BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (WMBD) — Another level of pain hits as one year later, Carmen is no closer to finding out what happened to the Illinois State University graduate student.
“It’s the same set of eyes doing the same set of things so I’m going to get the same results.“
She blames investigators, saying they’ve overlooked critical surveillance footage that she found, delayed following up on leads and didn’t dedicate enough manpower for her son’s investigation.
“Whole month done passed. They didn’t conduct a search party. Every search party that happened I did that… when they found the car and we stood in that parking lot that night or that early morning and I asked them, ‘Well what we gonna do next? We’re going to look in the water? Where are we going to go?’ And Detective Paul Jones from Bloomington told me, ‘Carmen, we don’t believe that Jelani is in Peru.’
But that’s exactly where Jelani’s body was ultimately found.
“He works for the Attorney General’s office and he said to me, ‘Carmen, we’ve made mistakes. The police agency made mistakes. What can we tell you besides that we’re sorry that we made mistakes?’”
The LaSalle County Sheriff’s Office, Peru Police Department, La Salle Police Department, Bloomington Police Department, Illinois State Police, La Salle County Coroner’s Office, the FBI and Illinois Attorney General’s Office have all had a hand in Jelani Day’s investigation as part of the Jelani Day Taskforce.
“They volunteer to do this work: to protect and serve. They did me a disservice. They didn’t serve me. They didn’t serve my family. And now all you want to do is tell me that you made a mistake? How do I know that that mistake at some point Jelani was not alive but because of your mistake we didn’t find him?”
Beyond the mystery of Jelani Day’s death, his story also opens up another conversation: the treatment of missing person cases when it comes to people of color.
“When the police sat there and told me ‘Ms. Day we’ve asked around and we can’t find anything bad about your son.’ Why are you even looking for something bad? Why are you looking for something bad and you’re not looking for him? Do you think that that’s what they did when Gabby was missing? Did they look for something bad on her or did they just go looking for her?”
Carmen reflects on Gabby Petito: the 22-year-old woman from New York, who also went missing around the same time as Jelani. But her disappearance almost immediately launched a nationwide investigation with federal resources.
“My son was important too. And at first, I didn’t want to make it about race because I was like I just want you to find Jelani. But every time I sat there, every time I tried to talk to somebody and I’m looking at this girl, and I’m seeing her family—her mom is out there pleading. I feel so sorry for her mom because I know what her mom is going through. But help me too.”
It’s a disparity in treatment Carmen says she also saw unfold when she was trying to get media coverage for Jelani’s case.
“When I was talking to one of the news people, she told me well maybe it’s because Jelani doesn’t have an active social media account and Gabby was a blogger. I said so you think that makes a difference as to why nobody’s paying attention—that’s why you didn’t pay attention to my child because you couldn’t find him on social media?“
But Carmen says as difficult as the loss of Jelani has been, she’s finding purpose in her pain.
“If I have to be the one to shine a light on say you guys have to look at this because people of color are not getting the same attention as non people of color when their people are missing and that’s not right.”
Carmen is now preparing to launch the Jelani Day Foundation: an avenue to raise money for families of missing children who have to miss work, but still pay bills and possibly travel as part of their investigations. It also serves as a way to connect them with media and legal resources.
“I just want to be able to help somebody in their time of need because people helped me and I want to be able to extend that back to somebody.”
Carmen clings to precious photos and videos of Jelani to manage her pain. And while life will never be the same for the Day family, she’s finding the strength to push forward.
“He would always tell me that he was proud of me, and I just want him to know that I’m so proud of him. That’s what I’m doing all this for.”
The official launch of the Jelani Day Foundation will take place Saturday, Aug. 27 at Illinois State University, where Jelani was studying. The fundraising event is open to the public, as a way to support families of missing children.