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How did Jelani Day die? I still don’t know. But somebody does

This is a race story. Not Black, not white, but no less about race: the human race.

A sign on a lawn in Danville calls for justice in the mysterious death of Jelani Day.
John W. Fountain

This is the fourth and final column in a series titled “Justice For Jelani.” Read John W. Fountain’s first column in the series here, the second column here, and the third column here.

PERU, Illinois — Speak, river. If only these rivers could speak. If these rippling, reflecting waters in this town could talk. Could testify of the horror endured by Jelani Day.

If this flowing tributary could reveal the truth in precise fact and unmitigated detail how Jelani’s near-naked, mortal Black body came to be submersed in this snaking Illinois River that stretches 273 miles to the Mighty Mississippi. If only this river — once upon a time a burgeoning trade route through this scenic valley — could speak.

If its banks could merely whisper her darkest secrets. Her revelations might solve the mystery of what happened to the 25-year-old graduate student at Illinois State University, reported missing Aug. 25, and whose body was found floating facedown in these waters on Sept. 4, near the Illinois Route 251 Bridge that looms like a haunting green relic from a bygone era.

Speak, river…

If only this river could talk, it might help bring some measure of solace to a grieving mother who — nearly eight weeks after her son disappeared from his college campus 60 miles south of here — is still searching.

For answers. For truth. Still longing for proof that the near-skeletal remains returned to her and identified by the authorities as Jelani Day — are indeed her baby boy.

But because rivers cannot speak — because Carmen Bolden Day understandably believes she has more reason to trust her gut and knowledge of the son she raised than the authorities investigating her son’s death; and because there is so much about this case — from the body’s condition, to the fact that his car was found about two miles away from where the body was found with its license plates removed, to his school lanyard and his wallet being discovered reportedly at separate locations in nearby La Salle — she cannot rest.

Cannot properly grieve. Cannot dry the flood of tears. Cannot begin the process of mending her broken heart and wounded soul. Cannot lay her son Jelani to rest. Not yet.

Not until, or unless, she is 100% certain that those remains in the mahogany-colored casket that graced the front of the Danville High School auditorium a week ago for services commemorating the life of a good son, are Jelani. Not yet.

Though her agonizing wait for answers lingers. Not yet.

A race story

I traveled to Peru, having never been here before, with my brother Jeff, on a warm Sept. 23, Thursday, having felt compelled as a journalist to seek the truth about Jelani. To tell his story. To humanize and try to shine some light.

I honestly hadn’t heard about Jelani’s disappearance until days earlier after posting a story I had written on social media about the glaring disparity by national news media in its treatment of the Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito case versus the cases of women of color.

“And the missing ISU Black male isn’t in the national news either,” a former colleague wrote on my post.

I checked it out. The stories I found were mainly local. They depicted a worried and impassioned yet articulate and determined mother, critical of the national news media for covering Petito’s story fervently but ignoring her son’s. It is a well-documented tendency to which I can attest as a Black reporter who, over a 30-year career, has graced some of American journalism’s most hallowed halls.

I was compelled by Day’s plea. Moved, unapologetically, by the tears and grief of a woman who is Black like me, and mother to a missing son, Black like mine.

It wasn’t the color of their skin alone that moved me to lend my pen as a newspaper columnist to the telling of Jelani and his mother’s story, to try and shake out some truth.

It was, however, undeniably the element of “race” that drew me in. For this is a race story. Not Black, not white, but no less about race: the human race.

And yet, the details of Jelani’s story, filtered through the context of my own traumatic DNA embedded in my soul as a Black man in America, quite frankly, conjured visions of Emmett Till, of strange fruit dangling from poplar trees, and centuries of lynching, of flaying and various and sundry desecrations of the Black body in towns across America from sea to shining sea.

I have said from the beginning, “I make no assertions about” Peru. But neither can I deny history — even the history of an America that from slavery to Jim Crow to George Floyd causes the hearts and souls of Black folk to consider the possibility of racial hate as a factor when a young Black male body turns up dead in a river in a largely all-white town — even if it turns out not to be the case.

Even if it makes some uncomfortable. Even if some would rather forget, deny the facts of history. Jelani Day’s dead body was found floating in the river here. Facts.

In Peru, I spoke with Richard Cinotto, 58, owner of the Riverfront Bar & Grill, a fine establishment. Everyone was nice, kind, cordial. They said my brother and I were more than welcome to enjoy a sandwich and a beer at the restaurant where a flyer about Jelani’s disappearance hung on the front door.

I inquired about how it got there. A waitress explained that the daughter of another waitress who attends Jelani’s university had asked if she could tape it there, where we saw it on the afternoon the authorities identified the body pulled from the river as Jelani.

Some yards away, my brother Jeff and I glared across the Illinois River, as we stood near a small sedan where a jovial elderly white man with white hair directed our attention to where the body was found. His name was Larry Brafman, he was 80, he said.

He said, “There have been bodies in the river, a few, over the years, here and there, either a suicide, or… [he paused]. There have been bodies found in the river.”

Speak, river …

Epilogue

How does a promising young Black man, full of life, with a bright future and a million and one reasons to live, end up floating dead in the Illinois River in the town of Peru, 60 miles north of his college campus?

What, or perhaps who, would lead a young Black man to a town with the population of 0.4% African Americans?

Those were among the immediate questions that swirled inside my head as I began my journalistic search. There were others, but none more pressing or persistent than: What happened to Jelani?

More than three weeks later, and after having traveled to Peru-La Salle, to Bloomington and twice to Danville — and after having interviewed, researched, wrestled with this case, and shed tears over the details uncovered about Jelani’s unrecognizable body, and having witnessed his mother’s wincing pain — I still don’t have answers.

But someone does. Someone out there knows exactly what happened to Jelani Day. Someone bore witness to that horror. Someone knows.

Whatever happened, this much I believe: He did not jump in that river. Not in a million years. Jelani was murdered. Plain and simply, it was murder. (As a columnist, I am allowed to say what I believe. And that does not preclude police investigators from doing their job to get to the bottom of this case.)

Mourners gather after a funeral service for Jelani Day on Oct. 9, as Jelani¹s casket is led to waiting pallbearers.
John Fountain

And I believe that if ever there was a case that called for a federal investigation, it is this one. Not only a probe of the case itself but an investigation of the local investigation — from top to bottom — that so far has publicly yielded few answers.

This much I also believe: that there are good people in Peru. And that they don’t deserve any aspersions being cast about their good town, where a young Black man’s body was found this summer, floating facedown in the river.

Indeed the good people of Peru may be key ultimately in helping to solve this mystery — because rivers can’t speak.

About 150 miles away, a grieving mother waits for answers. Private investigators for the family this week unsealed the mahogany casket, seeking evidence and truth, including DNA. So that Carmen Bolden Day can be certain that the remains inside are Jelani.

So that she can at least, at last, bury her son. Even as she fights, prays, hopes and waits for justice for Jelani.

Even as there are still rivers for this grieving mother to cross.

Jelani Day’s family has established a GoFundMe to assist with legal and investigative fees in seeking Justice for Jelani: https://gofund.me/d87cf6fe

Author@johnwfountain.com

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