Jumping back into unsolved crimes this week on the blog. I’ve already shared several, such as the case of Robert Bee, Jr., a 13-year old who went missing in 2016 and was found dead months later; and Richard Griener, another 13-year old who went missing in 1972 and was never found, even 50 years later. Today, I’d like to share the tragedy of Jelani Day, a graduate student at Illinois State University, in Normal, Illinois.
Day, originally from Danville, Illinois, had completed his undergraduate degree at Alabama A&M University before deciding upon ISU for his masters in speech pathology. On August 24, 2021, he inexplicably disappeared.
On the day Jelani went missing, he arrived at the ISU campus, got coffee at the campus Starbucks, and then left. Police assume he went back to his apartment and changed clothes, because the next video sighting of him is at a marijuana dispensary in Normal. He can be seen on video inside the facility where he purchased one joint. He did not go to his classes that day and did not have any contact with anyone else beyond the dispensary, as far as the public knows.
Just two days later on August 26, his car was found abandoned and somewhat obscured in a wooded area in the center of Peru, Illinois, just behind a YMCA. Day’s mother arranged a search party over the weekend as she felt the police were not doing enough (more on that later). Eleven days after he went missing, his lifeless body was discovered in the Illinois River near Peru, about 60 miles north-northwest from Normal.
Day’s story is one in which his actions of the day do not match up with how others describe him. The day he went missing would have been his first day of clinicals in his first week of classes. It would be entirely out of character for him to skip class as he was an excellent student and had dreams of being a doctor. Everyone skips once in a while though, right? But this was the first week of class. He missed an important meeting with his adviser at the college. It was so unlike him that a professor reported him missing because that just wasn’t Jelani. Furthermore, he didn’t answer his cell phone when his mother called him. In fact, he didn’t answer his cell phone at all.
Stranger still, Day’s car was found in the middle of Peru–over 60 miles from ISU. His family and friends know of no reason he’d be in that area: he had no family nor friends there. Peru is an easy drive up Route 39 from Normal, but there is no evidence that he stopped there to eat or for gas or anything else that would explain him being there.
His family was hopeful that there would be some forensic evidence between the car and his body to explain what happened, but this has actually been a source of contention and confusion. If any type of forensics have been discovered, the police have kept them quiet. And while his death was ruled a drowning, it is still undetermined as far as accident, suicide, or homicide, allegedly due to the decomposition from being in the water.
After the body’s discovery, his wallet and clothes were found three miles from the location of the body, which was about 1.5 miles from his car. His ISU lanyard was found in a different location in Peru, and his phone was found on I-74, an interstate that runs from Bloomington-Normal to Peoria, with an off-ramp for I-39 towards Peru. Despite the fact that investigators now had a car and a body and other personal effects, they apparently have nothing–or at least they’ve released nothing.
Was it a carjacking and murder? Was it a desperate and depressed college student who took his own life? Or was it a guy who needed to get away for a little bit, and met with an accident?
Let’s start with the latter. I was a college student once too, and I can completely understand as a good student saying the heck with it and skipping one day because you just needed it. I can also understand hopping on the interstate and going for a drive. I can even buy the accident idea if his car was near the river, but it wasn’t. Also, why was his phone tossed back near Normal? And his wallet by his car? That just doesn’t seem like someone who has met with an accident.
What about depression? One theory is that, despite his family’s protests of him being a happy, positive, energetic person who would never consider suicide, he was battling depression and took his life. After all, family members may think they know someone, but do we really? Perhaps they saw only what he wanted them to see. There was nothing anyone was aware of that occurred to trigger him being upset or angry. In fact, his professors, to a person, talked about his bright future. Again, perhaps he had them fooled too. But would he drive all the way to Peru, a place he was not familiar with, effectively hide his car, and then walk to the river to drown himself? That seems unlikely, especially since he was a good swimmer.
So that leaves us with murder. A carjacking certainly seems plausible, since there is video evidence of his vehicle leaving the parking lot of the dispensary, but you can’t see who is driving it. It also would make sense with a phone being chucked out a window on I-74, his car being hidden, his body found some distance away and in a river, and his wallet being tossed near the car. But where is the evidence? The coroner said his body didn’t have any trauma. I have a hard time believing that forensics couldn’t recover anything from the car, and yet, this seems like the only explanation.
That is also what Day’s family believes. They thought from day one that he met with foul play, because the person they knew would not just disappear. They do not feel that the police did enough, whether it was the Bloomington-Normal police or the Peru police. Day’s mother, Carmen Bolden-Day, pressured them to involve the state police and the FBI, and I truly believe that without her continual pressure, it would have taken even longer to find his car and remains. I can understand that the police may not consider a college kid a serious missing person case, at least at first, but when his professor reports him missing after one day–not just his mother–because he just wasn’t that kind of person, that seems like a different level. And, keep in mind, Jelani was not some sophomore in college. He was in grad school. That’s a person who has committed to his education.
Day’s case brought a significant issue to light: how missing white people garner much more attention than missing black people. Around the same time that Day went missing, Gabby Petito also went missing. Her situation made international headlines. Day’s barely made it across Illinois’s state lines.
Another potential twist in the story is that Peru was (and still is, by some) considered a “sundown” town. A sundown town traditionally got its name from the expectation that black people would be out of town by sundown–or risk lynching. However, it would seem that Jelani was abducted/carjacked in Normal near ISU, since his phone was tossed on I-74. I don’t think that he met with foul play only upon his arrival to Peru; I think that started before he left his college town.
His mother has created the Jelani Day Foundation to help draw attention to the case as well as to provide funds to help others in their searches when they are not getting proper attention. She also fought for and got passed Senate Bill 3932, The Jelani Day Bill, which requires coroners to notify the FBI of any remains not identified within 72 hours. His mom sounds like a powerhouse to me. I just hope that she gets some answers eventually. Someone, somewhere, knows something.
If you have any information regarding the disappearance or death of Jelani Day, please contact the Jelani Day Joint Task Force at 1-800-CALL-FBI. They have a $10,000 reward for significant information.