Independent music journalist Zachary Stoner was shot to death in the early hours of May 30, 2018, in Chicago, Illinois. Stoner published videos to his YouTube channel zacktv1, which focused on community life and hip hop music artists in his hometown of Chicago.
The night he was killed, Stoner had gone to a rap concert at Refuge nightclub inside the South Loop, news reports stated. According to an investigation into Stoner’s killing by The Associated Press, published in November 2022, the atmosphere turned as two rival factions engaged in a rap battle, and one witness said that Stoner appeared nervous and implored his friends to leave.
At 1:29 a.m., Stoner left the club in his Jeep with two passengers and was driving down Clark Street when unknown assailants in a minivan pulled alongside his car and shot Stoner, news reports stated.
Stoner, 30, was struck in the neck and head, causing him to drive onto a curb and crash into a light pole. After Stoner’s car crashed, his friends, one with graze wounds, fled, the AP reported.
A video taken immediately following the shooting by a neighbor, Aaron Dunlap, shows at least three people running to a third vehicle; one can be heard shouting, "Let’s go!"
When police arrived at the scene at 1:35 a.m., Stoner was still alive, and an officer found Stoner’s .40-caliber pistol, loaded but not fired, at his feet, the AP stated.
Stoner was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in critical condition, but was declared dead at 4:20 a.m. on May 30, according to a log from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.
According to the AP report, Stoner had predicted that a gang, piqued by his reporting, may try to kill him, so he always had a gun within reach, explaining in one video: “You just gotta be prepared.”
While Stoner was not part of a gang, he grew up in “Goon Town” gang territory, making it possible that members of other gangs, and police, could have perceived Stoner as a Goon Town member, the AP stated.
Having referred to himself as "the best interviewer in the world" in his Twitter profile, Stoner went by ZackTV and was a popular vlogger–or video blogger–known for his coverage of hip hop and the realities of life in his community, particularly those of young black men. The Chicago Defender quoted Stoner as saying, "A lot of people respect what I do. I’m the ‘Hood CNN.’"
Stoner interviewed notable rappers including Chief Keef and G Count, and had posted more than 1,700 videos to his channel, which had a following of over 176,000 people. Some of his videos were controversial–a few mention conspiracy theories, and others feature young men throwing gang signs and threatening their rivals.
Stoner was also known as a peacemaker, reported the Chicago Sun Times, due to his reputation for interviewing leaders of opposing gangs and organizations and seeking out opportunities to help them settle their differences. Lamarr Stoner, a cousin of Zack Stoner who lives in Chicago, told CPJ, "[Stoner] was going to different hoods, talking to rappers in places the media can’t go, filming and recording, and making sure the word got out on the street and around the world about what was going on." In April 2018, journalist Charles Preston wrote in the Chicago Defender, "Stoner documents what others neglect," giving "the city’s most controversial artists their first on-camera interviews and cover[ing] neighborhoods where news reporters keep their news trucks running."
A friend of Stoner’s, Phor Robinson, was quoted by WGN TV as saying, "I’m hearing stories like they may have been mad at him because he did interviews with certain rappers. But that’s not his fault for him doing his job." Morgan Elise Johnson, co-founder and creative director of the Chicago-based publication The Triibe, met with Stoner and his business partner Tony Woods a month before Stoner’s death to discuss a potential partnership. Johnson told CPJ, "His voice was so powerful in the hood, and I don’t know if that power had something to do with his death."
Stoner had also received threats connected to his coverage of the death of a teenage girl, Kenneka Jenkins, in September 2017. While her death was ultimately ruled an accident, it sparked a social media frenzy and numerous conspiracy theories. In October 2017, an anonymous woman called Stoner, warning him to "leave the case alone… leave it alone for your safety." In a video, Stoner reported that he would not post interviews related to the case because his house had been broken into, his camera gear stolen, and he was receiving threatening phone calls and emails. Almost two months later, however, he did publish the videos.
In October 2018, a spokesperson told CPJ in a phone call that the department was treating the murder as a cold case.
According to the November 2022 AP report, police records obtained by the news organization indicate that Chicago police believed they solved Stoner’s killing when they arrested members of South Side Chicago’s “Perry Avenue” gang, but prosecutors in 2019 declined to press charges.
Perry Avenue gang is a rival to the Goon Town gang, and for years the two fractions have posted rap videos on social media taunting each other, the AP stated.
The AP reported that police arrested five suspects in 2018 and 2019 on probable cause of first-degree murder, the records stated, but prosecutors released the suspects citing “inconsistent witnesses.”
The Cook County State Attorney’s Office cited the possibility that the two sides in the shooting were “mutual combatants,” a disputed legal term, the same AP report stated.
The Cook County State Attorney media department told CPJ by email in November 2022 that “the evidence was insufficient to meet our burden of proof to file charges,” and that the “Chicago Police Department agreed with our determination in this case.”
The Chicago Police Department’s office of communications told CPJ in an email that they would defer comment to the Cook County State’s Attorney Office.