A year after his death, those who love Jelani Day are still seeking answers
A mother’s heart remains broken over lingering questions about her son’s death, which she believes was due to foul play, after the Illinois State University graduate student’s body was found last year in the Illinois River.
Nearly a year to the day since he vanished like a vapor, his lifeless body to be discovered days later floating in the muddy Illinois River in a former “sundown town,” family and friends gathered in downstate Normal on Saturday to remember Jelani Day.
They came to the campus of Illinois State University, where Jelani was just beginning his first year as a graduate student last August, most dressed all in white. They gathered inside an elegant, candlelit ballroom filled with roundtables topped with white cloth and portraits of Jelani Day.
At ISU’s Bone Student Center, they celebrated the “life and legacy” of a son of Danville, dead at 25.
To say his name. To let the world know Jelani is not forgotten. And to launch — at the $50-ticketed event — the Jelani Day Foundation in the hope of helping others.
Purple, white and gold balloons lined the stage near a giant, neon-lit white sign that read: “JJDay.” The sign was anchored by a big. red heart and nearby a smiling portrait of Jelani, which shimmered golden in the light.
There were expressions of joy as those who knew and loved Jelani remembered him. For the way he smiled and cared for others. As friend, brother, son. They celebrated Jelani’s life in dance, words and song.
But inasmuch as the air was filled with celebration, memorials and purpose, questions surrounding the case swirled. And a mother’s heart remained broken over the lingering mystery of her son’s death, which she believes was due to foul play.
More than 365 days since her son disappeared, this much is clear: The pursuit to find out what really happened to Jelani continues.
“I don’t know what happened to Jelani,” his mother Carmen Bolden Day said in an interview last week. “I would not want another family to endure what my family has endured.”
Bolden Day, her family and others contend that someone knows what or who brought this handsome, promising, young Black male graduate student to the town of Peru, population 0.4% African American, 60 miles north of his college campus, where he hoped his studies would lead to being a doctor.
“We know that Jelani did not kill himself. We are here seeking justice for Jelani,” said Jonathan Jackson, speaking at the event on behalf of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. “What do we want? We want justice for Jelani.”
Jackson renewed a call for the Illinois attorney general’s office to investigate.
Through their nonprofit established in Jelani’s name, Bolden Day says she wants to provide help for other families in similar situations, including legal counsel, advice on securing news coverage and other assistance.
Jelani, who was studying speech pathology, was reported missing on Aug. 25, 2021. A day later, police found his car in a secluded, wooded area in Peru near the Illinois Valley YMCA. Nine days later, searchers found a body, later identified as Jelani, floating in the Illinois River near the Route 251 bridge, about two miles from where his car was found. On Oct. 25, the LaSalle County coroner issued a statement saying Jelani had drowned.
Bolden Day said law enforcement’s “investigation” into Jelani’s death to date has proven fruitless. She has serious questions about their commitment to the case. Bolden Day has remained vigilant, seeking evidence on her own.
A year later, she concedes that she is left with more questions than answers and a collection of cellphone photos she snapped recently of Jelani’s car, a white 2010 Chrysler 300, still being held by police. She says Peru police officials on Aug. 17 allowed her to view her son’s car.
She was shocked to see it covered by a blue-gray tarp and left outside in the elements. The red police tape that investigators apparently had placed on the doors to seal them were broken, she says. Inside the car, she saw a dollar bill in plain view, loose coins in the console, a pair of her son’s shoes on the floor, a T-shirt and shorts, mail and even a suitcase.
All there. Not bagged. Not tagged. Not in safekeeping in some police evidence room somewhere.
“It made me angry,” Bolden Day said. “Everything is just laying in his car as if they’ve just pulled it up. It’s like they keep smacking me in my face… like Jelani means nothing.”
For those who gathered Saturday in his memory, Jelani means everything.