By Omar Jimenez and Rachel Clarke, CNN
The disappearance and death of Jelani Day left a mother heartbroken, a family grieving and a community with more questions than answers.
Amid the questions are clues. His car was found in woods in Peru, Illinois, nearly 70 miles from where he was last seen alive. His wallet, some clothes and an ID lanyard were all found individually at separate locations in the same general area of the car, but at distances as large as over a mile apart from where the body was found, according to investigators.
The LaSalle County Coroner wrote Monday that the 25-year-old graduate student died from “drowning” with no evidence of pre-death injury but added, “the manner in which Mr. Day went into the Illinois River is currently unknown.”
“It’s been way too long not to have answers,” Carmen Bolden Day, Jelani’s mother, said on Tuesday. “I need to know why. I need to know the hows.”
Bolden Day, along with supporters including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, traveled Tuesday to Peru, Illinois, where Day’s vehicle and other belongings were found.
“Help me find justice,” Bolden Day implored the crowd outside the Peru Police Department who had gathered to travel to where evidence was found in the case in order to raise awareness and questions about what happened.
Jelani Day was last seen on August 24 in Bloomington, Illinois, entering a Beyond/Hello retail store.
Two days later, his car was found about an hour’s drive north in Peru, dumped in the woods behind a YMCA and in the middle of a residential community.
Where the car entered, according to the former family attorney, looks like a dead end from the paved road.
The license plate had been removed. The clothes Day was seen wearing on a surveillance camera on August 24 were in the car.
His wallet was found “somewhat in the bushes” about a half mile away, according to investigators. Neither the car nor wallet was found near the water, yet Day’s body was recovered more than a week later over a mile away off the bank of the Illinois River.
According to investigators, an ID lanyard was found just across the river from the body. Clothing was also found farther east along the river, next to the Illinois Route 251 Bridge.
Bolden Day doesn’t believe her son would have harmed himself, certainly not through drowning in a river in a town where he had no ties.
“There are plenty of bodies of water in Bloomington!” Bolden Day told CNN. “We’re in Peru. A town that Jelani doesn’t have any friends. His car was parked in a wooded area that you wouldn’t have even knew how to get you had you not heard about this.”
She raised national attention for the case of her son during the search for Gabby Petito, when she still did not know the fate of Jelani.
Petito’s remains were found in a remote campground near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and were soon identified. Day’s remains were found in the Illinois River, west of Chicago, and it was nearly three weeks before his identity was confirmed.
Bolden Day has commissioned two independent autopsies after she told CNN it’s been hard to keep faith in local authorities.
Jelani Day’s body was found in a severe state of decomposition, so much so that Bolden Day does not believe the coroner could say with such certainty in his report there was “there was no evidence of any injury, such as manual strangulation, an assault or altercation, sharp, blunt, or gunshot injury, infection, tumor, natural disease, congenital abnormality, or significant drug intoxication.”
The LaSalle County Coroner even wrote in his report, “the examination was suboptimal” based on the level of decomposition after over a week in the hot summer weather. According to the former family attorney, Hallie Bezner, his organs were “completely liquid.”
Bolden Day told CNN, “He doesn’t have any skin to determine bruising so none of this makes sense and you wanna tell me there’s no physical trauma done to my child?”
“Do I accept this if they tell me this is my son? I accept it but I still need to know why my son is not here anymore. Because somebody knows,” she added.
The coroner’s report was “an insult to not only myself, but to my son,” she said. They’re sentiments civil rights campaigner Jackson. shares, saying “it assumes there’s a kind of suicide planned.”
Bolden Day has consistently pushed back on that narrative.
“Jelani was an avid swimmer and an avid swimmer doesn’t drown himself,” Bolden Day said. “So Jelani ended up here against his will, he ended up in that river against his will. He was drowned against his will. So that is all equivalent to murder.”
She wants the investigation to be taken over by state or federal authorities and says there must be more evidence out there showing how her son got from Bloomington to Peru, if only someone would look.
CNN asked Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office if he had plans to investigate, but had not received a response as of Tuesday night.
A statement from the Peru Police Department to CNN stressed the death was being worked on by officers from various forces every day.
“There are hundreds of hours of video to look through, numerous follow-ups to conduct, and a plethora of social media, bank records, phone records, and other pieces of information to investigate,” it read, adding the unit was dedicated to getting answers for the family.
Bolden Day got support from US Rep. Bobby Rush of the nearby Illinois 1st District, who backed her call for the FBI to take over the case, though that usually only happens when a federal crime may have been committed.
Rush wrote to US Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray asking them to intervene, in a letter first reported by CNN.
“The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been leading the investigation into the disappearance of Gabby Petito, who went missing around the same time as Jelani Day. While the outcome was also unfortunate and tragic, I am hopeful that having received timely answers will provide her family a level of comfort and closure,” he wrote.
“As I learned the details of Day’s case, I was reminded of the lynching of Emmett Till, whose body was found floating in a river in 1955 and still, decades later, no one has been held legally accountable for his death.”
He continued, “Appropriately, the FBI has aggressively pursued justice for Petito, and Day’s family deserves the same urgency as they continue to seek answers to the many questions surrounding his tragic death.”
Siobhan Johnson, spokesperson at the FBI’s Chicago Field Office, said agents were always willing to offer help if requested and were in touch with the Peru Police Department to provide resources.
For now, Bolden Day says she is still angry at how her son’s case has been handled and wants the answers she believes national attention got for the Petito family.
“Jelani deserves the same thing,” she said. “I deserve the same thing.”
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