The Tennessee college football player who fatally shot his cheerleader ex-girlfriend after she ended what prosecutors described as a “toxic” two-year relationship has been convicted of first-degree murder.
On Tuesday, just before 6 p.m., a Knoxville County jury found William Riley Gaul, 19, guilty of first-degree murder and felony murder in the Nov. 2016 death of ex-girlfriend Emma Walker, 16, the Associated Press reports.
The first-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory life prison sentence with no possibility of parole for 51 years, according to the Kansas City Star.
Gaul also was convicted of stalking, theft of between $500 and $1,000, possession of a firearm in a dangerous felony and reckless endangerment, the Associated Press reports. Gaul pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment before the trial.
Prosecutors said that the killing was premeditated and that he refused to move on after Walker broke up with him, stalking her in the days and weeks before he murdered her on Nov. 21, 2016.
His defense argued that Gaul didn’t mean to hit Walker when he fired, but instead made a deadly mistake as part of a twisted plot to present himself as Walker’s rescuer to win her back after she broke up with him.
Gaul was arrested a day after the fatal shooting and initially denied any involvement.
The Killer’s Shifting Story
During questioning, Gaul told Knox County Sheriff’s Office detectives that Walker had broken up with him in a “cruel” manner. “She told me, ‘You need to stop. You’re crazy. You need a life,’ he said, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports.
Gaul told authorities that when he last spoke to Walker at about midnight — just hours before he shot her — she told him to stop calling her. Initially, he told detectives that after that call, he spent hours in the parking lot of his dorm, crying and looking at pictures on his phone before going to bed at about 4:45 a.m.
But investigators were able to pinpoint that Gaul’s phone was near Walker’s home at about 3:45 a.m. — the same time witnesses heard gunshots, the News Sentinel reports.
On Friday, Walker Stanley, Gaul’s roommate and football teammate, testified that after the shooting, Gaul came back to their dorm room at 4:45 a.m. where he fell asleep, WVLT reports.
“He said he’d been out,” Stanley testified. “That was it. And then he asked if I could help him get up for his 8 a.m. [class].”
After Emma’s body was discovered, Gaul sent Stanley a text on Snapchat asking him not to talk to police, Stanley testified.
Hours before the shooting, Gaul also asked Stanley if he knew how to remove fingerprints from a gun, Stanley testified, according to the News Sentinel. Previous testimony alleged that Gaul had put the same question to another friend, Noah Walton, but claimed to be asking on behalf of Stanley.
Stanley testified that while he didn’t know Gaul very well, he seemed to be having problems, the newspaper reports.
“I could tell he just wasn’t in a good place in his life,” said Stanley. “He was losing weight.”
In the days before Walker’s death, when she was breaking up with Gaul, witnesses testified that he began exhibiting bizarre behavior, such as staging his own kidnapping to win her sympathy.
Victim Was Honors Student, Planned to Become Neonatal Nurse
Walker’s mom, Jill Walker, previously told PEOPLE that in addition to being a cheerleader, her daughter was “also so many things to so many people.”
“She was a daughter, a sister, a friend,” she says. “She would act silly and didn’t care what other people thought. She didn’t care about being in a certain group. She was friends with everybody.
“She was involved in her community, had a job and was an honors student. She was an independent little thing and could be stubborn — and sassy. She marched to her own drum.”
But mostly, Jill says, “Emma had a big heart.” The teen planned on being a neonatal nurse.
“She loved babies, animals and old people,” her mom says. “If she saw an elderly couple together, she would always say to me, ‘Oh, there is the cutest little couple.’ ”
It was not immediately clear when Gaul will be sentenced, or what sentence he faces.
Calls for comment to Gaul’s attorney were not immediately returned.