Jelani Day’s mother begs FBI to take over his case as death remains a mystery more than three months on

·4 min read

The grieving mother of Illinois State University graduate student Jelani Day has begged the FBI to take over his case as his death remains a mystery more than three months after his body was found in a river.

Mr Day, a 25-year-old Black man who was studying speech pathology and dreamed of becoming a doctor, was last seen alive on the morning of 24 August when he was captured on surveillance footage at a cannabis dispensary close to his campus in Bloomington, Illinois.

His mother Carmen Day reported him missing the next day when she was unable to get in contact with him.

One day later, on 26 August, Mr Day’s car was found in a wooded area in Peru, LaSalle County. Inside the vehicle was the clothing, shoes and baseball cap Mr Day was last seen wearing.

The student’s body was then found in the Illinois River around two weeks later.

LaSalle County Coroner Richard Ploch ruled the cause of death to be drowning, but the manner of death has yet to be determined.

The coroner said there were no signs of trauma to the body including injury, assault, altercation, gunfire, tumors, infection, natural disease, heart problems or significant drug intoxication.

In a press conference in Chicago on Friday, marking 100 days since Mr Day was last seen alive, his mother was joined by civil rights activists in issuing a call for federal investigators to find the answers to what happened to her son.

“I’m asking you. I’m imploring you. I’m begging you. I need to know what happened to my son,” said Ms Day.

“I need the FBI to come in and take over because these local jurisdictions have shown us that they have not made us a priority.

“They have not made Jelani a priority.”

Ms Day said that officials had told her there was no sign that her son’s body had been put in the river but said “Jelani did not do this to himself”.

“I know I’m not the first mother who has lost a child. But when you lose your child, and you don’t know why, you don’t know what happened, you don’t know what for, what reason, I don’t know how you cannot stop insisting that the people who have made pledges to protect and serve find the answers for you,” she said.

Jelani Day was studying speech pathology at Illinois State University and dreamed of becoming a doctor (Bloomington Police)
Jelani Day was studying speech pathology at Illinois State University and dreamed of becoming a doctor (Bloomington Police)

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump called for Mr Day’s death to be looked into as a “hate crime investigation” rather than “try to write it off as ‘they must have taken their own life’”.

“We don’t accept it. We are very clear in our declaration that this is not suicide,” he said, adding that “none of it adds up”.

“You look at the demographics of the town of which this happened, and the historical acknowledgment that it was a sundown town,” he said.

“If that was your child, would you accept what the local police are trying to tell this mother?”

Mr Crump also compared the lack of attention given to the Black man’s case to the national and international focus on the disappearance and death of white 22-year-old Gabby Petito.

"We are asking the FBI to make this young, Black man named Jelani Day a priority just like they did the young white woman, Gabby Petito, because his life matters just like hers," said Mr Crump.

Attorney Ben Crump walks with Jelani Day's sisters Dacara Bolden (left) and Zena Day (right) at Friday’s press conference as his family call for the FBI to take the case (AP)
Attorney Ben Crump walks with Jelani Day's sisters Dacara Bolden (left) and Zena Day (right) at Friday’s press conference as his family call for the FBI to take the case (AP)

Critics have repeatedly noted in the wake of Ms Petito’s case that missing people of colour do not get the same level of attention from the media and the public.

LaSalle County sheriff’s office released a statement on Friday saying they “continue to examine the circumstances surrounding Jelani Day’s death from every investigative angle and are working hand-in-hand with our federal and local law enforcement partners to ensure that every lead is followed”.

The department added that it expects to release further information on the case “in the coming days”.

The Independent has reached out to the FBI’s Chicago office for comment.

“The FBI is always willing to assist at the request of local law enforcement and is in communication with the Peru Police department to provide resources as needed,” an FBI spokesperson said in a statement to NBC News.

“Department of Justice policy prevents us from further commenting on investigations.”

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