The Bizarre Death of Illinois Grad Student Jelani Day

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In August 2021, social media was abuzz with multiple accounts across all platforms obsessing over the Gabby Petito case. Meanwhile, at the same time, a bright young black man disappeared and was later found dead in Illinois. His case initially did not garner nearly the attention as Gabby’s, a blond, white All-American girl abused and killed by her white boyfriend. Had it not been for his family’s relentless pursuit of justice that continues to this day, few would know about Jelani Day.


Born Jelani Jesse-Jovantae Day in Danville, Illinois, to Seve and Carmen Day, Jelani, 25, graduated at the top of his class from Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University, where he was a member of several college organizations, including the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. He then attended graduate school at Illinois State University (ISU) in Normal, pursuing a master’s in speech pathology.

The twin cities of Bloomington-Normal (B-N) have a combined population of about 132,000. I have visited a few times, and the area is a lovely place to stay for a weekend. There is a wide variety of restaurants and shops, two universities, a decent mall, a fantastic small zoo, and other fun attractions. I took my grandkids to the zoo before the Covid pandemic. It’s easy to see why Jelani decided to attend grad school in B-N. 

Jelani was brilliant, had a bright future, and was happy with where his life was headed. He had a tight-knit relationship with his parents, brothers D’Andre Day and Seve Day, Jr., and sisters Dacara Bolden and Zena Day. So, it was a complete shock for his family one day when they had not heard from him, and he seemingly vanished into thin air.

Carmen last spoke with Jelani on August 23, 2021, during a phone conversation.

“I just wanted to hear your voice,” Jelani lovingly told his mother.

Two days later, on August 25, 2021, Carmen tried calling her son several times, but he never returned her calls. That was uncharacteristic of Jelani, who always returned her calls and stayed in touch. Carmen reported her son missing to the Bloomington Police Department that day. 

Police began tracking Jelani’s last movements and eventually released local CCTV footage.

ISU’s Bone Student Center CCTV captured Jelani at 7:20 a.m. on August 24, 2021, wearing a blue button-up collared dress shirt, black pants with a black belt, black dress shoes, and a blue face mask.  

But less than two hours later, at 9:15 a.m., Jelani is seen entering the Beyond/Hello cannabis dispensary at 1515 N. Veterans Parkway, Bloomington, wearing a completely different outfit. The camera also caught Jelani driving away in his car.

Jelani Day: CCTV images of Jelani before he disappeared

Why did he change clothes? Why was he dressed up earlier? Did he have an interview or appointment on campus?

Not one person reported seeing Jelani after leaving the dispensary, and he vanished into thin air.

A few of his belongings disappeared with him: a red and white ISU lanyard with an Omega Psi Phi key charm, a worn black wallet, and his blue iPhone 12 Max with a protective case.  

A search for Jelani began with many ISU students participating and handing out flyers. Police appealed to students with information about Jelani. 

A GoFundMe was set up on August 27, 2021, to go toward the search, and Carmen announced a $25,000 reward for information.  

The day before, on August 26, 2021, at 4:20 p.m., a Peru high school student walking from LaSalle-Peru Township High School to his job at Illinois Valley YMCA found Jelani’s white 2010 Chrysler 300 in a wooded area south of the YMCA building. The student informed a YMCA front desk employee, who called the Peru police. 

Peru is 65 miles north of B-N.

Someone had removed the license plate from Jelani’s vehicle. Police found Jelani’s hat and T-shirt he wore when he visited the dispensary, a partially smoked marijuana cigar blunt, and a journal inside the car. Police used a metal detector to search the area for the plate and screws but never found them.

Authorities never discussed the journal’s contents, but there was no suicide note, according to NBC 5 Chicago. Carmen said Jelani began journaling in 2016, but only two entries were in 2021. 

Per NBC5, “A command post was established at the site. There was an extensive K-9 search by ISP, drone aerial searches by Peru Fire and Utica Fire drones, and a ground search by teams Peru, Utica, and Oglesby Fire Departments. Bloomington Detectives assisted Peru Police and State’s Attorney Todd Martin.”  

Jelani Day: The Pantagraph photo of his sister, Zena Day where his car was found in Peru, IL

Police said a person searching for their lost drone found Jelani’s wallet, but the date and location are unclear. However, Carmen told The Pantagraph the authorities initially informed her that someone reported seeing Jelani walk down a residential street and throw his wallet.

Then on Saturday, September 4, 2021, a grim discovery. Jelani’s body was found just off the south bank of the Illinois River east of the IL 251 bridge in LaSalle County, about a mile and a half south of his car. 

Police never explained why they did not find his body while searching after the student found Jelani’s car.

On September 22, 2021, nearly a month after Jelani went missing, two ISU students discovered Jelani’s shorts, socks, and shoes on a riverbank north of where his body was found. What’s interesting is the items contained DNA but not Jelani’s. According to the Day family, the college students told police they went to LaSalle-Peru to search for clues to Jelani’s disappearance. After they found the clothing, both lawyered up.

That’s not suspicious. Nope, not at all. 

The next day, LaSalle County Coroner Rich Ploch identified Jelani’s body through dental records and DNA testing the day. The cause of death was drowning, with no signs of trauma on his body before death. Authorities stated they did not know how he ended up in the river. 

Jelani’s family believes someone murdered him and that he did not commit suicide. 


I agree. It stands to reason that if Jelani committed suicide by drowning, he would have left his belongings in his car. He would not have removed the license plate and screws. There would be no reason to discard his belongings in multiple locations. Furthermore, he would have parked near the river instead of the wooded area behind the YMCA, a nearly 30-minute walk to the Illinois River. Obviously, someone else disposed of the vehicle, and I think Jelani knew that person.

Remember, it was broad daylight. Someone would have seen Jelani if he had jumped off the IL 251 bridge. I doubt he would have walked into the river via Water Street. Furthermore, his body would have shown injuries consistent with falling 64 feet into the water. I also want to add that Jelani did not have to drive to Peru to kill himself; he could have done it in B-N. Would he have had another reason to go to Peru? Did he know anyone there?


Peru Police released a video on social media of a man knocking on the door of a home on August 25, 2021, the day Carmen reported Jelani missing. LaSalle County Sheriff’s Office located and interviewed the man and “determined he is not a suspect or any longer a person of interest.” The man was in the area due to his job.

Jelani Day: photo of unidentified male approaching a home in Peru, IL

A man driving on Interstate 74 north of Bloomington found Jelani’s iPhone. The man had pulled over to secure a mattress tied to his car’s roof. He happened to look down at the side of the road and saw the damaged phone. The man then took the phone to Walmart on October 13, 2021, and sold it for $89 at an EcoATM, where people can sell or recycle smartphones. Police contacted the company, and the staff agreed to send them the iPhone.

Cell phone records showed someone had shut off Jelani’s phone at 9:21 a.m., six minutes after he bought marijuana at the dispensary.

NBC5 Investigates obtained heavily redacted police emails through the Freedom of Information Act. One email refers to an “extraction Report Apple iPhone” and notes “23 chats and 17 messages” found on Jelani’s cell. These details have been cross-referenced from Jelani’s contact list. Another email notes “six phone numbers of interest,” but a detective writes in the report, “Nothing crazy on Jelani’s phone extraction.”

“Nothing crazy…” What does that even mean? 

The Day family held a memorial service for Jelani on Thursday, October 7, 2021, at ISU’s Redbird Arena, followed by his funeral two days later at Danville High School in Danville. 

Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived in Bloomington and organized a March through Rainbow Push Coalition on Friday, November 5, 2021. Jackson, the Day family, and many protestors took to the streets and the steps of BPD, demanding justice for Jelani. 

Jelani Day: The Pantagraph photo of Rev. Jesse Jackson and Bishop Travis L. Grant of Rainbow Push Coalition
Jelani Day: The Pantagraph's photo of protestors marching for justice for Jelani.

Jackson’s involvement likely helped catapult Jelani’s case nationally. Carmen became her son’s most prominent activist and was determined to get his death nationwide attention. She appeared on television and social media. Many celebrities, including Shaquille O’Neal, posted about Jelani on their social media accounts.

Online users, no longer obsessing as much over the Gabby Petito case, were now focusing on Jelanie Day’s bizarre death. They posted wild theories about Jelani (without evidence, mind you), including the cannabis dispensary’s involvement. They harassed the company on social media and threatened violence, which was utterly ridiculous and unnecessary. There is no room for online amateur sleuths/trolls in a criminal investigation.


I do not believe anyone from that store is responsible. Jelani is seen on the company’s CCTV entering and leaving alone. Someone known to Jelani could have been waiting for him in his car while visiting Beyond/Hello. There are CCTVs at most intersections on Veteran’s Parkway. Why didn’t the police release footage of Jelani’s car on the busy road? Or from other CCTVS on the ISU campus? If someone murdered Jelani, that person had to be familiar with Peru and the area around the YMCA, too.


On Friday, October 15, 2021, Ploch released a toxicology report showing marijuana, caffeine, and nicotine in Jelani’s system. However, all three are legal substances, but “not toxicologically significant amounts,” reported WGLT.

Carmen hired prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump in December 2021 to help get answers into her son’s death. On the first anniversary of Jelani’s disappearance, she and her family were no closer to finding solutions.

Sadly, Jelani’s father, Seve Day, died on April 8, 2022, in Danville. He was 51.

In May 2022, Gov. JB Pritzker signed the Jelani Day bill requiring coroners and medical examiners to notify the FBI when human remains are not identified within 72 hours of discovery. The law went into effect on January 1, 2023.

Carmen launched the Jelani Day Foundation in August 2022, one year after her son disappeared. Earlier this year, she pleaded for answers from local elected leaders: 

“I do not know why you all think that I should settle for the minimum. I do not know why you think that I should accept knowing that you have over 500 hours plus of video, he isn’t found on any of your cameras, and all of the leads point to nowhere. I don’t know why my family has to endure this emotionally draining nightmare,” said Bolden Day. 

25News contacted the Peru Police Department “regarding the task force and any updates in the investigation.”

Peru Police Chief Sarah Raymond responded:

The Peru Police Department and all other law enforcement agencies that have been involved in the death investigation of Jelani Day have worked tirelessly since Jelani Day’s disappearance on August 24, 2021. This is an ongoing and active investigation, and no law enforcement agency can publicly or should publicly comment on any part of the investigation. I can confirm and assure you that the investigation has been and will continue to be a priority for all agencies involved. We are also committed to continue to provide Jelani’s family with all information that we are at liberty to disclose. 

Almost two years later, we still ask: What happened to Jelani Day? You can follow Justice for Jelani Day Facebook Page to keep updated with the case.

Sources

Blanzy, Paige. “Jelani Day’s mother pleads for answers from elected leaders.” 25 News Now. January 30, 2023. https://www.25newsnow.com/2023/01/31/jelani-days-mother-pleads-answers-elected-leaders/ 

Packwitz, Howard. “‘Jelani Day Bill’ signed into law.” 25 News Now. May 18, 2022. https://www.25newsnow.com/2022/05/18/jelani-day-bill-signed-into-law

Stafford, Rob and Lisa Capitanini. NBC 5 Chicago. April 30, 2022. https://www.nbcchicago.com/investigations/new-clues-emerge-in-the-death-investigation-of-jelani-day/2819142/ 

Watznaur, Kelsey. “Police Emails Reveal Details.” The Pantagraph. September 30, 2022.

Watznauer, Kelsey and Brendon Denison. “‘Heartsbroken’: Body found in river ID’d as missing ISU Student Jelani Day.” The Pantagraph. September 24, 2021. 

Wood, Connor. “‘Making an Impact’: Candlelight march, service at ISU honor Day’s life.” The Pantagraph. October 8, 2021. 

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True Crime Diva

True Crime Diva

I've blogged true crime since 2010, happily taking up only a tiny corner of the internet. I'm not here for attention; I'm here to tell you their stories.

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