Reprint from WGLT | By Sarah Nardi Published December 9, 2021 at 1:57 PM CST
It’s been more than three months since the body of Illinois State University graduate student Jelani Day was found in the Illinois River. His family says that in that time, authorities have provided no answers as to how Day ended up there.
The Day family has enlisted the help of prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump to push the investigation forward. Crump has been involved in several high-profile cases, including representing the families of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.
Crump said he was compelled to help the Day family because the facts in the case simply don’t add up. “And we’re not going to let them sweep his death under the rug,” Crump said of authorities.
Day was an accomplished student who had just begun his graduate studies in speech pathology when he disappeared on Aug. 24. His mother, Carmen Bolden Day, reported him missing the next day. On Aug. 26, his car was located in wooded area in Peru, Ill., 60 miles north of Bloomington-Normal. The car’s license plates had been removed.
In the days that followed, personal items belonging to Day were recovered at various locations within a few miles of the car. On Sept. 4, a body was found in the river, roughly a mile from where Day’s car was found. On Sept. 24, the LaSalle County coroner announced the body had been identified as Day.
Nothing about that chain of events makes sense to Crump.
“A young Black man who was beating all the statistics, all the odds, pursuing a Ph.D. And then one day they tell you he was found naked in a river?”
According the coroner’s report, Day was wearing a T-shirt and underwear with a black sweatshirt tied around his waist at the time of the autopsy. But other pieces of Day’s clothing had been found scattered between his car and the river, as had his wallet and lanyard.
The totality of those facts undermines the theory that Day may have harmed himself, Crump said. Bolden Day has long claimed that authorities are trying to dismiss her son’s death as suicide and thinks that may be why answers are so slow to come in the investigation.
“None of that adds up to suicide,” Crump said. “What it is more akin to is homicide.”
Possibility of a hate crime
Crump is amplifying claims made by other advocates for the Day family, like the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., that Day’s death was racially motivated. Crump has joined the Day family in calling for the FBI to investigate the case as a hate crime. Currently, the investigation is under the purview of a multi-jurisdictional unit that includes departments from Bloomington, Peru, and LaSalle County.
Crump said that while he can’t yet conclude with certainty that Day’s death was the result of a hate crime, his logic is premised on the belief that Day didn’t kill himself.
“So, somebody killed him,” Crump said. “Then you go to well, what’s the motivation for killing him and who is likely to have killed him in that town? We know the demographics are there are very few Blacks who live in that town.”
It’s logical leap, but one that Crump believes can be proven if the FBI takes over for local investigators who are intent on closing the case as a suicide.
Bolden Day traveled from her home in Danville on Aug. 25 to report her son missing. Day was a Bloomington resident, so Bolden Day filed a missing person report with the Bloomington Police Department. She said she quickly began to experience what felt like pressure from investigators there to describe her son as suicidal.
“The Bloomington detective, Paul Jones, had told me that in order for them to start even doing anything, I had to not only report him as missing, but for them to get started I had to say, like, Jelani had suicidal tendencies for them to even start doing their job,” said Bolden Day.
Desperate to get the investigation started, Bolden Day said she told BPD she feared Day would harm himself.
“If I have to tell you what you want to hear in order for you to do your job, then that’s what I’ll do,” she said. But Bolden Day maintains that she never truly believed her son was at risk for suicide, and investigators were aware of that.
Still, Bolden Day thinks investigators came to an early conclusion about the case. “The whole suicide thing, that was the basis from the beginning,” she said.
BPD spokesperson John Fermon wouldn’t comment directly on Bolden Day’s description of events. In general, he said, missing persons deemed suicidal or otherwise high risk are given priority. But Day met the criteria for high risk based simply on the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, Fermon said.
“Right from the get-go, it just didn’t seem like it added up,” he said.
Fermon said the details of Day’s disappearance — missing class, not contacting his family — were enough for BPD to classify him as a person missing under “unknown and suspicious circumstances.” Investigators began to explore multiple angles, he said, working only with the supposition that something was “amiss.”
“The more we looked into it, there was more questions. And when that happens, we have to dig a little deeper. And that’s kind of what we were doing,” Fermon said.
In response to mounting frustration from the Day family and the public over a lack of progress in the case, Fermon said investigators are doing their best.
“We’re all on the same team,” he said. “So, we all want answers as well. And we can’t provide answers we don’t have.”
A larger cause
Day’s death and disappearance has made national headlines thanks largely to Bolden Day, who has been relentless in her mission to draw attention to the case. She has devoted much of her newfound platform to highlighting racial disparities in missing person cases. Bolden Day has long maintained that had her son been white, his case would’ve received attention and resources. She has repeatedly drawn comparisons between Day’s case and that of Gabby Petito, a white woman who went missing around the same time.
Crump said part of the reason he’s joined the case is to raise awareness about the disparate treatment of minorities in missing person cases. Black and brown people go missing at a far higher rate than whites, Crump said, yet their cases receive far less attention. The missing are often from marginalized communities whose families lack the resources to advocate for help. By making Day “the face of missing Black people in America,” Crump said he hopes to shine a light on the problem and help direct resources to families searching for loved ones.
Bolden Day said she is determined to make sure her son’s story makes a difference.
“There will be change in how they look at us. How they handle us. How they make efforts to help us,” she said.
“Jelani’s life will not be in vain.”