Young Dolph: A look back at the murder that rocked Memphis

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — For years, Adolph Thornton Jr., known better by his stage name Young Dolph, was known around the world for his music. The self-proclaimed “King of Memphis” was known even more in the Bluff City for his philanthropy and what he gave back to the city.

But, on the afternoon of Nov. 17, 2021, he became immortalized for a much more tragic reason.

PHOTOS: Fans honor Memphis rapper Young Dolph

Around noon, police dispatchers sent out the first signal that something was wrong at Makeda’s Homemade Butter Cookies on Airways Blvd.

“Airways, responding to a shooting 2370 Airways, 2-3-7-0 Airways,” was the message that came over police scanners.

However, it soon became apparent that this shooting had claimed much more than just peace of mind. The gunfire had taken a life.

“Not receiving anything additional other than the victim is beyond help,” police dispatchers communicated.

The fact, in itself, that Young Dolph had stopped by Makeda’s Homemade Butter Cookies was nothing unusual. The 36-year-old rap star went there often and was there just a week before.

“You came to get some what? Makeda’s cookies! Get the sign. Get the sign,” could be heard in a video posted to social media featuring the rap star.

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On Nov. 17, he pulled up to the store in his camouflage-wrapped Corvette to buy cookies for his mother, just another average Wednesday in Memphis. However, what happened next was anything but normal and forever left a scar on the face of Memphis and cut to the very core of those who loved Young Dolph, both in the Bluff City and around the world.

Minutes after Young Dolph walked into the store, gunfire ripped through the store’s windows, leaving bullets and glass scattered in the front lobby and 36-year-old Adolph Robert Thornton Jr. dead in one of his favorite stores. An autopsy would later reveal that the rap icon suffered 22 gunshot wounds to the neck, back, and torso on that fateful day. The autopsy would show that Young Dolph’s back was turned toward the shooters, and he likely never saw the people who took his life.

MORE: Autopsy report reveals Young Dolph suffered 22 gunshot wounds

As police and first responders raced to the scene, so did onlookers and fans, drawn to the tragedy as they unwittingly witnessed what would become one of the most infamous days in Memphis history.

“That’s a father. That’s a brother. That’s a son. That’s a nephew. Other than being a superstar. That’s somebody’s child right there,” a fan at the tragic scene said.

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While people cussed, cried, and lay in the street, consumed by an onslaught of emotions, Memphis Police struggled to contain the scene and make sense of the chaos.

“I need a car on the family dollar parking lot. They are gathering out here... trying to push out here in the parking lot... I’m trying to push all the people out, but it’s a bunch of them out here,” an officer said on police dispatch channels.

Within minutes, metal barricades and crime scene tape roped off the scene, shutting down Airways Blvd. and leaving crowds of people to look on, stunned to know that one of Memphis’ biggest artists lay dead just beyond those barriers.

“Do they want me to block off Ketchum and Airways? Is that what they need?” one officer asked. “Check!” another replied.

Less than 24 hours later, the world got their first look at Young Dolph’s alleged murderers when Memphis Police released pictures of two people standing outside the cookie shop in broad daylight, aiming guns at the windows and then taking off, running back to the white Mercedez they had arrived in.

Young Dolph murder: MPD releases photos of suspects wanted for killing beloved Memphian

Three days later, police received one of their first breaks in the case. That Mercedez was found. Investigators discovered it had been stolen from an East Memphis gas station just a week before. According to Covington Police, it was used in a different murder only five days before it was driven to the scene of Young Dolph’s death.

While police worked on connecting the pieces and the public cried out for answers, those closest to Young Dolph were left to mourn the death of a man who, to them, was larger than life, not because of his international fame but because he was a father and a son.

On Nov. 30, Young Dolph’s family laid him to rest in a private, heavily secured funeral.

For his life partner and mother of his two children Mia Jerdine, her campaign “Black Men Deserve to Grow Old,” which aims to stop the senseless killing of Black men, took on a new and even more personal meaning.

“I would just say I want people to know Adolph was not deserving of what happened to him. We really need to address as to why this is happening to men like Adolph,” Jerdine said. “Like I said, Black men deserve to grow old. Adolph deserved to grow old. I feel like every man in our community deserves to grow old.”

READ MORE: ‘Black Men Deserve to Grow Old’, campaign of Young Dolph’s girlfriend, takes on new meaning

Nine days later, on Dec. 9, police arrested the first person they believed to be involved in the superstar’s death.

Cornelius Smith was arrested after a traffic stop in Southaven, MS.

A witness to the arrest, noticing Memphis Police cars in Southaven, captured video of the stop, having a gut feeling that it was more than a traffic violation.

“We knew something big was up... probably. Too many cops here.. Southaven cops not to be,” the witness said.

Smith was picked up on an auto theft warrant involving the stolen white Mercedes Benz, though his arrest and alleged connection to Young Dolph’s murder would not be publicized by Southaven Police until later as authorities across the country worked to find other suspects.

“We are all working together,” said Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis. “That is why I named all of those agencies because at some point and time in our investigation has touched points with other individuals, other law enforcement agencies, around the country.”

On Jan. 5, 2022, seven weeks to the day of Young Dolph’s murder, Memphis Police announced a warrant on a first-degree murder charge for Justin Johnson.

Six days later, U.S. Marshals captured Justin Johnson in Indiana and officially announced Cornelius Smith as the second suspect.

In February 2022, Johnson and Smith both pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and as of May 25, 2022, both men were still awaiting trial.

READ MORE: 6 months after Young Dolph’s murder, investigation still ongoing into details of fatal shooting

“We wouldn’t be here without strong evidence against them. We are confident, and y’all saw the video from Nov. 17. We had those people in court today said Shelby County Assistant District Attorney Paul Hagerman.

If convicted of first-degree murder, both men will automatically receive life sentences and law enforcement hasn’t ruled out the possibility of other arrests being made in the case.

“Memphis wants some closure to this thing and family. We do, too,” Hagerman said.

While Memphis, his family, and fans around the world wait for that closure, they remember the man who inspired them to overcome their situations, give back to their communities, and, in death, reminded them how precious life is.

PHOTOS: Young Dolph memorial to be taken down

A makeshift memorial to Young Dolph stood outside of Makeda’s Homemade Butter Cookies on Airways Blvd., a location that the store’s owners said will never reopen due to the events of that day and the aftermath that followed. Fans from around the country left tributes, cried and prayed just feet away from where the rapper was gunned down.

That memorial site was cleaned up by the property’s owner and now a mural to Young Dolph has been created on the side of the Community Grocery Store at Castalia and Boyle, the world-renowned rapper forever looking out over the neighborhood he called home.

MORE: Young Dolph mural completed in Castalia

While fans will never again see him grace the stage, they are left with his music and his words.

“Stay in control. If you aren’t in control, you are out of control. I live by that. Be true to yourself,” Young Dolph said.