For Jelani Day’s sisters, memories of their late brother bring smiles to their faces.
“As a big brother, he always reminded me I was the little sister, no matter how close in age or tall I got,“ laughed Zena Day.
“I want people to know he was full of life,“ added Decara Day, Jelani’s older sister. “He was very insightful on how he wanted to live his life and the things he wanted to do.”
Jelani Day, 25, was a graduate student in speech pathology at Illinois State University when he suddenly disappeared on Aug. 24, 2021.
“I think my brother was set up. I think whoever was responsible for this was somebody that he trusted enough to let his guard down,“ Decara said.
Together, the sisters retraced their brother’s steps. They knocked on doors, looking for witnesses and scoured hours of video, searching for clues. One year later, there are still no answers.
“I want to say that it just hasn’t been the same, and it will never be,” Decara said. “Whoever hurt my brother, took something from me that they could never replace.”
“I talked to him the Monday before he went missing and everything was fine,” added Zena.
The morning of his disappearance, Jelani was on campus at 7:20 a.m., ready to go. The night before, he told his mother, Carmen, he was excited about an important class in speech pathology later that afternoon. He grabbed a coffee at Starbucks in the student union and walked outside.
His family said security video showed him sitting on a bench looking at his phone.
Then, suddenly, something caused Jelani to leave campus and change course. He went home to his apartment in Bloomington and changed clothes.
By 9:12 a.m., Jelani was next seen walking into the Beyond Hello dispensary wearing blue shorts and a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt. He bought one joint and left.
“The fact that is was the dispensary makes me feel it was somebody that he knew. He was like I can do this and get back but that wasn’t the case,” said Decara.
What would lure Jelani away from campus that day?
Decara says that while she was close to her brother, she did not know if Jelani was dating anyone online saying, “You know, even though me and my brother are very close, when it comes to girls that part, you know, they kind of keep to themselves.”
Jelani left the dispensary in his car, which was later found abandoned in the town of Peru—62 miles north of Bloomington. Ten days after being reported missing, his body washed up in the Illinois River.
“He wouldn’t let anyone take him down without a fight. That’s for sure, so I know whoever did this it was more than one person,” said Zena.
The coroner’s report said the cause of death was drowning, but the manner of death—homicide, suicide or accident — remains undetermined. His mother Carmen said Jelani was a good swimmer, and the family is convinced he was murdered.
“I think we need a new set of eyes to get the answers we need,” she stated.
She also said the FBI still hasn’t cracked the code to access all the information on Jelani’s iPhone.
“I want to know where he was, who he was texting and who he was talking to,” his mother added.
Carmen also wants to know who was driving a pickup truck seen on surveillance video she says she obtained from the YMCA where Jelani’s car was found.
“There’s a suspicious vehicle. It sits idling…then speeds out,“ said Carmen, describing the video.
NBC 5 Investigates also spoke to a woman who lives in Peru, who said that she saw a vehicle idling next to a car that looked like Jelani’s at the very place police discovered his abandoned car.
Police tell us both tips were checked out, but no credible evidence was developed.
A source close to the investigations said that they even secured a search warrant to track all active mobile devices near Jelani’s car, but nothing surfaced to advance the case.
“I want to know what happened to my brother,” Zena said. That’s the only story that matters.”
NBC 5 Investigates spoke with Jelani’s sisters on their father’s birthday. He died this year from Leukemia. They said Jelani was supposed to be his donor for a stem cell transplant.
Zena said some of her favorite memories are simply driving with her dad and her brother. Now, memories are all they have.
“I’d be singing in the car today and sing happy birthday and Jelani would try to drown me out. We would all be together,” reminisced Zena.
“They told a big piece of our family…with our brother and sister alignment we all meshed together, and Jelani’s piece is just gone,“ said Decara.
In December 2021, the Jelani Day Joint Task Force was announced to help identify and coordinate new leads in the death investigation. The task force includes the Bloomington Police Department, the Peru Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation-Chicago Division, LaSalle County Sheriff’s Office, the LaSalle Police Department, Illinois State Police and the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.
The public can submit tips anonymously via 1-800-CALL-FBI. The FBI is offering up to $10,000 for “substantial information” and the Day family is offering up to $25,000 in reward money.
On August 27, the Day Family is celebrating Jelani’s life at Illinois State University with an announcement of a foundation set up in his name. More information can be found here.