Prosecutors declined to charge suspects in murder of Chicago journalist
According to police records obtained by The Associated Press, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute suspects in the murder of independent journalist Zack Stoner, despite investigators believing they had solved the case.
Stoner was shot and killed in the early morning of May 30, 2018, while driving in downtown Chicago, Illinois. Police never publicly announced arrests in Stoner’s shooting, but records obtained by the AP through an open-records request show investigators believe they solved his homicide when they arrested five members of Chicago’s “Perry Avenue” gang. In 2019, prosecutors declined to press formal charges and prosecute, and the suspects were released.
In police records and a statement to the AP, prosecutors cited insufficient evidence, inconsistent witnesses and a controversial legal principle called “mutual combatants,” in which both sides in a conflict agree to fight on equal terms, as reasons for not prosecuting. In mutual combatant cases, authorities are unable to determine who initiated gunfire and who returned fire in self-defense. One of Stoner’s passengers allegedly returned fire the night of his death.
Prosecutors told the AP they are leaving the door open to charges in Stoner’s case and “will review any additional information that is brought to us by police.”
On May 30, 2018, independent journalist Zack Stoner was shot and killed while driving in downtown Chicago, Illinois. Authorities have not said publicly whether they believe that the murder is connected to Stoner’s work.
WGN reported that Stoner was last seen alive around 1 a.m. in the early hours of May 30th, when he left a rap concert at Refuge, a club in downtown Chicago. Around 1:30 a.m., he was driving his Jeep down Clark Street in the South Loop neighborhood in Chicago when unknown assailants in a second vehicle pulled alongside him and opened fire.
The bullets struck Stoner in the head and neck, causing him to drive onto a curb and crash into a light pole. He was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in critical condition, but was declared dead at 4:20 a.m., according to a log from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Videos recorded by bystanders immediately after the shooting show three cars — Stoner’s Jeep, a wrecked Chevy Caprice, and a third car — and a group of people running to the third car. One of the persons in the video can be heard shouting, “Let’s go!”
Stoner, who grew up in a poor suburb of Chicago, ran a YouTube channel called “ZackTV1,” which had over 170,000 followers at the time of his death. On his channel, he posted exclusive interviews with underground hip hop artists and members of local gangs. Though some of his videos were controversial — a few mentioned conspiracy theories and others featured young men throwing gang signs and threatening their rivals — his friends and associates said that he always tried to remain neutral in gang disputes and was willing to interview anyone.
“He wasn’t in any gangs and he would and could literally go into any hood with his camera and get nothing but love,” music studio owner JP Lee told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“I’m hearing stories like they may have been mad at him because he did interviews with certain rappers," Stoner’s friend Phor Robinson told WGN. "But that’s not his fault for him doing his job. I don’t know why anyone would attack Zack and shoot him. He’s not that type. He shows love to everybody in Chicago.”
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.
“His voice was so powerful in the hood, and I don’t know if that power had something to do with his death,” Johnson told the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Stoner received threats related to his reporting, particularly his coverage of the death of Kenneka Jenkins, a teenage girl. On Sept. 10, 2017, Jenkins was found dead in a walk-in freezer at the Crowne Plaza O’Hare Hotel, where she had attended a party the night before. Although the death was ultimately ruled an accident, it sparked a massive social media frenzy and numerous conspiracy theories.
Stoner interviewed some of Jenkins’ friends who were with her the night that she died, but initially did not post the videos. In Oct. 2017, he received a threatening phone call from an anonymous woman, who warned him to “leave the case alone… leave it alone for your safety.” At the time, Stoner said 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. But in late November, he finally published the videos.
In April 2018, freelance journalist Charles Preston profiled Stoner for the Chicago Defender.
“Stoner documents what others neglect and repeatedly interviews personalities who many had hoped would never grace a camera,” Preston wrote. “His videos are not fluffy, glitzy, and sentimental documentary shorts; on the contrary, they are more like visceral punches to the gut that can leave you either inspired for change or disturbed by reality. He has given the city’s most controversial artists their first on-camera interviews and covered neighborhoods where news reporters keep their news trucks running.”
"I wanted to show the world what the other side of Chicago looks like…our culture — the way we dress, what we eat, how we talk, how we walk,” Stoner told Preston.
"A lot of people respect what I do," he added. "I'm the 'Hood CNN.'"
The profile also highlighted Stoner’s involvement in community service work.
“People don’t see what he does behind the scenes,” Woods, Stoner’s mentor, told the Defender. “There have been many occasions where a guy will call Zack on his way ride on his opps (Chicago slang for enemies) and Zack would talk him down. The brother has a jail phone. He sends money to incarcerated brothers and takes care of their families. People don’t get to see that side of it. They assume because he’s interviewing [members of rival gangs] the GD's or BD's that he’s fanning the flames and that’s not the case.”
Shortly after Stoner’s death was confirmed, Preston said on Twitter that Stoner had discussed the possibility of working with the Chicago Defender to create a documentary series about violence in Chicago.
Last time I talked to Zack, he was at Sip and Savor on 43rd. He was happy to be the first Chicago journalist to interview openly gay rapper @KiddoKenn. He told me that he wanted to do more docu-series on Chicago's violence.— Charles Preston (@_CharlesPreston) May 30, 2018
After I interviewed Zack for the Defender, I then introduced him to Frances Jackson, the boss at the time. I showed her his videos. She said "Let's do a docu-series with him." He thought he broke through. Two weeks later she was let go. He was really trying to get out the streets— Charles Preston (@_CharlesPreston) May 30, 2018