What Happened to Jelani Day? The Mysterious Disappearance and Death of Illinois Grad Student

Jelani Day was reported missing in August.
Jelani Day was reported missing in August. Handout

The family of Jelani Day believe he was murdered, and his mother says her Black son deserves as much attention as the disappearance and death of Gabby Petito, a white woman whose disappearance and death drew millions of responses.

The family of 25-year-old Jelani Day, an Illinois graduate student who inexplicably vanished and whose body was later found floating in a river, is desperate for answers.

And there are few in this perplexing case that has stumped investigators and devastated his relatives and friends.

He was not the type of young man to go off the radar. He did not ignore calls and texts from family and friends. He was a responsible, dedicated student pursuing a master's degree in speech pathology at Illinois State University. He had graduated from Alabama A&M University with a bachelor's degree in the same field.

He wanted to be a doctor. 

Yet in August, Day did exactly what he'd never done before. He went off the radar. He didn't report to class. He didn't answer his phone. His family and a professor reported him missing on Aug. 25. Ten days later, search teams found his bloated remains floating in the Illinois River near Peru, some 60 miles north of where he went to college. 

It took nearly a month for the LaSalle County coroner's office to positively identify the extremely decomposed body as belonging to Day. 

The case took on national media attention after Day's grief-stricken mother, Carmen Bolden Day, said "Missing White Woman Syndrome" caused the disappearance of Gabby Petito. a 22-year-old blonde who vanished on a road trip with her fiancé, receiving far more attention than her missing Black son.

Gruesome, false rumors ran amok on social media  Day's internal organs were missing, as was his brain and his eyes. His mother, steeped in pain and loss, took to Facebook to plead for calm and for authorities to work harder.


“Some things need and have to be clarified," she wrote. "No organs were missing. I do not want to stray off from the facts. There were contradicting facts from the first preliminary autopsy compared to the second independent autopsy ... My son did not put himself in a river. My son was murdered and my goal and purpose are to find out what happened and hold those responsible accountable!!!”

Day's relatives commissioned an independent autopsy following the initial coroner's examination. The full results of both have not been publicly released. The medical examiner also said there were no missing organs while noting the remains had been substantially degraded.

His family believes Day was killed. Investigators say the case is suspicious. Two days after Day was last seen, his car was discovered near a YMCA, close to a wooded area in Peru. And from there, things have gone cold, authorities said.

"We're empathetic with Jelani's family. If I was in her shoes I would probably feel the way she does," Bloomington Police Department spokesman John Fermon told Inside Edition Digital this week, referring to Day's mother. "If it was my son, I'd want answers yesterday," he said.

Answers in this case are in short supply.

The Timeline of Jelani Day's Disappearance

Day spoke to his family on Aug. 23, relatives said. It would be the last time they talked with him. There was nothing unusual about the conversation and no indication that anything was wrong or anything was troubling him, his mother would later say. 

"He wasn’t depressed. He didn’t have any kind of pressures that would make him want to escape from life," she said after she reported him missing. "So I do feel as if there was someone involved."

August 24

Day was captured on surveillance camera at about 9:15 a.m. inside the Beyond Hello retail store and cannabis dispensary in Bloomington. He was wearing a Detroit Lions baseball cap, gray athletic shorts and a Jimi Hendrix shirt. This is the last public sighting authorities say they have been able to document.

August 25

Day is reported missing to Bloomington police after his family is unable to reach him.

August 26

Day's white Chrysler is discovered in Peru, a place his mother said he never visited. Inside the car are the clothes he was seen wearing at the dispensary. The vehicle's location is odd, authorities said. Though it's in the middle of town, it's parked heading into a wooded area near a YMCA. 

"His vehicle was totally out of place. It was totally suspicious," Fermon said. Investigators obtained search warrants for electronic devices found in the car, he said. "We did find his last location was the Beyond Hello store ... we could look up to a certain point, and then it just stopped pretty much. His phone was either turned off or died," Fermon said. "The data wasn't there."

But what was there showed police that Day did not fit the usual profile of a missing person, Fermon said. "There were no money issues, no mental health crisis issues, no domestic issues," he said. 

"We have a lot of runaways, a lot of habitual juvenile runaways, people going missing. We find them an hour later. We do a lot of those cases ... but Jelani's case didn't involve any of that," Fermon said. 

The information on his electronic devices "confirmed that he's a good person, a family person and good member of the community," he said.

September 1

Day's mother and others search areas in Peru, looking for clues to his whereabouts. The family has already established a GoFundMe account to help with search teams and has offered a $25,000 reward for information about his disappearance.

"I'm just pleading with whoever knows anything or whoever has him, just let him go," his mother says. 

September 3

More than 100 people gather at Illinois State University's Bone Student Center to help with the search effort. Day's fraternity brothers have pleaded for information about his location, and the campus community, including administrators, have asked for the public's help.

"I want you to know, Jelani is not dead and we will find him," his mother tells the audience.

September 4

A badly decomposed body is found by searchers off the south bank of the Illinois River in LaSalle County, about nine miles north of Peru.

Authorities say it will take days or weeks to positively identify the remains using DNA and dental records. "We ask that people refrain from speculation as the investigation remains ongoing and could take considerable time," the Bloomington Police Department said in a statement. 

The LaSalle County Coroner's Office is in charge of the autopsy.

Nearly three weeks will pass before the medical examiner is able to identify the remains. The process is made difficult because of the body's condition, authorities said. 

September 23

The LaSalle County coroner announces a formal identification of the body. It belongs to Jelani Day.

"There are no words to clearly communicate our devastation," Day's family says in a statement. "Our hearts are broken."

Day's shattered family had grown increasingly disappointed and frustrated with the pace of the investigation and the scant attention they say he received. 

His mother, in social media posts, often referred to Petito, who was reported missing on Sept. 11. She became the focus of national and international attention, with widespread speculation and outrage over her disappearance while on vacation with her fiancé, who is now the subject of an intense manhunt.

Carmen Bolden Day said Petito's disappearance didn't deserve less attention, but rather her son deserved more.

As a mother, she said, she empathized with the Petito family's pain, she told a local station two days before her son's body was identified. She only wanted the same recognition for her child, she said

“But do you not see us? Do you not see me? Do you not see my son? He is loved,” she said. “He is wanted. He is important.”

Because of the location where his body was found, the LaSalle County Sheriff's Office has become the lead investigation agency in his case, and it is receiving assistance from state, federal and local authorities. 

Sheriff Adam Diss declined an interview request from Inside Edition Digital, but emailed a statement.

"The investigation into the death of Jelani Day continues as the multi-jurisdictional unit. Members meet and continue to follow up on the case daily. Investigators are reviewing hundreds of hours of security video. A search of the Illinois River by the Plainfield Fire Department Dive Team was conducted to look for any items pertaining to the case, but produced negative results," he said.

"The Multi-Jurisdictional Investigative Unit consists of members from the LaSalle County Sheriff’s Office, Peru Police Department, LaSalle Police Department, Bloomington Police Department, Illinois State Police, LaSalle County Coroner’s Office, and FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. Anyone with information regarding this case should call the LaSalle County Sheriff's Office at 815-433-2161," the statement concluded.

The coroner's office said it will take weeks of careful analysis to determine a cause of death for Day.

Meanwhile, his family has postponed his funeral and is contemplating a second independent autopsy of Day's remains, his relatives said in a statement.

Bloomington police spokesman Fermon said he understands the frustration felt by the Days.

"We can't really talk as to how the family feels," he told Inside Edition. "There's a lot of speculation that anyone can make."

What happened to Jelani Day, and how he died, is "what we want to know. It's what the family wants to know," he said.

"It's hard to make even a best guess as to what happened," given that authorities don't know what happened from the time he was last seen to when he died, Fermon said. "We're there to support and empathize with what Jelani's family is going through."

And though the process has taken time, and investigators are stymied by a lack of information, all of that could change overnight, he said.

"I know the investigation has been going on for several weeks. But tomorrow we could get a tip, or we could get a phone call," he said.

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