Growing up in California in the early 1950s, Nelda Adkins says she and her brother Dennis Day spent most of their time practicing their dance routines in the garage.
“My mother would watch a lot of musicals, so she had us in dance classes and doing acrobat and in talent shows,” Nelda told Dateline. “Dennis and I were only two years apart, so we spent our growing-up years together.”
Nelda said both she and her brother were excited when Disney called, wanting the siblings to audition to be a part of the now-famous Mouseketeers.
“We had an agent, and Dennis and I were called to audition by Disney,” Nelda told Dateline. “During our audition, the pianist was messing up, so Dennis went over and told him how to do it. [Dennis] made us start the routine all over again.”
Dennis’s perfectionism and control of the situation paid off. In 1955, at just 12 years old, Dennis was signed to appear as a Mouseketeers on Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club TV show.
“Dennis got picked up and I didn’t, which was sad because I really wanted to be a Mouseketeer,” Nelda, who was 10 at the time, told Dateline. “I really missed him when Dennis was picked up by Disney, because we always performed together. When he was a Mouseketeer, he was gone from before dawn until after dusk. That really ended my career.”
Following the show’s first season, Dennis was one of the 10 Mouseketeers retained for season two, according to his sister. His run on the show ended in 1957, but Dennis continued to work in show business across the United States.
Nelda told Dateline that when her brother was 18 years old, he left the family’s Downey, California home and moved to San Francisco. Nelda said that Dennis had come out to his family as being gay and, while he was accepted by his family, he said he wanted to live in a city where the gay community was more celebrated.
“Dennis would call and tell my mom -- and tell her he met this wonderful man,” Nelda told Dateline about Dennis’s then-boyfriend, Ernie Caswell. “Ernie started coming to Christmas every year. He was a part of our family.”
Dennis and Ernie moved to Oregon in the 1980s, where they’ve lived ever since, according to Nelda. Dennis and Ernie got married after the millennium, Nelda said. In 2009, Dennis told a local newspaper what being able to get married meant to him.
"We've been together 37 years, so we're from a period where there was no thought of marriage," Dennis told the paper. "I cry at weddings, but I never thought I would be crying at mine."
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As both men grew older, their love did not fade. Dennis’s niece Denise Norris told Dateline that when Ernie was diagnosed with colon cancer and dementia, Dennis never left his side.
“He doesn’t even leave his house to travel anywhere,” Denise said. “The last time he left his town was come to his mother’s funeral. And that was 12 years ago.”
Nelda and Denise told Dateline they went to visit Dennis at his and Ernie’s house in Phoenix, Oregon in June of 2017.
“He was happy to see us. He greeted us and was hugging us,” Nelda said. “So everything was going well.”
Nelda said she and her brother continued to send each other Christmas and birthday cards, but they didn’t speak often, so she wasn’t surprised when months went by with no word from Dennis.
But in early January of 2019, one of Dennis’s family members, who lives in Oregon, turned on his local NBC channel and saw a report that would shock the family: Dennis was missing -- and hadn’t been heard from in six months.
“He saw it on the news broadcast and called us immediately,” Nelda said. “I called Phoenix Police Department the very next day, and we’ve been working on it ever since. The whole family got in on it.”
Nelda told Dateline that when she called the police, she learned Dennis’s husband Ernie had been the one to report Dennis, now 76, missing in late July of 2018.
“Ernie was in the hospital at that time, and he realized Dennis hadn’t come to visit him in a few weeks,” Nelda told Dateline. “So he had someone from the hospital call the police and report Dennis as missing.”
According to Nelda, police said they hadn’t contacted Dennis’s family because they didn’t have any record of family other than Dennis’s husband, Ernie. Ernie, in the hospital with dementia, wasn’t able to provide contact information for Dennis’s family, who live in California.
Oregon State Police Public Information Officer Captain Tim Fox told Dateline the case was being handled by the Phoenix Police Department and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. Neither agency returned Dateline’s request for comment by Monday evening, but authorities recently told a local NBC station that Dennis was last seen in July of 2018.
Police reportedly told Nelda that a man who was living at Dennis and Ernie’s house at the time Dennis disappeared, said Dennis had left on foot, saying he was going to visit some friends.
“Ernie, at the time, was in the hospital, so he wasn’t even at the house,” Nelda said. “Dennis had a car, but the car was left behind. He left his dog and his cat behind, too – he loved them dearly, just like children.”
By the time Dennis’s family learned of the situation six months later, Nelda says police had already searched Dennis’s home, a nearby graveyard and a nearby creek for any signs of her missing brother.
“They said they brought in cadaver dogs, too,” Nelda added. “But they never found anything that would imply a crime had happened.”
Though Dennis and Ernie’s roommate told police Dennis had left on foot, Dennis’s car was found along the Oregon coast shortly after his disappearance. According to a local NBC affiliate, inside the car were two people Dennis did not know. It’s unclear how they gained access to Dennis’s car.
Now, family says they are trying to pick up the pieces of what they call a “poorly-handled” investigation.
“We are devastated. We had no idea anything was happening and six months into it, we figured it out. We should have been notified,” Dennis’s niece Denise told Dateline. “We are devastated by the whole thing. We just know someone knows something.”
Dennis’s sister Nelda said none of Dennis’s accounts or credit cards have been used since he disappeared. Dennis did not use social media and had a pre-paid cell phone, she added, so both family and investigators have been unable to track him by any means.
“He’s not the type of person who would just disappear. Especially with his significant other being in the hospital – he was very dedicated to him,” Denise said. “We are worried. [We] just need answers. We love him. We’re just kind of lost with what to do, or how to find him.”
Dennis’s husband Ernie has since been released from the hospital and is in an assisted living facility, according to Dennis’s family.
“Ernie is doing well, I understand. He has dementia, but he is in residential care and is being well taken care of,” Nelda said. “Friends of theirs go visit, and he recognizes them when they come.”
If you have any information on the circumstances surrounding Dennis Day’s disappearance, please contact Lt. Jeff Price of the Phoenix Police Department at 541-535-1113, ext. 309, or the anonymous tip line at 1-888-960-6450.
Bianca Hillier covers missing person and homicide cases for NBC News.