Day, 25, was a graduate student from Danville studying speech language pathology at Illinois State University when he was reported missing from Bloomington in late August 2021; the next day his car was found an hour north of campus in Peru.
His body was pulled from the Illinois River near Peru on Sept. 4, 2021, and confirmation of his identity was released to the public on Sept. 23 of that year.
His cause of death later was determined to be drowning, but the manner of death remains unknown.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, The Pantagraph requested all emails containing Day’s name that were sent to and from LaSalle County officials from October 2021 to August 2022.
The 460 pages of documents give a fragmented view of how the investigation into Day’s disappearance and death continued in the months after calls for justice were chanted in the streets.
Day’s family continues to strive for justice in this case, insistent that he was murdered.
An email thread included in the released documents contains a long list of questions submitted by a news organization along with several answers, many of which have never been confirmed or released to the public.
Among the information obtained from LaSalle County, The Pantagraph found details about the circumstances under which Day’s belongings were found, including:
- His car, found by a high school student on his way to work at the Illinois Valley YMCA;
- His wallet, found by a person searching for their lost drone;
- His phone, found along Interstate 74 by a driver who had pulled over to secure a load;
- His clothes, found by two ISU students on the bank of the Illinois River.
Sarah Raymond, deputy chief for the Peru Police Department, told The Pantagraph those emails should have been redacted from The Pantagraph’s FOIA request and not released.
“The Jelani Day Joint Task Force collectively decided that the information contained in that email not be disseminated as it’s an integral part of our investigation, which is ongoing,” she said earlier this month.
The Pantagraph is publishing the information because it helps to shed light on the background of a case that has attracted significant public interest and concern.
In the past year, Day’s mother, Bolden Day, has used every opportunity to call attention to her son’s investigation and to spread information about her son’s case, including the puzzling disbursement of his belongings.
Last October, she led a march throughout Peru with civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson at her side, pointing out key locations in the case.
“I need you to see for yourselves the area of where Jelani’s car was found, the area where the clothing was found, the area where the body was found, the distance between the three,” Bolden Day said to the crowd of more than 500 people. “None of this stuff adds up.”
Until now, law enforcement agencies have not publicly disclosed all of the information about Day’s belongings. After Day’s car was found, police did report finding inside the vehicle the clothes he was seen wearing in surveillance video before he went missing.
The email thread containing these answers began with Raymond communicating with Special Agent Siobhan Johnson, from the FBI field office in Chicago.
“I’m not sure if we should give everything. Should I do an in person interview? Let me know what you think,” Raymond wrote on March 29.
The next message shows Raymond consulting other law enforcement officials from the Jelani Day Joint Task Force, which includes the LaSalle County Sheriff’s Office, the Bloomington, Peru and LaSalle police departments, Illinois State Police, Illinois Attorney General’s Office, FBI’s Chicago office and the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.
Peru Police Chief Bob Pyszka signed off on the answers: “I have no problem with it from Peru PD standpoint.”
But before the other agencies chimed in, the chief in Bloomington expressed pause.
“In an effort to ensure we handle this appropriately; I would prefer we have a conference call to discuss before any decision is made,” Chief Jamal Simington wrote.
Raymond told The Pantagraph the information was never released to the reporter who had sent in the questions.
An email to Simington requesting comment on the matter was answered by a Bloomington police spokesman, who told The Pantagraph that all questions should be directed to Peru police.
“The Jelani Day case is being investigated by a joint task force. All members are working in complete coordination at all times. All activities taken have (been) to ensure we do not compromise the investigation in any way,” said Brandt Parsley, Bloomington’s public information officer. “Since we are part of the joint task force, please refer all questions to the direct spokesperson for the task force, Peru PD, as they have the lead.”
No further discussion of the matter was included in the documents.
The Pantagraph provided the email thread to Bolden Day, who said it shows that Bloomington police want to distance themselves from the case.
“Jamal (Simington) doesn’t want anything put out about this,” Bolden Day said. “Bloomington messed up from the beginning.”
Concerning law enforcement’s decision not to release the information, Bolden Day said, simply: “They don’t want you to know.”
‘Uniform in response’
After the task force “collectively decided” to decline sending those answers back to the reporter in March, available information became even more limited to the public in an already shrouded case.
Emails show Raymond told members of the task force to deny interview requests, give a uniform response to inquiries and tell reporters no information is available.
“I enlisted the help of the FBI for the response. You are all welcome and SHOULD use the first paragraph exactly as it states so that everyone is uniform in response. The last part you need to make more your own and include that ‘ongoing’ and there is ‘no additional information’ currently,” she wrote July 29.
That prepared response: “The investigation into the death of Jelani Day remains ongoing. Complex death investigations take time to thoroughly investigate, and the Jelani Day Joint Task Force is employing all available investigative techniques to bring this case to a resolution as soon as possible. The task force continues to solicit tips from the public, and the $10,000 reward for substantial information regarding Day’s final hours remains active.”
Members were encouraged to customize this portion: “We will need to decline your request for an interview at this time to protect the integrity of this ongoing investigation. There is currently no additional information available for release.”
LaSalle County emails show the response in action, as reporter after reporter was denied any update on the case.
When The Pantagraph last obtained LaSalle County emails in October 2021, rumors were surfacing that Day’s phone had been found, but police did not return requests for comment before the story was published.
Emails now detail how law enforcement came to possess the phone nearly a year ago.
In the email that was never given to the inquiring reporter, Raymond wrote that police had run the serial number for Day’s phone through a law enforcement database and found it had been sold to an EcoATM on Oct. 13.
EcoATM operates kiosks where people can sell or recycle smartphones. They are often located in major grocery chains.
“An investigation into this took place and found a male had found the phone on the side of Interstate 74 when he had stopped to strap down a load he was losing on his van,” Raymond wrote. “He saw that it was a newer iPhone and it was all broken but thought he could get some money for it. He went straight to Walmart and sold it for $89 to the EcoATM.”
Police contacted the company, which still had the phone and agreed to send it to law enforcement. Raymond said they then turned it over to the FBI for forensic analysis.
However, because of Apple’s software encryption for the company’s newer phones, Day’s phone couldn’t be “broken into” without his passcode.
“Apple is unable to perform an iOS device data extraction as the data typically sought by law enforcement is encrypted, and Apple does not possess the encryption key,” according to Apple’s law enforcement guidelines.
Investigators were able to retrieve a “partial file system dump,” but it did not contain much usable information — “a few voicemails and no personal pictures or texts,” Raymond wrote.
“Until software updates come out to be able to break into the phone, we won’t know what, if anything of value, is even on it. That could take years,” Raymond wrote.
Day’s other belongings
Day’s 2010 white Chrysler 300 was located in Peru on Aug. 26, 2021, tucked into a wooded area near the parking lot for the Illinois Valley YMCA — “appeared there was an attempt to hide the car due to (its) location,” Raymond wrote.
A teenager saw it on his walk from LaSalle-Peru Township High School to the YMCA, where he works, according to the documents.
“Anyone who walks the path would have seen the car and knew it was out of place,” Raymond wrote.
The student reported it to the front desk at the YMCA and it was then reported to police.
Bolden Day told The Pantagraph the student had actually seen his car on Aug. 25, but he didn’t think to tell anyone initially. When it was still there the next day, he told his supervisor.
When the car was analyzed by police, they noted the license plate had been removed — “not ripped off” — and it was never located. A state police investigator used a metal detector in the area, but the plate and its screws were not found, according to the Peru deputy chief’s email.
A lost drone led a young man to find Day’s wallet, Raymond wrote, but her description did not include a date and location for where the wallet was found.
“His drone had gps and when he couldn’t find it he called his mother. They tracked the drone and while looking for it they found the wallet,” Raymond wrote.
His father recognized the name on Day’s ID and after an internet search, he called police to report what they had found.
Bolden Day said this conflicts with information police had previously given her.
She said Peru police told her during the initial investigation that someone reported seeing her son walk down a residential street and throw his wallet. “But they changed it to this boy who lost his drone,” she said.
Day’s clothing has been a significant source of scrutiny in this case, from his family as well as observers on social media.
The hat and T-shirt he was seen wearing the day before he was reported missing were found in his car, but his shorts, socks and shoes were found three and a half weeks later on the north bank of the Illinois River.
Two ISU students found the clothing the day before dental records confirmed the identity of Day’s remains — and two days before that was announced to the public.
The email confirms the students found his clothing, but no further detail is included.
Day’s family has said those students told police they went searching for clues in the LaSalle-Peru area and after they found his clothes, they retained attorneys and did not speak with police.
It has been one year this month since Jelani Day’s body was identified, but the unanswered questions still weigh on this case.
His mother said she’s seen surveillance video recorded at ISU that showed Day talking with people on campus.
But in her email, Raymond wrote, “No one spoke to him that day or came forward to say they had. Video shows him looking on his phone but there is absolutely no way to tell if he is texting or browsing.”
The FBI is still offering a $10,000 reward for substantial information regarding Day’s final hours, but with no evidence that anyone has come forward, and law enforcement shutting down any inquiries, the case appears to be in danger of fading from the public’s attention.
An investigative reporter expressed this in August when she requested comment from LaSalle County officials.
“Our fear is that the general public will see the report and feel the authorities are being silent or ignoring this case,” she wrote.
Bolden Day questioned the police investigation. “They are not doing what they’re supposed to do,” she said. “They haven’t done the things that could possibly find what happened to Jelani.
“Why they’re stalling, why they’re covering up things is beyond me.”
But she pledged not to allow her son to fade.
“I’m not going to let it slip out of people’s mind,” she said. “I just need everybody to continue to help me because we’re going to find what happened to him.”
Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.