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Family releases new details in Mouseketeer death

Dennis Day’s family members are fighting efforts by the city of Phoenix to dismiss their $1.7 million lawsuit and have unveiled new details about the nine months Phoenix police spent searching for Day’s body, which turned out to be “quite literally right under their nose.”

According to a document filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Medford, Dennis Day’s sister, nieces and nephew argue that their lawsuit alleging constitutional rights violations and tortious interference of a corpse should not be dismissed, as the city argued last month.

The family’s 23-page filing adds new details about the search for Day, known for his child acting role on the first two seasons of Walt Disney’s “Mickey Mouse Club” television series, which ended with cadaver dogs finding Day’s body inside his Phoenix home.

The family is suing the Phoenix Police Department and Phoenix police Lt. Jeff Price for a series of alleged missteps, including a literal misstep when a Phoenix officer allegedly stepped on Day’s body hidden beneath a pile of clothes, which badly compromised the ability of the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office to prosecute homicide suspect Daniel James Burda.

Lawyer Erin Gould of Eugene, representing Day’s sister Nelda Adkins, two nieces and a nephew, claims that Day was killed and his body was hidden under a pile of clothing “right around the time he went missing” in July of 2018.

Neighbors reported “smells of death emanating from the house” on Pine Street throughout the nine months Day was listed as a missing person, Gould writes. The house was just two blocks from the police station.

“The fact that the Phoenix Police Department failed to find this body where it was eventually found shocks the consciousness because it was quite literally under their nose,” Gould wrote.

Oregon State Police found Day’s decomposed body in early April 2019 “under clothing in the main front room of the house” after searching the house with cadaver dogs, according to Gould and a timeline issued by OSP.

The family’s lawsuit claims that Day’s sister, Adkins, had the rights to her brother’s remains, but because of how Day was found she “had no options with respect to how to treat the remains.”

The city of Phoenix argued last month that the police department never “prohibited plaintiffs (Day’s family) from accessing the residence or the body.”

Some six weeks before Day’s body was found, however, Phoenix police Lt. Jeff Price told Day’s niece Janel Showers that he didn’t recommend the family come to Southern Oregon.

“To answer your other question about coming up here. I wouldn’t advise that if the only reason was to try to get the case moving further or faster, because I would hate for you to come and get these same answers from me and anyone else involved,” Price wrote to Showers Feb. 13, 2019.

The 2-1/2-page email, included Monday with the family’s filing, offers a glimpse into the state of the missing persons investigation before Day’s disappearance became national news.

Price told the family that he initiated Day’s missing persons report on his own “due to the circumstances.”

“Having two people, one being Dennis’ husband and the other being the live-in handyman (for lack of better terms) tell us Dennis was leaving with ‘friends’ and nobody could tell us who they were or where they were going, leaves us with no direction on where to look,” Price wrote the family. “With that said, there’s enough suspicion in my book that possibly something more sinister may have taken place.”

Price listed Burda among several persons of interest in Day’s disappearance at the time. Others included Lori Ann Declusin, who was later charged with stealing Day’s Ford Escort station wagon after his disappearance, and a man who was receiving Day’s mail at the time but has not been charged with a crime.

Price told the family that Day’s house had been searched extensively. Instead, Price focused on bank records and pings to Day’s cellphone.

“A check of the house inside and out, including the crawl space under the house and attic areas and all out buildings or other structures and a car have been checked with no evidence of Dennis or a crime having taken place,” Price wrote. “This search has also spread into areas nearby which are likely areas where we would possibly find any evidence should something have occurred locally (cemetery, large wooded field a few blocks away, irrigation ditch, and bike/hiking path nearby). These areas will likely be checked again once the K-9 help is available.”

The family alleges in the lawsuit that Price falsely stated how many times he searched the house.

“Defendant Price, the officer in charge of the missing person investigation, claimed to have searched the house three times with a crew, employed cadaver dogs, and fully investigated the matter without any leads,” Gould writes. “In fact, he only went to the house once, on July 17, 2018, and again when the body was found on April 6, 2019.”

OSP ultimately found Day’s body, according to Gould.

Gould disputes the city of Phoenix’s arguments that Price should have qualified immunity in the family’s civil suit because their lawsuit “does not allege that Defendant Price made the wrong choice among a series of competing policy considerations.”

Further, Gould argues the family’s 14th Amendment rights — granting equal protection of the laws for all citizens — were violated and “police officers do not enjoy immunity for violations of constitutional rights.”

The family claims that if Day’s body had been found earlier, the physical evidence would have showed how Day died.

“Now there is no physical evidence and justice cannot be served, even minimally,” Gould wrote.

Burda is out of the Jackson County Jail on supervised release awaiting a trial date on charges that include second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree abuse of a corpse, first-degree criminal mistreatment and aggravated identity theft. His next court appearance is a pretrial conference set for Dec. 7.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Photos of Dennis Day distributed by friends during the missing persons investigation.