In April 2021, Jontae Adams was in the drive-thru lane of a McDonald’s with his 7-year-old daughter Jaslyn when gunmen targeting him opened fire. Jaslyn was killed, and Jontae was injured. In this essay, derived from an interview with WBEZ’s Patrick Smith, Adams recounts that day and his struggles since the shooting. The interview was conducted as part of Smith’s reporting for season 5 of WBEZ’s Motive Podcast.
I am in a much better place now than in the weeks and months after my daughter was murdered.
I am in therapy now. And that has helped me understand how I grew up, the things I missed out on and the ways my experience as a young child started me down the path that would ultimately lead to my 7-year-old baby girl Jaslyn being killed by bullets meant for me.
My father hustled on the same block I hustled on. My father was shot on the same block I would eventually be shot on.
My dad Jonny Adams was locked up for long stretches of my childhood. It meant I was largely raised in a one-parent home. And from early on, I could feel myself being pushed out to the streets by the people who were supposed to look out for me.
I lived with my mom in an apartment just off Chicago Avenue in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. It was around 14 or 15 when I joined the gang that considered my home part of its territory. I started dealing drugs. It was fun, even with the occasional moments of violence, the stakes felt low.
Then, when I became an adult the quick trips to juvenile jail turned into real time behind bars. I spent all of my 20s in jail or prison. I lost almost 10 years of my life cycling in and out of jail.I was actually in jail when my daughter Jaslyn was born. She was my youngest child. My baby. We called her Pinky. The first time I met Pinky was in the visiting area at the Cook County jail. My girlfriend at the time, Jaslyn’s mother, brought her to see me. After that first meeting I went to my cell and cried.
Ultimately I was forced to pull back from my gang after I was shot in the neck and arm. The injury was so bad I lost a lot of function in my arm. I slowed down. I stopped getting arrested and I was around a lot more for Jaslyn’s early years than I had been for her older brother.
Sometimes it hurts to be here
Jaslyn taught me how to be a dad. I miss how outspoken she was — the way she would boss me around and put me in my place.
She’d tell me when and where to pick her up, make sure I filled out her permission slips for field trips and instruct me on where to be for big school events.
I was learning to be a good father, and pulling back from the gang. But I wasn’t all the way out. I may not have been out on the street hustling and gangbanging much anymore, but I was still making music about it. I was part of Chicago’s violent and toxic drill rap culture mocking rival gangs and their deceased members in my songs. That music put a target on my back, a target I was still wearing in the spring of 2021, when I went and picked Pinky up from her aunt’s house.
She had just texted me that she wanted McDonald’s. I wanted to do something nice for her, so we drove there together.
As we drove, Jaslyn was talking to me about her brother’s upcoming birthday. She was helping to plan his party, and she had a list of her friends she wanted to invite. That’s what she was saying as we pulled into the drive-thru at Roosevelt and Kedzie.
Just moments later, three guys in a car pulled up behind me, boxing me in. Then, they got out and started shooting into the car. When the shots started, Jaslyn turned to me and called out, “Daddy?” I tried to pull up over the drive-thru curb to get away but I was stuck. Then, one of the bullets hit me in my back. I was stuck and helpless. The shooters kept firing, round after round.
As they obliterated the car, they shot my baby. She probably said Daddy like three times. And when I looked over the last time she was just laying down, already gone.
After her death a lot of the public attention focused on me, and whether I was to blame for my own daughter’s death. That hurt. But it was nothing compared to the pain of losing Pinky.
When I think back on it now, it’s hard to believe I was so blind to the danger I was in, and the danger I was putting Jaslyn in by having her in the car with me. But I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was with my daughter. When I was with her I was just lost in our time together, like I was in my own world, oblivious to everything else.
Sometimes I wish I was with my daughter. Sometimes it hurts to be here.
A new way forward
I spent two days in the hospital after the shooting at McDonald’s. After I got out, I went to a vigil for Jaslyn and called for her killers to be locked up. The crowd at the vigil released balloons in Jaslyn’s memory. Dozens of little prayers sent floating up toward heaven.
After the vigil, I checked into a hotel in west suburban Lombard. Mentally I just couldn’t go straight back to my old neighborhood, and I didn’t think it was physically safe either.
My friends from the block where I hustled drove the 20 miles out to see me. They were pushing me to respond to the tragedy with righteous violence — to go shoot up the gang responsible.
I kept trying to tell them no. This was a breaking point for me and I couldn’t be a part of any more violence. I couldn’t stand it if one of them lost their lives, or got arrested and was taken away from their children because of my tragedy. This was the end for me.
My old friends from the block were trying to be supportive, but they didn’t know how to help me grieve, or even how to properly grieve themselves. And they weren’t listening to me as I begged them to put the guns down and go be with their kids. They had come to the hotel to send a simple message to me: stop talking about the murder in public, and do not cooperate with police.
But I didn’t listen to them. It was important to me that my daughter not be just another unsolved gun violence case in Chicago. So I told the police what I knew and what I saw. Three men are now facing murder charges.
Changing my life since the tragedy has been really hard. I have to find other ways to support myself and spend my time. I also had to move away from my old neighborhood and most of the people I know.
I still don’t want other people in the car with me because I worry I could still be a target. I wonder if I’ll always feel this way, or if I’ll ever be comfortable in my own skin again.
Despite the fear and the alienation, I have dedicated my life to preserving Jaslyn’s memory and building a legacy for her in death. I hope that by speaking out about this tragedy, it will discourage others from violence that puts children at risk.
And I’m back to making music again, but this time songs with a positive message, like a memorial tune to my daughter called Pinky’s Letter.