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Mouseketeer’s family files new $1.7 million lawsuit

Once a Mouseketeer, Dennis Day of Phoenix was reported missing in July 2018 and was found inside his home in April the following year. Photos submitted by Rosanne Reynolds.
Botched missing persons investigation was ’outrageous and outside the bounds of socially tolerable norms’

The family of Dennis Day has filed a new multimillion dollar negligent investigation lawsuit against Phoenix police accusing the agency of allowing evidence of Day’s homicide to literally spoil inside his home for months underneath a pile of clothes.

Nelda Adkins, Day’s sister, along with Day’s three nieces and one nephew filed a civil lawsuit last week in Jackson County Circuit Court that seeks $1.7 million from Phoenix police and Lt. Jeff Price, in charge of the investigation into Day’s disappearance from July 2018 until April 2019, when Oregon State Police and Jackson County Sheriff’s Office cadaver dogs found Day’s body inside his home in April 2019.

Day lived in Southern Oregon for the better part of three decades with his husband, Henry “Ernie” Caswell. Day was a former child actor and a founding cast member on the first two seasons of Walt Disney’s “Mickey Mouse Club” television series in the 1950s.

Daniel James Burda, a handyman who lived with Day and Caswell at the time of Day’s disappearance, was arrested in July 2019 on charges that include second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, first-degree criminal mistreatment and second-degree abuse of a corpse surrounding Day’s homicide, along with charges of aggravated identity theft, second-degree theft and fraudulent use of a credit card charges accusing him of stealing from Day.

According to the lawsuit filed March 24, the family states that Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia ruled that much of the state’s evidence against Buda was inadmissible last summer “because the state could not link the evidence to Mr. Day’s cause of death.”

The family’s lawsuit alleges that the negligence of Phoenix police compromised the police investigation.

“Mr. Day’s cause of death is unknown because his body was so badly decomposed when it was found,” the new lawsuit states.

The family filed a similar civil suit in U.S. District Court in Medford against Phoenix police and Lt. Price that was dismissed earlier this year because the court ruled police officers had qualified immunity, and because the federal court lacked jurisdiction to make a ruling surrounding alleged Oregon constitutional rights violations.

Federal Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke stated in his findings recommending dismissal, however, that the family’s lawsuit could have merit in state court.

"The allegations of police misconduct and facts in this case are disturbing," Clarke wrote in January. "Plaintiffs (Day's sister, nieces and nephew) can pursue their claims in state court."

The family’s claims in the new suit against Phoenix police include negligent investigation and two forms of infliction of emotional distress ― negligent and intentional ― atop an earlier claim of tortious interference of a corpse alleging that the botched investigation interfered with Adkins’ legal right to control the disposition of Day’s body.

Phoenix police have not yet responded to the allegations in the lawsuit filed by Day’s relatives; however, in response to the earlier lawsuit, lawyers representing Phoenix police stated that police "are not constitutionally required to give crime victims the right to become involved“ in the investigation prior to charging a suspect with a crime, and that police are not constitutionally obligated to have a “successful investigative outcome.”

The allegations in the suit filed March 24 are similar to the allegations filed last year, but provide more granular details about the early days of the missing persons investigation.

The lawsuit details that Phoenix police were first made aware of Day’s disappearance July 17, 2018, when Day was supposed to pick up his husband from the hospital.

The next day, Phoenix police confronted Burda at Day’s home, told him to leave the premises, “but did not arrest him.”

Neighbors called police July 19 and July 20 to report that Burda was still at Day’s Pine Street home.

On the July 21, Phoenix police questioned Burda again, but did not arrest him.

“At that encounter, Mr. Burda displayed battle wounds on his hands and forearms,” the lawsuit states.

Price “officially trespassed Mr. Burda from the Pine Street property” July 24, but did not arrest him or take him into custody.

Price officially declared Day a missing person July 27, “after a Meals on Wheels delivery person notified Defendant (Price) that no one at the Pine Street house had pick up meals for a week,” the lawsuit states.

“For a period of nine months from Mr. Day’s disappearance, defendants (Phoenix police) 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 lawsuit states.

Similar to the earlier lawsuit, the family’s new lawsuit alleges that Phoenix police stepped on Day’s body underneath a pile of clothes and “causing multiple post-mortem skeletal fractures.” In the new lawsuit, the family narrows down when Phoenix police allegedly trampled on Day’s body to July or August 2018.

The lawsuit further details that Day’s body was found April 6, 2019, “under a pile of clothes in a room with a door that opened to the outside of the house.”

The tortious interference with a corpse allegations seek $500,000 for Adkins on allegations that the compromised investigation led to “unwanted attention and negative public comment and scrutiny” and “an inability to seek full justice under the law in the case against Mr. Burda.”

The lawsuit seeks another $300,000 each for Day’s three nieces and nephew for negligent investigation claims alleging that Phoenix police and Price were negligent in “taking no action to locate and notify next of kin” ― the family has stated they learned about Day’s disappearance in early 2019 through news reports ― failing to search Day’s home, “taking no action on the case from August 2018 through January 2019, discouraging the family from traveling to Oregon to help search for Day and ”failing to arrest Mr. Burda in August 2018 despite substantial evidence of his involvement in Mr. Day’s disappearance.“

Police reportedly confiscated an ATM belonging to Day Aug. 8, 2018, but did not arrest Burda on manslaughter and criminal mistreatment charges until July, 8, 2019, 11 months later.

Last summer, Burda was released from jail while the Jackson County District Attorney’s office awaits a ruling from the Oregon Court of Appeals surrounding a Jackson County Circuit Court ruling limiting the evidence that prosecutors could present to a jury.

On Jan. 13, Burda was re-arrested for violating his probation on an unrelated third-degree robbery conviction stemming from a December 2018 incident, according to court and Jackson County Jail records.

Since Feb. 9, Burda has been held in the minimum security Columbia River Correctional Institution in northeast Portland after Judge Lorenzo Mejia revoked Burda’s probation on the robbery conviction and sentenced him to 14 months in prison, court records show.

The next scheduled hearing in the homicide case is a pretrial conference slated for June 28. (Corrected)

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

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the next scheduled hearing in the homicide case was in January. The next hearing is currently scheduled for June 28.