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After march in Peru, congressman calls for federal investigation into Jelani Day's death

The family of Jelani Day and their supporters — including the Rev. Jesse Jackson — gathered in Peru, Ill., on Tuesday in hopes of pressuring law enforcement investigating Day's death.

Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition were the lead organizers of Tuesday’s march. Day, an Illinois State University graduate student, was found dead in the Illinois River in Peru on Sept. 4.

Authorities say he drowned and there were no signs of trauma on his body before he died. Authorities say they don’t know why Day ended up in the river. His family and their supporters have rejected theories about suicide or self-harm and believe he was murdered. They’re hoping State Police or the FBI will take over the investigation.

Jelani Day's mother, Carmen Bolden Day, said the LaSalle County coroner’s report indicating her son drowned was an “insult” to her and her son. She said there's no way her son would have drowned on his own.

“Jelani was an avid simmer, and an avid swimmer doesn’t drown himself,” Day said. “Jelani didn’t have depression or mental issues. Those are indicative of someone that had suicidal thoughts. That’s not what my son had.”

Jonathan Jackson, spokesperson with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said LaSalle County Coroner Rich Ploch should apologize to Day’s family for the way in which the report was released, though he did not elaborate.

“No family should ever have to go through this,” Jackson said.

Ploch attended the gathering Tuesday at the Peru Police Department. He said Bolden Day requested he be there.

‘That was to show support because Carmen (Bolden) Day asked me to attend and I said I would and to come here to show support for their cause,” Ploch said. “I still agree: We need to determine why he was found in the water.”

Bolden Day and members of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition led a tour of several spots along the Illinois River near Peru where they say Jelani’s car, his belongings and Jelani himself were found in separate locations.

Jelani’s car was found “concealed” in a wooded area south of the Illinois Valley YMCA and north of the intersection of 12th Street and Westclox Avenue in Peru, police said. That’s about a mile from where police said his body was found: just off the south bank of the Illinois River, east of Illinois 251 bridge.

Bolden Day and Jackson said the license plates were removed from Jelani’s car, although police have not confirmed that publicly.

“My son ain’t coming into the woods to hang out, that’s not what he did, ever in all the 25 years of me raising him and knowing him,” Day said. “This wouldn’t have been Jelani’s hangout spot.”

Day said police told her two ISU students who went looking for her son found his clothing near the Illinois River, approximately one mile from where his body was found.

Jonathan Jackson with Rainbow PUSH said Bolden Day wanted to thank them for their help and seek answers but was told she could not speak with the ISU students because they have since hired attorneys.

This is the part of the Illinois River in Peru where Jelani Day's family says his clothes were found. It's seen here Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021.
Emily Bollinger
This is the part of the Illinois River in Peru where Jelani Day's family says his clothes were found. It's seen here Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021.

“We are just trying to find answers,” Jonathan Jackson said.

“Coverup, coverup, coverup,” Rev. Jackson replied.

Investigation update

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Chicago Democrat, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray asking for a federal investigation of Day’s death.

Rush called it a “grave concern” and said the details of the case reminded him of the killing of Emmett Till. Till was lynched in 1955 and his body was found floating in a river.

“It is far too often the case that the police and media response around missing people of color, specifically Black Americans, is often slow, fleeting, and apathetic,” Rush said in the letter.

Generally speaking, the FBI only becomes the lead investigative agency on a case if there’s reason to believe a federal crime has been committed. Without that, the FBI can only provide support to the lead local agency.

“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. Department of Justice policy prevents us from further commenting on investigations,” said Siobhan Johnson, an FBI spokesperson in Chicago.

Bishop Tavis Grant, national field director for Rainbow PUSH, said coalition has also talked with State Police and said the agency plans to “get involved.” State Police replied to WGLT that it is assisting the Peru Police Department in the investigation but has not provided specifics.

Bolden Day said the Illinois attorney general’s office has also been contacted about the case has not responded. She urged others to contact the office and “pester” them until they are compelled to respond. WGLT has requested a comment from the attorney general’s office.

Until Monday’s release of the cause of death, police had said little publicly about the investigation in a case that has gained national attention. That helped fuel widespread speculation about what may have happened. Some claims authorities have refuted. Others, Bolden Day herself has refuted.

Grant, with Rainbow PUSH, said he doesn’t believe that rumors and misinformation have hurt the case in the Day family’s quest for justice.

“Not at all. The important thing right now is the family is moving toward closure. The investigation is going forward, and the appropriate eyes and ears and hands are gathered around this to preserve the evidence, make sure transparency and efficiency are not compromised,” Grant said.

‘Justice for Jelani’

Jackson visited ISU on Monday night to rally support for the Peru march. Several student and employee groups from ISU were expected to participate in the march. On Tuesday several dozen vehicles, including a charter bus, drove from the Peru Police Department to several stops along the Illinois River and took part in a march in Peru. They chanted “Justice for Jelani” and held signs from Rainbow PUSH that made the same plea.

Rainbow PUSH announced late Monday that it was no longer sending a bus from Chicago to the march, citing “unforeseen circumstances, inclement weather and an impromptu schedule change concerning Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. and staff attending the General Assembly meeting of the Illinois State University’s Black Student Union” on Monday night.

Peru is a town of around 9,800 people in LaSalle County, about an hour north of Bloomington-Normal.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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