Four years ago, DaBaby signed a deal with Interscope Records that would change his life. Just 11 weeks prior, he had taken one.
At the time, the rapper was a few years shy of global fame, whether for a steady stream of chart-topping songs and Grammy nominations, various brawls, or widespread condemnation last summer after making homophobic remarks and comments about people with HIV/AIDS.
But in 2018, DaBaby, whose real name is Jonathan Kirk, was just another buzzy, cocky North Carolina artist who relied on a local fan base to pass around his YouTube videos and SoundCloud links in the hopes of landing a major record label.
Jaylin Craig was one such listener. Being an early admirer of Kirk cost the 19-year-old his life, according to his family, after a chance encounter at a Charlotte-area Walmart ended with Kirk shooting and killing Craig on Nov. 5, 2018.
Kirk has always claimed he acted out of fear for his and his family’s safety, describing a scenario where he was approached by two young men who allegedly threatened him and whipped out a firearm while he was shopping with his then-partner and their children. Kirk claimed he fired his own gun in an act of self-protection and to keep his family safe.
But Rolling Stone has obtained never-before-seen security footage of the fatal altercation that appears to contradict key aspects of Kirk’s version of events. From the footage, the rapper appears to be the initial aggressor in the situation, calling into question DaBaby’s self-defense claim. To Craig’s family, the video footage raises some serious questions; most important, would Jaylin Craig still be alive if Kirk hadn’t thrown the first punch?
“I feel like they just swept it up under the rug,” Craig’s mother, LaWanda Horsley, tells Rolling Stone of the investigation into her son’s death. “[Kirk] knows what he did. I’m not doing this for no fame or anything, because at the end of the day, Jaylin Craig is gone.”
Craig’s family members and his best friend, Henry Douglas, claim the altercation only started when Kirk became annoyed that the teens had recognized him, and he allegedly demanded they take things outside for a fight. While Kirk claimed to police that one of the teens had first suggested they should fight, the footage shows Craig standing nearby as Kirk sucker punches a blindsided Douglas, barreling into him and striking him in the face. The injury left Douglas with a bruised eye socket and a gash in his forehead that required stitches.
At one point immediately after Kirk’s initial attack on Douglas, Craig appears in one block of footage to pull out a gun from his waistband, but as he walks out of frame, he appears to begin to put it back. Other footage from later on in the fight, in which it’s unclear whether or not Craig is still brandishing his gun, then shows Kirk pulling out a concealed Glock from his waistband and mortally wounding Craig. Officials later determined, based on the security footage, witness testimony, and a weapon found near Craig’s body, that Craig had a gun on him, but it’s inconclusive if Craig was brandishing the gun as he approached the two men.
The whole altercation lasted less than a minute and ended with a wounded Craig running into a nearby aisle and leaving a trail of blood before collapsing in the same spot where medics would pronounce him dead minutes later.
Kirk has hardly shied away from the events of that fateful Monday evening, in fact bragging about the shooting on several tracks. In the 2020 hit “Rockstar,” he boasts about his one-year-old daughter having witnessed him kill someone, hailing her as a gangster. (“My daughter a G, she saw me kill a nigga in front of her before the age of two.”) Four days after Craig’s death, Kirk released a video for his new song “No Tears,” compiling local news footage of the mayhem for the song’s intro, with lyrics mentioning the shooting, despite the case still being under investigation. “And any nigga, touch me, catch a body like Boosie. Try me, I’m shootin’. No back and forth, just up it, I’m blowin’.” (A rep for the rapper did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Outside of his music, Kirk has been more tight-lipped on specifics. He has always maintained that he acted in self-defense; a loving father protecting his then-partner Mariah Osborne and their two young children while the family was shopping for winter clothes. He claimed to police that Craig and Douglas had been eyeing him up and lurking in nearby aisles until they finally approached him, allegedly threatening him and brandishing a gun, leading Kirk to draw his own weapon and shoot, killing Craig.
“Daughter could have got hit, son could have got hit [and] me,” DaBaby claimed in an Instagram video days after the shooting. “Lawyers … telling me not to say nothing … But two [people] walk down on you and your whole … family, threatening y’all, whip out [a gun] on y’all, let me see what y’all going to do.”
The case was closed in June 2019. Kirk wasn’t prosecuted for Craig’s death, but was charged and convicted of carrying a concealed weapon and sentenced to 12 months’ probation with a suspended jail sentence.
Dave Chappelle’s mention of the killing last year renewed some short-lived attention on Craig’s death amid various other criminal matters and civil lawsuits involving Kirk. But while Kirk’s fans may have moved on, Craig’s family has not. Four years after his death, his relatives have adopted a street in his honor in Charlotte, as the family is still trying to make sense of how Kirk was able to get off relatively scot-free for the killing.
Still living in Charlotte, Horsley suffers from anxiety, learning of her son’s death when she was sent a graphic image being shared on social media of Craig lying lifeless on the ground next to a pool of blood.
She steers clear of anything related to Kirk, saying that she finds him and his music triggering. Before the death of Craig, her third child, she shopped every week at the same Walmart where he was shot dead. Today, she can’t even drive past the location without suffering an anxiety attack. “I kind of stay at home,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t go to the mall; I don’t do anything. I quit going to events. If I know I have no control in the music, I don’t go.”
Jaylin’s father, Curtis, who works as a truck driver, says he and his son were inseparable. He has trouble understanding how his son wound up dead, with Kirk claiming the 19-year-old had been looking to cause trouble. “My son wasn’t even like that,” he says. “He wasn’t even ‘gangster.’ We didn’t raise them like that.”
“That’s what eventually started it; when he took it the wrong way. We were trying to see who you are, and he took it as somebody is looking at him with a problem” – Henry Douglas
Horsley, Curtis, and other family members all believe Craig’s killing was unjustified, yet their story has largely gone unheard. It’s not because they were trying to stay under the radar; during Kirk’s trial for the concealed-weapon charge, Horsley and Curtis turned up to court to speak with local outlets in the hope of sharing their son’s story. They disputed the unfounded rumor that Craig had attempted to rob Kirk, and claimed it was the rapper who had started the altercation by throwing the first punch, only to see their quotes whittled down to a line or two and, in multiple cases, Craig’s name misspelled. (Even the death-investigation report prepared by Mecklenburg County Assistant District Attorney William Bunting misspelled Craig’s name throughout the six-page document.)
Kirk destroyed their family, Horsley says, but it took all these years before anyone came to them asking for their side of the story. “We never hid from nobody,” she explains. “We never [heard] from nobody. Y’all knew our names from a news clip. But nobody ever asked us what was Jaylin like. Nobody.”
“This is stressing me out right now because every time you turn on the radio, you hear him,” Curtis adds. “You can’t even listen to the radio. I think about my son constantly. We all are going through the same stuff. Every time we talk about it, we think we are getting somewhere, and nobody is trying to help us. Every lawyer we talked to, they look into this case [and say] ‘OK, we are going to get back with you.’ We don’t hear nothing [back].”
Then there was Kirk seemingly crowing about the shooting in his music. After “No Tears,” he released a video for “Walker Texas Ranger” in January 2019, where he fights with a Black man whose hair is braided similarly to Craig’s, followed by the release of “Leave Me Alone (Freestyle),” on which he raps “The last nigga played, he no longer here, goddamn.” By the end of the month, 11 weeks after Kirk had killed Craig, Interscope Records announced a deal with the rapper.
It sickened Craig’s family to watch Kirk seemingly launch a career off the back of their son’s death. But until last spring, they could only go on their faith in their son’s character and the word of Douglas, who insisted that Kirk instigated the fight. After years of pleading with Huntersville Police and the district attorney’s office, as well as being bounced around different departments, Horsley was finally handed the entire police file pertaining to Craig’s case in April 2021.
It took days for Horsley to sift through the hefty white binder filled with various reports alongside dozens of videos and audio recordings connected to the case. But nestled among the videos was a clip that changed everything in the family’s eyes. Because to them, it’s proof that the full truth of what actually happened has never been told.
Henry Douglas learned that his best friend since fourth grade was dead a day before Douglas’ 20th birthday. The news was delivered following a 12-minute interview with police after the shooting, with Huntersville Police Department Detective Tim Lesser questioning Douglas in his hospital bed, while he was waiting to receive stitches. (Lesser referred Rolling Stone’s request for comment to the department’s public-information officer, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment beyond providing a police incident report.)
“Do you know anything on Jaylin’s status?” Lesser asked him to conclude the interview.
“Nah, I ain’t talked to him. Is he all right?,” Douglas replied. “Why don’t you tell me if he not?”
Life has not been the same for Douglas since. He says he’s crossed paths with Kirk twice since the fatal altercation; once at a downtown Charlotte sports bar, another time more recently, at a Charlotte Hornets basketball game. Each time Douglas was far enough away from Kirk, but he still felt the need to remove himself from the venue, unable to bear being in Kirk’s presence even from a distance. “I guess you could kind of say it’s like a PTSD type of thing,” Douglas tells Rolling Stone.
The childhood friends were fresh off a shift at Wikoff Color Corp. in nearby Fort Mill, South Carolina. It was November, and with colder weather moving in, they made a stop at Walmart to find thermals to wear under their work gear.
Walmart surveillance footage reviewed by Rolling Stone shows the pair entering the store around 6:30 p.m., laughing, both dressed in hoodies, tracksuit bottoms, and rubber slides. While walking around, Douglas recalls, Craig spotted someone he thought looked familiar, a local rapper who went by the name of DaBaby. At first, Douglas tells Rolling Stone, he doubted it was Kirk, simply because he wasn’t dressed in a way befitting a hot, rising rapper. And beyond that, this man was shopping for baby clothes in a Walmart. Douglas admits that as they kept walking he took some extra glances toward Kirk to figure out if it was really him.
That’s when Kirk noticed them. “That’s what eventually started it; when he took it the wrong way,” Douglas says. “We were trying to see who you are, and he took it as somebody is looking at him with a problem.”
Kirk’s memory of the lead-up to the shooting aligns with Douglas’, according to the 45-minute testimony Kirk gave to Lesser obtained by Rolling Stone. In the midst of shopping with Osborne and their children, Kirk claimed that Craig and Douglas were staring at him.
“They’re staring at me like they recognize me; like they was about to come pull a gun out,” Kirk told detectives, adding that he assumed the teens were looking to cause trouble. “What I’m hearing from it, they see me with my girl and my kids and [think], ‘This is a perfect opportunity to do something to him.’ … They’re trying to get me to provoke them so they could pull a gun out.”
Throughout his interview with police, Kirk repeatedly plays up being a loving, protective father, mentioning how he was doting on his daughter, holding up outfits with “hearts and unicorns,” planting kisses on the one-year-old and giving her a lollipop. He alludes to feeling vulnerable with two people allegedly lurking nearby while he was out with his family, confessing to police to having a firearm on him.
Both Douglas and Osborne told police that Kirk initiated the conversation, calling out something to the effect of “Do you know me?” Recognizing Kirk’s voice, Douglas says, he responded back: “I said, ‘Oh, I thought that was you.’ We turned around and walked off.”
Douglas claims he was about to say hello to a woman he knew in the store and walked past Kirk again, when Kirk seemed intent on creating an issue, demanding to know what he and Craig were doing and insisting on going to the parking lot to fight. (Kirk claimed to police that Douglas had first suggested the idea of fighting.)
Douglas claims he had never been in a fight before. But because an acquaintance of Kirk’s seemed ready to get involved too, Douglas says he wanted to diffuse the situation. Douglas says he agreed to go outside, thinking he and Craig could just hop in their cars parked near the entrance and leave.
In line with Douglas’ account, as he takes a few steps back and slightly turns away, Kirk is seen on surveillance footage unexpectedly launching into Douglas, striking him in the head and nearly tackling him to the ground. He would later tell the police that he began to “tussle” with Douglas to try to “get the jump on” either Douglas or Craig because he was with his family and the two men allegedly wouldn’t leave them alone. Douglas, Kirk, and Osborne make no mention in police interviews of Craig being directly involved throughout the brewing altercation, and Bunting’s death-investigation report notes that in his statements to police, Kirk did not say he’d actually seen a gun on Craig until after Kirk began fighting with Douglas.
Footage reviewed by Rolling Stone shows Craig standing nearby when Kirk rammed into Douglas, his left hand hanging by his side and his right scratching his face. At one point, after Kirk and Douglas start fighting, “Craig reaches into the front of his waistband to pull out what appears to be a firearm,” according to Bunting’s report. Craig moves toward the interlocked men and “puts his left hand between the fighting pair, as if to pull them off one another,” according to the report. Osborne then interjects herself into the scuffle, attempting to separate Kirk from Douglas before moving closer to Craig, pushing him and hitting him in the face, according to the surveillance footage and report.
At that moment, Kirk is able to break free one of his hands, pulling out a concealed .40-caliber Glock from his waistband and shooting Craig one time in the side at close range. Craig stumbles before running into a nearby aisle, his body doubled over as splatters of blood leave a trail behind him. A third camera angle shows Craig collapsing to the ground at the other end of the aisle.
While Douglas claims that he never saw Craig draw a weapon, Osborne and Kirk told police they saw Craig pull a gun out while the rapper was entangled with Douglas, and Kirk told police he heard Osborne yelling “He got a gun, he got a gun.” One witness — a Walmart customer — told police he saw Craig with a weapon in his waistband area, and another — a Walmart employee — said he also saw Craig with a gun, according to the death-investigation report, which ultimately concluded that prosecutors couldn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Kirk didn’t act in self-defense.
“He’s like trying to get around his homeboy and shoot me,” Kirk says, excitedly telling police that he discharged his firearm multiple times. “When I break loose and get free with [my] gun … his homeboy is right here, and I shoot, boom, boom, boom.”
“He said, ‘Do I think he murdered your son? Yes, I do. … If I could, I would charge his ass with murder.’” – LaWanda Horsley
Although the shooting occurred around 6:30 p.m., Horsley says the Huntersville Police Department didn’t contact her until three hours after her son had died. She had already feared something was amiss, as reports were spreading on social media about a shooting at Walmart and she couldn’t get a hold of her son. Calling up Curtis, Horsley instructed him to rush to Walmart.
“When I found out my son was killed, everything from the bottom of my feet came up and out of me,” Horsley says. “I never knew your body could feel like that.”
It never made sense to Horsley and Curtis how Craig, who they say had never gotten into any trouble with the police, could have gotten mixed up in this. It was also a shock to them when detectives told them that Craig had been carrying a pistol, even more so when the gun was reported as stolen. Douglas claims that Craig had purchased the firearm secondhand and wasn’t aware that it had been reported as stolen.
While his parents acknowledge that Craig had guns, they point out that he had a permit, and claim that the rest of his weapons were registered to him. (North Carolina largely favors gun rights, with roughly 46 percent of residents owning at least one firearm.)
Initially, Craig’s parents believed that Kirk was being investigated in relation to Craig’s death, expecting a charge of homicide against the rapper. But while sitting in an attorney’s office trying to find out the status of the case, they learned that Kirk was claiming self-defense. They were stunned.
“Right now, it’s life and death for me and my kids,” Kirk had told police. “I don’t know what their situation is; for me it’s strictly defense, life or death.”
Craig’s family takes issue with multiple aspects of the Huntersville Police Department’s investigation. For starters, officers allegedly failed to interview multiple people at Walmart who were acquaintances of both Kirk and Douglas. Furthermore, there appear to be inconsistencies and omissions in Kirk’s and Osborne’s police testimony, such as Kirk skipping over how the physical fight started, not directly mentioning that he threw the first punch. (The Huntersville Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment about aspects of its investigation.)
“I don’t look at him as no DaBaby. I look at him like, ‘You’re Jonathan Kirk and you murdered Jaylin Craig.’” – LaWanda Horsley
Todd Owens, a criminal-defense attorney and former North Carolina district court judge, tells Rolling Stone that he finds issue with Kirk claiming he was in a life-or-death situation, given that Osborne and an acquaintance of Kirk’s who was in the store were shown on camera still approaching Craig when he was allegedly brandishing a firearm. To Owens, that weakens Kirk’s claim that he was acting out of imminent fear of danger.
“Going up and pushing a person who is brandishing a firearm, or who she can see has a firearm is really, really risky business,” he explains. “That completely undermines that legal theory.”
Although Kirk was never charged over Craig’s death, the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office pursued a misdemeanor charge against him for carrying a concealed weapon, for which he did not have a permit. However, the case was suddenly dismissed in March 2019 because “a key civilian witness was unavailable,” according to a county representative.
But the state brought back the charge against Kirk, and he was convicted in June 2019. Judge Tyyawdi Hands sentenced Kirk to 12 months of unsupervised probation, with a suspended 30-day jail sentence. (The next summer, she was pictured posing with Kirk following a panel in support of Black Lives Matter, where Kirk complained about local police over receiving two citations in December 2019 for possession of marijuana and resisting arrest, according to local reports. In a statement to Rolling Stone, Hands says her attendance was unrelated to Kirk’s trial.)
In a comment provided to Rolling Stone on why Kirk didn’t face more serious charges, a representative for the DA’s office says they “reviewed the police investigative file and agreed with the Huntersville Police Department’s decision not to charge Mr. Kirk further, as prosecutors could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense.” It declined to further comment on the case.
Horsley claims that was the same reasoning she initially received from the DA’s office. But after Kirk’s 2019 citations, she says she spoke to Bunting, who she says was sympathetic, and allegedly admitted that he believed Kirk should have faced direct charges for Craig’s death.
“He said, ‘Do I think he murdered your son?’ He said, ‘Yes, I do. … If I could, I would charge his ass with murder. But I have to go off the evidence that the Huntersville Police Department gave me.’” (Bunting declined to comment for this story, including whether he believed Kirk should have faced homicide charges.)
The matter ultimately comes down to the state’s Stand Your Ground law, which provides strong protection for those claiming self-defense, two criminal-law experts tell Rolling Stone.
That defense hinges in part on who the initial aggressor is, legal analyst Emily Baker explains. To rely on the Stand Your Ground law, a person who initiates a conflict has to justify their use of force, according to Owens, the defense attorney. If someone acts “as the aggressor and he initiates the conflict, he’s got to be able to show not just that the person was armed, but that there was a serious threat of imminent death or physical injury,” Owens says. “That the person was going to use that weapon, not just that they were armed.”
After reviewing the security footage, Baker says Kirk appears to be the initial aggressor by starting the fight, but because witnesses claimed to see Craig with a gun, it changed the dynamic of the situation.
“But it’s not clear-cut, and it is not a ‘These people rolled up on me and tried to roll me, and I had to defend myself,’” she says. “That’s not what this video shows. This video shows a fight that got way out of hand very fast, and that resulted in somebody dying.”
Owens adds that even with witnesses telling police they saw Craig holding a gun during the scuffle, Kirk’s self-defense claim would be “100 percent contingent” on the belief that his life or the lives of others were in danger.
“Self-defense is difficult on a good day,” Baker says. “Cases can be charged when people look like they may be acting in self-defense, and it can go to a jury and be decided, and that’s often the proper way because that’s the community where those laws are written.”
Considering the footage, Owens says he thinks the case should have been left up to a jury to decide if Kirk reasonably acted in self-defense. “I don’t see anything enough here to say that it shouldn’t have been presented to a jury,” he says.
“I don’t see anything enough here to say that it shouldn’t have been presented to a jury,” says one North Carolina criminal-defense attorney
Craig’s parents also feel that their position is strengthened by Kirk’s track record of physical altercations. He was linked to a nonfatal shooting at his home on April 13, and although police wouldn’t confirm Kirk as the shooter, the rapper implied as much on social media. “Chose not to take a n*gga life the other day & it felt great,” he wrote. “Heal up & live my boy! Just don’t bring ya ass back.
In March 2020, he was seen on video smacking a woman in the face for trying to film him at a club. That December, he was arrested for allegedly punching a Miami club promoter in the face. (Battery charges were dropped against Kirk, but the promoter is suing Kirk for the alleged attack.) In February of this year, he was caught on video throwing a punch at Brandon “Bills” Curiel, the brother of his former girlfriend, musician DaniLeigh. (A representative for the LAPD says a case on the altercation has since been closed, but Curiel’s civil suit is still pending.)
Curiel’s is one of two lawsuits in Los Angeles that Kirk is currently facing. Last February, 65-year-old rental-property owner Gary Pagar sued the rapper, claiming Kirk sucker-punched him in December 2020, knocking out his tooth, after Kirk and his associates broke the terms of their rental agreement.
“There are people who believe that the rules don’t apply to them,” Pagar tells Rolling Stone. “Whatever the rules are, whether it’s the law, that they can do what they want with impunity, and there are no consequences. That’s who [Kirk] was.”
Ultimately, Pagar says, he wants to “have this man pay for his behavior, and hopefully teach him a lesson that the rules actually do apply to him.”
That’s exactly what Horsley, Curtis, and the rest of their family want for Kirk: some form of justice for the rapper’s role in Craig’s death. They hope that publicly sharing their story will prompt an independent investigation into how the case was handled, and hopefully end with Kirk being charged with homicide.
But if they were shown proof that Craig played a pivotal role in provoking Kirk to fire his weapon, they would be ready to accept that. “Show me my son was wrong; tell me that,” Horsley says. “I could take that, and I will be at peace, because I would have to accept the fact that my son done something that he shouldn’t have done.”
After obtaining the Walmart security footage and having serious questions about the police investigation, Craig’s family feels strongly that justice has eluded them.
“In my eyes, I feel like [Jaylin] was murdered,” Curtis says. “And [Kirk] got away with it. Everything he [does] is pretty much the same thing. He’s assaulting people, he’s getting away with it. Every case that you look at, they’re dismissing it. Why is he getting off?”
“I don’t look at him as no DaBaby,” Horsley says. “I look at him like, ‘You’re Jonathan Kirk and you murdered Jaylin Craig.’”