walker was "shaken up and scared" after Gaul allegedly came to her home and began yelling with her. The student testifying claimed that the next day Walker contacted her, saying someone was trying to get into her house. The witness said Walker sent a group text message to multiple friends during the incident.

A second friend said Walker texted friends, "I thought I was going to die," following the incident when someone allegedly tried entering her home. The same friend described Gaul as overbearing and controlling towards Walker. "It was never like the ideal relationship where you treat each other with respect," Walker's friend testified. "I felt she deserved better the whole course of the relationship."

According to a witness, a group of girls was at a sleepover on November 18 when Walker told them about "threatening texts" before going outside to see Gaul. When the group headed back inside, the witness said Walker told the girls she was scared. The witness said she assumed the text messages Walker spoke about were coming from Gaul.

"He was the only person who would do something like that," the witness said. "She wanted to get away from him for good this time."

The District Attorney's office described a pattern of stalking between Gaul and Walker in the nights leading up to her death. Prosecutors said he had been walking through Walker's neighborhood dressed in black. On May 2, a friend of Walker said she saw Gaul in Walker's neighborhood on the morning of November 19, wearing all black. She testified that Walker had texted her and said someone in all black had tried to break into her house.

Gaul in "dark place"

Several of Gaul's own friends testified on May 3 that Gaul was "in a dark place," and that the relationship between Gaul and Walker was "toxic."

Mac Seagle, a football player and student at Maryville College with Gaul, said Gaul had attempted suicide on MC campus about two weeks before Emma's death. Seagle and his friends took Gaul to the hospital, and Gaul returned to campus two or three days later, when he was said to be in counseling.

Technology's role in trial

Seagle told the jury that Gaul would borrow his phone to call either his mom or Emma. On the night Emma was shot, records showed 52 calls from Seagle's phone to Emma's within a 26-minute span.

Gaul's roommate, Andrew Walker Stanley, said on May 4 that Gaul did not return to their room at Maryville College until 4:45 a.m. the Monday following Walker's death. "He said he'd been out," Stanley recalled. "That was it. And then he asked if I could help him get up for his 8 a.m. [class] ."

Later, Stanley told the jury he received a Snapchat from Gaul saying not to talk to police.

Seagle said, however, that he did not believe Gaul was angry or violent, and had only threatened to hurt himself.

However, Gaul's best friend since second grade, Isaac Ewers, took the stand on May 3, recounting, along with friends Alex McCarty and Noah Walton, a bizarre incident on that Friday night, November 18, in which they received a call from Gaul, who stated he had been hit over the head and kidnapped and did not know where he had been taken. Not 10 minutes later, though, Gaul allegedly showed up where his friends had been and said he had been hit over the head and could not remember any events of the night.

That's when Ewers said he knew "where [Gaul's behavior] was heading." Ewers told the jury he believed Gaul had a potential to act violently towards himself and others after his alleged kidnapping.

A Knox County Sheriff's investigator said cell phone tower usage data indicated that Gaul had traveled from Maryville to Knoxville and back that night, and that Gaul was in Knoxville from 12:29 a.m. until 3:45 a.m. on November 21. Investigators said Gaul made calls to both his mother and a friend leading up to Walker's death.

The stolen gun

Gaul's grandfather said he kept his gun either in a dresser or under the seat of his car, always holstered. He testified that he had swapped cars with his grandson to get tires on Gaul's car. When he got back into his car, he told the jury he felt under the seat and found the holster was empty. He said when he asked Gaul about the missing gun, he denied knowing anything about it. He then reported the gun stolen, having never fired the gun before it went missing.

However, Gaul had told his friend Alex McCarty about being in possession of the gun, McCarty told the jury Thursday. McCarty then relayed that information to Isaac Ewers.

Ewers said Gaul had asked him to visit him in the days after Emma's death, but Ewers declined. When asked why, Ewers told the jury, "Because I knew that he had a hand in what had happened."

Ewers said he reached out to Gaul to confront him about a favor he had asked of his friends.

"What was Riley trying to get you to do?" the prosecution asked Thursday.

"To get rid of everything that he had, the weapon," Ewers answered.

Ewers said he urged Gaul to turn himself in to law enforcement, saying that if he was innocent, then the justice system would lead to that conclusion.

Defense arguments claimed that Gaul did not intend to harm his former girlfriend, although his behavior was "bizarre, reckless conduct" in the days leading up to her death. To defense questions, witnesses like Mac Seagle stated they only believed Gaul to be a harm to himself and not others.

Forensic evidence

On Friday, forensic technicians from the Knox County Sheriff's Office and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation took the stand, identifying photographs of Gaul's vehicle and items within it. The prosecution called Kendall Stoner with TBI. Stoner examined blood from Emma Walker and a handgun, taken from what investigators referred to as "the crime scene." Stoner also analyzed shoes, gloves, black sweatpants and a black sweatshirt taken from the Hyundai Tucson that Gaul was in when he was arrested by authorities.

Of those items, Stoner said DNA found on the gun was deemed inconclusive, while DNA taken from a shoe and a sweatshirt matched Gaul's DNA.

The jury was also shown pictures and video of Emma Walker's bedroom, the scene where she was shot and killed. Some pictures and portions of video were kept from the jury, and the judge analyzed 3D imaging from the crime scene while the jury was out of the courtroom.

On May 7, Dr. Christopher Lochmuller, Chief Deputy Medical Examiner of Knox County, took the stand in the prosecution's case. Lochmuller, who performed Walker's autopsy in 2016, said Walker could have died within minutes, or within hours, of being shot in her bed. He said while she was not conscious after being shot, the bullet did not enter her brain stem, meaning her death was not instant, and the bullet could have taken seconds, minutes or hours to kill her. Lochmuller confirmed that homicide was the cause of her death, with a gunshot wound to the head.

Knox County Major Crimes Investigator Allen Merritt also took the stand on May 7, saying that Gaul first became a suspect in the case after Merritt spoke with Walker's family. Merritt said the gun was shot from outside the house, and the entry hole was in a direct line with where her head would be on her pillow. Investigators found one spent shell casing in the yard, and Merritt said the shooter would have been four or five feet from the house when the gun was fired. A live round and a second spent casing were also found in the yard behind a shot that was found in the end wall of Walker's house.

Video of Gaul's interview with detectives

The court was shown a video of Gaul and detectives on May 7. In the video, Gaul said he was logged into his Maryville College account on his grandparents' laptop, so he could not log into his laptop at his dorm. For this reason, Gaul said he went to Knoxville to use his grandmother's laptop. However, last week, Maryville College's security chief testified that students could log onto multiple devices at once.

The video also included Gaul telling detectives he did not want to talk about an alleged kidnapping that had happened only days before Walker's death. Also in the video, Gaul discussed the missing gun, admitting that he had asked his friend Noah Walton about how to get fingerprints off a gun. He said he was asking that question "for his roommate."

In the video, Gaul denied having or showing his grandfather's gun to his friend Alex McCarty, who, according to testimony from him and Ewers last week, had been asked "To get rid of everything that he had, the weapon," Ewers said on the stand.

On May 7, the defense rested its case after instructing the jury to read through text messages in which Gaul has asked Walker if she needs any help with her homework.

Closing arguments

Just after 9 a.m. on May 8, the state started closing arguments describing Gaul's "obsession" with Walker.

"Emma's parents are crushed with a spirit that was like the sunshine to them. They are blessed they got to spend 16 years with her," the state argued.

Assistant District Attorney Kevin Allen spoke to jurors and pointed out alleged holes in Gaul's alibi the evening he is accused of killing Walker. "He was possessive, he was manipulative, he was controlling, he was toxic to her," Allen said.

WVLT News Reporter Donovan Long observed Gaul sitting with his head bowed as Allen said, "Everything started to a whirlwind as soon he [Gaul] got that gun in his hands [...] His plan was to get away with this."

The prosecution identified Gaul's cell phone data as one of the main sources of evidence in their argument.

"What foils him [Gaul] is his cell phone. His cell phone data was being collected [from cell towers] . This gives investigators an indication as to where Gaul was the night he allegedly murdered Emma. It negates his alibi that night," prosecutors said.

The defense also took their swing at closing arguments, fighting that Gaul did not intend to kill Walker.

The defense argued, "This case is about state of mind." According to Stone, Gaul's grandfather Jim Walker knew Gaul was having a "tremendous emotional crisis."

The defense debated about the differences between first degree and second degree murder and premeditated murder versus voluntary manslaughter.

A letter from Gaul to Walker was introduced by the defense.

"I promised you I'd never leave, but I'm worried after tonight you won't view me the same. I can't stop crying. I really wonder what's wrong with me. I can't live without you. I love you," the letter reads.

Police found the letter in Gaul's car during a search, according to the defense.

Jurors were asked by the defense to only find Gaul guilty of reckless endangerment in count five, reckless homicide, theft of property in count three and tampering with evidence in count four.

The defense rested their closing arguments just after noon Tuesday after showing a picture of Gaul and Walker together.

"This photograph on the wall represents a time when he [Gaul] was her [Emma] hero," the defense said.

The prosecution started presenting a rebuttal at around 12:05 p.m.

In their rebuttal, prosecutors say Gaul knew exactly where Walker slept and where her head would be the night he allegedly murdered her.

"Gaul knew how to use a gun and plead guilty to shooting a gun," Assistant DA Allen said. "This [shooting] was calculated. This was targeted."

Prosecutors wrapped up their rebuttal at around 12:30 p.m., then the judge presented instructions and sent the jury to deliberate.