PERU, Ill. — The steady unsentimental female Google voice guides my brother Jeff and me to a wooded area here, “south of the Illinois Valley YMCA and due north of 12th Street and Westclox Avenue.”
Pulling off Interstate 80, we snake through Peru, drive past the Illinois Valley YMCA, to where police said they recovered Jelani Day’s four-door sedan on Thursday, Aug. 26, one day after he had been reported missing. Nine days later, on Saturday, Sept. 4, at 9:47 a.m., searchers found a body floating in the Illinois River near the Illinois Route 251 Bridge.
The LaSalle County Coroner’s Office press release at the time did not identify the “decedent” as male or female, black or white, and gave no hint whether the corpse found floating even remotely matched Jelani’s 6-foot-one-inch frame.
The mystery swelled like the pain of a mother’s broken heart.
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The discovery of a body only raised more questions, shook Jelani’s mother, Carmen Bolden Day, to the core. A petite, mocha-brown woman whose Dentyne smile mirrors her son’s, Day, 49, mulled over the possibility that the dead body could turn out to be her baby boy.
She hoped not. Prayed not. Chose to keep believing that Jelani would be found safe and sound — even in the days and weeks that followed with no definitive word from the authorities on the corpse’s identity.
And yet, there was no solace, no answers, to be found in Peru. Not yet. Only questions. Lingering questions amid an unfolding surreal, if not bizarre, case that Day and her family found themselves facing with relentless dread, and wishing, hoping, that it was only a bad dream from which they might soon suddenly awaken.
The absence of answers and progress early on led Jelani’s mom to press investigators to act with more urgency and intensity. She still wonders why they didn’t search the river that first week after the discovery of Jelani’s white 2010 Chrysler 300, which had belonged to his grandfather who died in October 2014, and whose name Jelani bears as one of his two middle names. His mother was proud that Jelani had recently fixed up his grandfather’s car, working and paying off the cost of repairs.
That car was found with its license plates removed, and with no sign of the keys, or Jelani.
Day wonders whether an earlier search, rather than the passage of nine days before a police search of the river, which turned up a body, might have made a difference, might have yielded more answers, evidence, or perhaps clues about what happened to her son.
A son who was once on his school’s swim team, an avid swimmer, who didn’t just end up in a river, in a town an hour’s drive north of his Illinois State University campus.
‘Justice for Jelani Day’
Read more from John W. Fountain’s series of columns on Jelani Day’s disappearance and the quest to find out what happened to him.
Part 1, published Sept. 24: I am in Peru, Illinois, asking about Jelani Day, who is every bit as human as Gabby Petito
Part 3, published Oct. 8: Some things no mother should have to endure
A Son of Danville
Jelani Jesse Javontae Day was born on a pre-summer Saturday in June 1996. At 7 pounds, 9 ounces, and 21 inches long, he was the fourth of his parents’ (Carmen and Seve Day) five children, and the youngest of three sons.
The married couple poured their heart and soul into raising their children in rural Danville, Illinois. Day plied her children with scriptures. Taught them to be respectful. She and her husband pushed their children away from complacency and the entrapments of poverty, gangs and drugs — evident even in small town America — toward education and academic excellence. All five would earn college degrees.
“Miss Carmen’s kids,” as Jelani and his siblings were known, were raised in the Church of God In Christ, where the Word of the Lord, nightly bedtime prayers and even good old-fashioned church shut-ins were a way of life.
She cautioned her boys especially, telling them that they had been born already with two strikes: One — the color of their skin. Two — being both Black and male.
“A good name is better than riches,” she often told her sons. A good name, no one can take from you…
Jelani, in Swahili, means “great, powerful,” full of strength. By all accounts, he was a good young man with a future as bright as his grandfather’s white 2010 Chrysler 300 with its black cloth top and handsome chrome wheels — a car found inauspiciously in Peru.
‘A Million Reasons to Live’
My brother and I spy a faint creek beneath this wooded area where Jelani’s car was found. We note the apparent tire tracks and trample of brush that might have served as a good covering to ditch and conceal a car. And we note a piece of orange marker tape, but the absence of anything else that might mark this area as a potential crime scene.
As we stand upon grass and soil, we have just learned — more than two weeks after the authorities discovered it — that the body found floating in the river has been identified as Jelani Day.
On Sept. 7, the coroner’s office had released a statement saying that a “preliminary autopsy” on Sept. 5, had determined the body to be male but that it would take “several weeks to months” to make positive identification due to “the condition of the recovered body.”
On the day my brother and I traveled to Peru, the coroner’s office told me on the phone that a statement, alas — 19 days after a body was found — would be forthcoming. A press release popped into my email confirming what I had already suspected.
“LaSalle County Coroner’s Office identifies the male body located on 9/4/21; body confirmed to be missing person Jelani Day.”
Cause of death: Still unknown.
What happened to a young man so full of life, zest and promise, a vivacious mama’s boy so beloved by family and friends? A son beloved by a father who has cancer and for whom Jelani was planning to donate bone marrow.
A young Black man who already had defied the odds in a world, even in the city of Danville — a hardscrabble town in a former coal mining area — the kind of place known to make you or break you.
A graduate of Alabama A&M University, Jelani had enrolled this fall at Illinois State with aspirations of becoming a doctor. His chosen major was speech pathology as he sought to make good on a childhood promise born of his friendship and compassion for a little boy who was teased for a speech impediment.
A member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Jelani was full of hope and vigor. And he was looking forward to the next leg of his academic journey, to life and also to traveling with family to Destin, Florida, this Thanksgiving.
He had a million reasons to live, not die.
Standing at the wooded area beneath the YMCA, two things are clear to me: That this secluded spot is likely one that only a local might know. And that with the Illinois River, about two miles away, it seems unlikely that a young Black man parked his car here, then walked through a nearly all-white town without being seen, to jump in those rippling river waters almost naked.
Aided by Google, we drive toward the Illinois Route 251 Bridge, where the authorities pulled a young Black man’s body from the water, still in search of answers and Justice for Jelani.
Next week: The story of Jelani Day continues.
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