PERU, Illinois — It was, in a sense, a premature autopsy on an opaque, near faceless and scalp-less body that not even a mother might recognize. The waterlogged corpse lay in the possession of the LaSalle County Coroner’s Office for 24 days.
Even after the authorities finally made positive identification, reportedly through dental records and DNA, Carmen Bolden Day still had not been allowed to see the body that the authorities eventually said was her son Jelani Day, 25.
But how could she know if it was her Jelani, unless she had a chance to finally lay eyes on the body — even as a decomposed refrigerated shell?
How could she know? How could she rest, know for certain in her heart that it was her son, or ever have some semblance of peace and acceptance, unless, or until, she had perhaps had the chance to scan the body from head to toe? A little while to search for signs, no matter how seemingly insignificant, that the autopsied body was indeed her baby boy?
Some things a mother knows. Some things are unimaginable. Some things just don’t add up. Some things about this case just ain’t right because they just ain’t right.
Some things make absolutely no sense. Some things only God knows. Some things — even a puzzling mystery — can, in time, come to the light.
But some things no mother should have to endure. Among them: Having to wait nearly a month for the chance to view a body that might be her dead son. Among them: Sensing a lack of urgency by police to initially search for her son, even after his car was found in a wooded area in Peru a day after he had been reported missing.
Also among them: An unnerving, painstaking wait of more than two weeks for the authorities to at last identify the body; and the perceived lack of empathy shown to a grieving Black mother of a dead or possibly still missing Black son, which in itself begs the question:
Would Jelani Day’s case have been handled differently if he were not Black and male but a woman who was white and blonde?
This much is clear as black and white: That someone knows what or who brought this handsome, promising young Black male graduate student to this town, population 0.4% African American, and 60 miles north of his college campus, where he was studying to be a doctor.
Clear is that someone knows how Jelani ended up floating dead in the Illinois River. And that even as the authorities continue to call the case of Jelani’s demise a “death investigation,” there is something foul about this case that stinks to high heaven and that cries out for answers, and for justice for Jelani.
Weeks after Jelani was reported missing by his mother on Aug. 25, the case had remained unsolved and the circumstances surrounding his death a swirling mystery.
The dreaded call came nearly a month later in September as Day was on the phone with her attorney. The other line buzzed. Day answered. It was the LaSalle County coroner’s office.
She remembers the excitement that filled the coroner’s voice as he bubbled with “good news” about the case. The office had received new dental records, she recalls the coroner telling her, explaining they were now prepared to possibly make positive ID. Wait a minute, huh, what… Day sat dazed and confused.
Weeks earlier, she and other family members had complied with the coroner’s request to submit to DNA testing. Both the mother and her attorney, Hallie M. Bezner, said they had also earlier been informed that the coroner had removed one of the corpse’s tibia bones and sent it out for DNA analysis, something that left Day disturbed and puzzled.
Why would they need to do something seemingly so drastic for a DNA sample?
Day said she also had previously contacted the coroner to provide her son’s dental records, in her earnest hope for answers, though with no word back from the coroner until eight days after she’d left her first message. She waited. And waited. And waited, hope fading like the last glow of a sinking summer sun.
So when the coroner finally rang with news on Sept. 22, about a possible ID due to the acquisition of “new” dental records, Day, quite naturally, had questions. Day’s questions and her attempt to get a better understanding apparently perturbed the coroner, she says. For his next words fell harshly.
“Do you want us to identify your son or not?” Day recalls him barking.
Day sat aghast, without words, tears swelling. Her attorney, whom Day had merged on the call, suddenly lit into the coroner. Bezner recalled telling him he had no “f---ing” right to speak to Day that way.
A day later, the coroner’s office made a positive ID. After notifying the family, they released the news to the press. It was Jelani Day, they said. That was their determination.
But there is a yearning for a mother to see even a dead son. Except she would have to wait, still.
‘Heartbreaking, for sure’
The corpse had no eyeballs, only sockets. The river’s water had run her course, soaking the body through and through.
The body was missing its front top and bottom teeth, Day and Bezner said, citing a second autopsy performed by a private forensic pathologist at the request of the family. His jawbone had been “sawed out.”
The family’s private forensic pathologist could find no brain, according to Day and her attorney. No organs. Neither liver. Nor spleen.
Bezner said the LaSalle County coroner had explained that, according to their pathology report, the organs were “completely liquefied.”
The body had suffered innumerable fish and turtle bites and was maggot-infested, said Bezner, citing information both she and Day said they received from the LaSalle County Coroner’s Office, which has not yet released its autopsy report to the family, according to Day and Bezner.
The genitalia were unidentifiable, according to the private forensic pathologist’s report, but determined to be “flayed,” according to the county coroner’s forensic pathologist, Bezner said.
Bezner said she continues to investigate, to seek plausible, perhaps scientific explanations, for the severely decomposed state of Jelani’s body while keeping an open mind, though no question rings more loudly than this one:
What on earth happened to Jelani?
“I’m really trying to ask questions and not go down the path of a lot of conspiracy because I think it’s easy to go that way,” Bezner said.
Finally, 23 days after it was pulled from the river, four days after the authorities identified him, Jelani Day’s body was released.
Two days later, on a cool autumn Wednesday, on Sept. 29, a grief-stricken mother and her family gathered at the funeral home, where Jelani lay, to pray.
The mother wanted to lay her eyes on her baby boy. But Bezner advised her against it.
“He was in such bad shape,” she explained. “It’s just a heartbreaking story, for sure.”
Only Jelani’s grandmother and one of his brothers viewed his remains. Remains that his mother still wonders whether they are really her son’s or not, even as she prepares to celebrate his life at a closed-casket service this weekend in his hometown of Danville.
Even as she prepares to lay her baby boy to rest and his blood cries out for justice.
Next week is the final story in this series.
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