A LaSalle County coroner in Illinois has determined that 25-year-old Illinois State University grad student Jelani Day’s death was caused by drowning, but his family still believes something sinister happened.
Day was reported missing on Aug. 24. Police found his body in the Illinois River near Peru on Sept. 4, but the body was not identified until Sept. 23. It was severely decomposed due to the length of time it was submerged in water.
On Monday, coroner Richard Ploch released a report detailing Day’s death, explaining that he did not suspect any other cause of death.
Ploch said, “There was no evidence of any (pre-death) injury, such as manual strangulation, an assault or altercation, sharp, blunt, or gunshot injury, infection, tumor, natural disease, congenital abnormality, or significant drug intoxication.”
However, it’s still unclear how Day’s body ended up in the river.
“Unfortunately, there is no specific test at autopsy for drowning,” Ploch reported. “Drowning is considered a diagnosis of exclusion with supporting investigation circumstances when a person is found deceased in a body of water.”
Day’s mother, Carmen Bolden Day, says that the coroner’s report makes it seem as if her son did something to harm himself—which she strongly doubts. Instead, she thinks someone else is to blame.
“Somebody did this to him, and they are going to be held responsible for doing what they did to my son,” she said Monday during an organization meeting at Illinois State University.
Day was pursuing a graduate degree in speech pathology at Illinois State University, and he was reported missing after missing a few days of class. Bloomington Police said that on the day he disappeared, he was captured him on surveillance video entering a cannabis dispensary just outside of Normal, Illinois.
Two days after he was reported missing, his car was found about 60 miles north of Bloomington in Peru, in a wooded area off a parking lot.
“To me it’s unusual, the way his vehicle was, you know, it was off of a parking lot inside, it wasn’t like deep into a woods, but it was off a parking lot,” Bloomington Police public information officer John Fermon said in September, adding that Day’s disappearance appeared “suspicious.”
The case received renewed attention in the wake of Gabby Petito’s disappearance, with many people decrying the disproportionate focus on cases involving white women.
Before the coroner’s report was released, two autopsies had been conducted in which the first—an official autopsy—found that Day’s body had severely deteriorated. The second investigation, a pathology report that the family independently sought, found that the organs in Day’s body had completely “liquified.” This caused some confusion as a report by the Chicago Sun-Times claimed that the family’s hired pathologist could find “no organs.” Day’s mother later clarified that no organs were missing, but that still didn’t change her mind that there was no foul play involved.
Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has been an avid supporter of the Day family throughout the process, is also skeptical of the coroner’s report.
“We don’t believe it. Local investigators cannot be trusted with this,” the civil rights leader said Monday.
Jackson has likened Day’s death to the case of Emmett Till, the Black teenager murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Jackson said he believed Day won’t get proper justice unless federal authorities are involved.
“The Department of Justice and the attorney general needs to be a part of this,” he said.
Day’s former chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. has also called for federal and state authorities to look into the case because they believe the Bloomington police are unable “to handle a case of this nature.” Earlier in October, they created an online petition to gain awareness and support.
Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition has planned a “March for Jelani Day” rally Tuesday in Peru.