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Phoenix police stepped on Mouseketeer's body, family alleges

During three unsuccessful searches to find missing actor Dennis Day inside his Southern Oregon home, police walked on and over a pile of clothing that hid the missing 76-year-old’s body, causing skeletal fractures to his remains, a lawyer for Day’s family claims.

The allegations come in a letter sent this week by attorney Erin E. Gould to the city of Phoenix, the Phoenix Police Department and Lt. Jeff Price.

Price led the investigation after Day, an original member of TV’s “The Mickey Mouse Club,” vanished last year under mysterious circumstances, drawing national and international attention.

The former Disney actor’s troubling end in Southern Oregon touches on the transience of fame, the vulnerabilities of growing old in poverty and the contraction of community as connections fade away.

The formal letter, known as a tort claim notice, alleges other circumstances in the case never disclosed before now:

- Day had contacted police in Phoenix, a small town just south of Medford, days before he was last seen on July 15, 2018, to report that Daniel Burda, the live-in handyman now charged in his death, had “behaved violently toward” him. Someone at the police department allegedly told Day that if Burda was a tenant, he’d need to begin a formal process to evict him.

- Shortly after Day’s disappearance, Phoenix police on two occasions spoke with Burda where he could be observed on body camera footage having “obvious battle wounds on his hands and forearms.”

- In August 2018, the Phoenix Police Department received multiple 911 calls reporting a “horrific smell” coming from Day’s home. One of those reports was made by a Meals on Wheels volunteer who delivered food to the residence.

It would take nine months and a cadaver dog for Phoenix police to finally discover Day’s remains in his North Pine Street home, located blocks from the city’s police headquarters.

Burda was arrested three months later on July 5 by Oregon State Police, who took over the death investigation from Phoenix police. Price had said publicly during his investigation that he did not believe handyman was involved in Day’s disappearance.

Burda told police that he shoved Day to the ground and later hid his body beneath the pile of clothes, court records allege.

The suspect also admitted to police that he tried to air out the room containing Day’s body “because it smelled like death” and at one point used chemical products to clean the space, according to a probable cause affidavit.

The fatal encounter unfolded after Day decided he no longer wanted Burda staying in his home, court documents say. The two men had had multiple altercations, the records allege.

Burda had worked as a handyman for Day and Day’s husband, Henry “Ernie” Caswell, 88, and later stayed there in exchange for helping the elderly men, Phoenix police and a friend of the couple previously told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Day was first reported missing in late July 2018, two weeks after Caswell had been hospitalized due to a series of falls at their home.

Early in the investigation, Burda told police that Day had left his residence with his dog to go on a trip with friends, court records show.

According to the tort claim notice, Phoenix police searched inside Day and Caswell’s home three times that July. That’s when, Gould alleges, police inadvertently stepped on the deceased man’s body hidden beneath the clothes and fractured his bones.

The letter does not indicate what days officers conducted the searches, but it claims all three were recorded on Phoenix Police Department body cameras.

Day’s family did not learn that he was missing until months later, and only after a nephew in Oregon spotted a local news report about his uncle’s disappearance.

In late February, Day’s disappearance became national news and police finally found his remains at his home in April.

Police have still not determined his cause of death, though Burda faces charges of second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, criminal mistreatment and abuse of a corpse.

Caswell remained in an assisted living facility after his husband disappeared and died in September.

That same month, a Jackson County judge determined that Burda was mentally unfit to stand trial and sent him to the Oregon State Hospital.

According to the tort claim notice, Day’s heirs — listed Nelda Adkins, Denise Norris, Janel Showers, Marla Seese and Fred Richardson — have been “irreparably damaged” by the “gross negligence” of the Phoenix police investigation and plan to file a lawsuit.

Phoenix City Manager Aaron Prutny declined to comment Friday. Phone calls to Price went unanswered.

Reach Oregonian/OregonLive reporter Shane Dixon Kavanaugh at 503-294-7632 or email skavanaugh@oregonian.com. Follow him on Twitter @shanedkavanaugh.

Daniel James Burda is charged with manslaughter in the death of founding Mickey Mouse Club member Dennis W. Day, who lived in Phoenix. Jackson County Jail booking photo
Photos of former child actor Dennis Day distributed by friends during the missing persons investigation in Southern Oregon.