Here in this historic sundown town, population 10,300, where the Illinois River and a railroad stretch for miles across a scenic emerald valley, a Black body was found nearly a month ago floating in the river, and questions surrounding his death still swirl like a cool autumn wind.
I have driven here as a reporter on this sun-splashed day. An eagle glides above the haunting green Illinois Route 251 Bridge, where search crews reportedly found the body on Sept. 4.
Standing above the river’s serene banks, I am well aware of the documented history of Peru and the adjoining town of LaSalle as having been among the hundreds of all-white Illinois towns and suburbs north of the Mason-Dixon line.
The steady unsentimental female Google voice guides my brother Jeff and me to a wooded area here, “south of the Illinois Valley YMCA and due north of 12th Street and Westclox Avenue.”
Pulling off Interstate 80, we snake through Peru, drive past the Illinois Valley YMCA, to where police said they recovered Jelani Day’s four-door sedan on Thursday, Aug. 26, one day after he had been reported missing. Nine days later, on Saturday, Sept. 4, at 9:47 a.m., searchers found a body floating in the Illinois River near the Illinois Route 251 Bridge.
The LaSalle County Coroner’s Office press release at the time did not identify the “decedent” as male or female, black or white, and gave no hint whether the corpse found floating even remotely matched Jelani’s 6-foot-one-inch frame.
The mystery swelled like the pain of a mother’s broken heart.
It was, in a sense, a premature autopsy on an opaque, near faceless and scalp-less body that not even a mother might recognize. The waterlogged corpse lay in the possession of the LaSalle County Coroner’s Office for 24 days.
Even after the authorities finally made positive identification, reportedly through dental records and DNA, Carmen Bolden Day still had not been allowed to see the body that the authorities eventually said was her son Jelani Day, 25.
But how could she know if it was her Jelani unless she had a chance to finally lay eyes on the body — even as a decomposed refrigerated shell?