- Grad student Jelani Day disappeared at the end of August and was found dead days later.
- Insider recently spoke to Day’s brother, Seve, who is skeptical that the body found is his brother’s.
- The family has lost trust with the law enforcement agencies investigating Day’s death, Seve said.
When loved ones go missing, the discovery of a body may be heartbreaking, but it can also bring a sense of closure.
That hasn’t been the case for the family of Jelani Day, a 25-year-old Illinois State University grad student who went missing at the end of August, and whose body was later found floating in the Illinois River. Authorities are still investigating a cause of death.
Insider recently spoke to Jelani’s older brother, Seve Day, who viewed the body and isn’t convinced it’s his brother.
Day told Insider that while the county coroner warned him water can significantly alter a dead body, he was skeptical that Jelani’s body could have decomposed that fast. He saw nothing of his brother in it.
“My brother went missing on August 24 and they found the body on September 4. So that’s not a long time,” Day said. “The body they identified as my brother … it looks like it’s been in the water for years.”
“You couldn’t identify whether it was male or female because there was no genitalia,” he added. “You couldn’t tell the skin color because it was so pale and worn down. The face itself is something you would see in a science lab.”
Day said his family has lost faith in local law enforcement, feeling that police initially downplayed his brother’s disappearance and pushed a narrative that he was depressed.
And after hiring a private forensic pathologist to conduct a second autopsy, Day says the family believes officials “are not being straightforward” with them and that there are some things “that they are trying to cover up.”
Day says the family searched for Jelani when he disappeared without much help from police
When Jelani was first reported missing, the family convened on his college town of Bloomington, Illinois. Day says that from the start, law enforcement suggested his brother may have been overwhelmed and left campus to get away from it all.
But Day saw nothing to indicate that his brother was struggling. Jelani had just started grad school to realize his dream of becoming a speech pathologist, and was excited to be the first Black man to graduate with that degree from ISU. He had a clothing line launch planned for October 9, the day that ended up being his funeral.
Even after Jelani’s car was found abandoned in rural Peru – a former sundown town – with the license plates removed two days after his disappearance, Day said the family had to mount a search effort because the police didn’t. Day also said he beat investigators to several local businesses, where he watched security camera footage to try to track his brother’s movements to Peru.
“It’s like, why haven’t you guys done this already?” he said.
Day believes that his brother’s case would have gotten a lot more attention initially if Jelani were white.
“We saw what happened when the [Gabby] Petito case was going on,” he said. “How people react when it’s a white person who’s missing versus when it’s a Black person missing. We’re like, ‘Wow, where was this when we needed it.'”
The family ordered a private autopsy that sparked a wild theory about missing organs
Nine days after Jelani’s car was found, authorities pulled a body from the nearby Illinois River.
It took more than two weeks for officials to identify the body as Jelani, a wait that frustrated the family and which Day said led to a heated phone call between his mother, Carmen Bolden Day, and LaSalle County Coroner Richard Ploch.
As the two discussed trying to identify the body, Day said the coroner blew up at his mom for asking what he described as “general questions.”
“He basically told her on the phone, ‘You’re pissing me off, do you want me to find out if this is your son or not?'” Day said.
The family had a private autopsy done because Day said they “didn’t fully trust” local officials.
Day said the private pathologist was “baffled” by the work of the coroner, who he said didn’t follow standard protocol. There were also differences in how the body was described between the two exams, according to Day, from the corpse’s hair being “shaved” in the preliminary autopsy to there being no hair at all in the private exam.
The coroner’s office told Insider that it couldn’t comment on the comparisons between the two forensics exams, because they haven’t seen the results of the private exam. When asked for comment on the phone call between the coroner and Day’s mother, the office said that “it serves no professional purpose to comment on what was alleged to have been said between the parties in this case.”
“The Coroners office deals with hundreds of cases each year, with all different races, sex, & religious beliefs,” the office added. “All have been, and will continue to be, investigated with the utmost professionalism, urgency, and compassion, as has always been the case.”
An October 8 Chicago Sun-Times column which included details of the private autopsy, including that certain organs were missing, fueled more controversy when social media users started speculating that Jelani’s organs had been harvested. Jelani’s mother later wrote a Facebook post clarifying the story only said the organs were missing, not removed; but in a later post, her children said they weren’t ready to throw out the organ-harvesting theory.
Day wouldn’t provide Insider with a copy of the private autopsy, saying that the family was waiting to have a third autopsy done.
“We don’t trust anything,” he said. “We’re getting third opinions, fourth opinions, for everything. For closure.”
The Days want the FBI to investigate, but the agency won’t be taking the lead
Day said his family has been experiencing a lot of frustration and anger as they work to figure out what happened to Jelani. He added that he thinks if his brother was white, law enforcement would have taken the case more seriously, and would have been more transparent with his family.
“It’s like we don’t have the time to be sad about it, because all of this that’s going on with law enforcement, who you think would be willing to help, and they’re not even being up front or trustworthy with us,” he said.
Day said the family has lost faith in local law enforcement’s ability to figure out what happened to Jelani and want the FBI to take over the investigation.
Becky Cramblit, public affairs officer for the FBI’s field office in Springfield, Illinois, told Insider on Friday that while the agency is involved, it has no plans to take over the investigation from the LaSalle County Sheriff’s Office. Cramblit explained that the FBI usually deals with cases that cross state lines or involve a young person who has been the victim of a violent crime.
LaSalle County Sheriff Adam Diss did not return Insider’s request for comment. Neither did the Peru Police Department, Illinois State Police, or the Illinois State University Police Department.
A spokesman for Bloomington police defended his department when reached for comment about Day’s complaints.
John Fermon said the Bloomington Police Department was first brought into the investigation the night of August 25, and assigned a detective to the case by the next morning. Fermon said his office categorized Jelani’s disappearance as “high risk” due to “unusual circumstances.”
Since an officer found nothing amiss at Jelani’s apartment when he first went missing, Fermon said he can understand why that officer may have downplayed the disappearance to the Day family, as his office often deals with missing persons cases that quickly resolve themselves.
However, Fermon said he can “empathize” with how the Day family feels, adding that there’s nothing that police could do that would be enough if one of his own family members went missing.