PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Family members of a former Mouseketeer who died under unknown circumstances say Oregon cops made a mess of the investigation, according to a new lawsuit.
The surviving relatives of Dennis Day, one of the original cast members of “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 1950s, filed a $2.2 million lawsuit in Jackson County Circuit Court on March 24 after their federal suit went nowhere.
The 11-page suit accuses the Phoenix Police Department and police Lt. Jeffrey Price with conducting a negligent investigation, including tortious interference with a corpse and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Prosecutors have charged Day’s roommate, 36-year-old Daniel James Burda, with causing the death of Day through manslaughter or negligent homicide — but not murder. The suit suggests much evidence in the case disappeared as Day’s body moldered for months, hidden by nothing more than cast-off clothes.
Decades since his days as a child actor, Day had been living in Phoenix at 510 N. Pine St. — three blocks from the local cop shop — with his husband Ernie Caswell, who was mentally frail and later passed away. Day was reported missing by Meals on Wheels personnel on July 27, 2018, but his body wasn’t discovered by police until April 2019.
“For a period of nine months from Mr. Day’s disappearance, defendants failed to adequately search the Pine Street premises despite substantial evidence that a dead body was inside, including multiple complaints from neighbors and the Meals on Wheels delivery person that a smell of death was emanating from inside the house,” the suit alleges.
Lt. Price was tasked with the missing person investigation, per the suit, but the family says they were never contacted by the officer, and only learned Day had disappeared from a news story.
Phoenix Police visited the home three times between July and August 2018, the suit claims, and stepped on Day’s body during the search, which was hidden under a pile of clothes, “causing multiple postmortem skeletal fractures,” the suit claims.
Among the other issues alleged with the investigation:
• Day’s family says they were told by Lt. Price that Day’s home had been searched by cadaver dogs on Jan. 30, 2019, but this “was a false statement.”
• On Feb. 13, Price allegedly told the family he would seek help investigating the case from Oregon State Police and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, but jurisdiction for the case wasn’t transferred until the next month.
• According to the suit, police had told Burda to leave Day’s home on two different days in July 2018, and once saw “battle wounds” on his hands and forearms, but took no action other than asking him to leave the premises. On July 24, 2018, Burda was trespassed from the home but not arrested. Police confiscated Day’s ATM card from Burda on Aug. 8 of that year, but did not include him as a suspect in the missing person case, the suit says.
“Mr. Day’s cause of death is unknown because his body was so badly decomposed when it was found,” the suit alleges. “Much of the state’s evidence against Mr. Burda was inadmissible because the state could not link the evidence to Mr. Day’s cause of death.”
Burda has pleaded not guilty to numerous charges in the criminal case, including second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, first-degree criminal mistreatment, second-degree abuse of a corpse and a half-dozen counts of aggravated identity theft.
In June 2020, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia ordered evidence excluded from the case, including statements regarding Day and Burda’s prior verbal and physical conflicts, Day’s 2019 911 call regarding Burda’s eviction, Burda’s alleged “escalation” of behavior, as well as Burda’s housing history, drug use and sexual orientation.
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The state appealed the exclusion order the next month, and the case has made little progress since then. Burda had been released from jail pending trial, but wound up back behind bars after he was convicted of third-degree robbery in Jackson County and imprisoned at the Columbia River Correctional Institution on Feb. 9 of this year.
Plaintiffs Nelda Adkins, Fred Richardson, Janel Showers, Denise Norris and Marla Seese previously filed suit against the police department in Oregon federal court one year ago, but the case was dismissed in January 2021 after Judge Mark D. Clarke determined the family’s claims didn’t fit federal law, but could be pursued in state court.
The Phoenix Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.