My life changed forever on the morning of November 21, 2016, when I discovered that my beautiful daughter, Emma, had been murdered in her sleep. Those are words every mother prays she never has to say. Emma was cheerful, kind and a friend to everyone. She had an infectious enthusiasm for life that was especially evident when she was doing what she loved: standing on the sidelines cheering on the Central High School Bobcats in our hometown of Knoxville. It was no surprise when Emma caught the attention of Riley Gaul, a junior and wide receiver for the Central High School football team. My first impression of him was positive. He was a polite and very normal looking boy. How could I have known that not only would he meet my daughter’s new boyfriend, but he would also meet her future murderer?
Her friends and I began to notice a pattern of controlling behavior. Riley decided that she wanted to have control over who Emma dated, where she went, and even what she wore. After that cycle of strange behavior, her controlling tendencies translated into the way she spoke to him: calling her horrible, degrading names and even saying, «You’re dead to me, I’ll check the obituaries.» This behavior continued and escalated so intensely that we banned him from our home and took Emma’s phone away in hopes of ending all communication between the two of us.
As seen in most domestic violence cases, it is an endless cycle of abuse, then apologies, then more abuse, then more apologies, then promises that he will «always love you.» Riley was doing just that with Emma. We began monitoring Emma’s every move, trying to make sure she never came into contact with Riley again. On the morning of November 21, 2016, I routinely went to wake Emma up for school. What I found is every mother’s worst nightmare: Emma was in her bed, murdered.
During Riley’s trial in 2018, he claimed that he never intended to kill her, but rather to scare her. After five long hours of deliberation, he was found guilty of first-degree murder, as well as stalking, robbery and reckless endangerment. In Tennessee, a first-degree murder conviction automatically results in a life sentence. Although justice was served for my daughter Emma, my hope is that all girls across the country and even the world will see the signs and run away.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and now more than ever we must show victims of domestic violence that what they are enduring is not normal, there is a way out, and they can be free from this. Since Emma’s passing, I have dedicated my life to helping victims of domestic violence escape their situations and receive the help they deserve. I am eternally grateful for Alex McCarty and Noah Walton, the two brave young men who helped seek justice for Emma. With their help, Riley Gaul was arrested for Emma’s murder.
By keeping Emma’s legacy alive, my prayer is that young men and women around the world going through similar situations will know that they have a voice and use it to stand against evil. Emma’s beautiful life, with a bright future ahead of her, was tragically cut short, but by raising awareness about the signs of domestic violence, together we can end this epidemic and save innocent lives. I pray every day that our world remembers to be kind to each other.
The victims’ families suffer trauma that no one can truly understand. Unfortunately, time and time again they are forced to relive their tragedy when faced with court proceedings. Marsy’s Law seeks to give victims the voice they deserve. Until Marsy’s Law is passed in Tennessee, victims and their families are not required to be informed about legal procedures related to sentencing, transfer, release, etc. The law passed the state House of Representatives last year, but there is still work to be done. I am very grateful for the work lawmakers have done on this important issue and this year I implore the Tennessee Senate to also support Marsy’s Law to ensure we put victims first.
Jill Walker is Emma Walker’s mother. She resides in Knoxville.