It was 1999 when I first investigated the sordid aftermath of the death of another Diff'rent Strokes actor, Dana Plato. It seemed like the last remnants of Dana Plato's fame had finally been picked clean by the scandal-hungry media when she'd died that May. According to People magazine, "[T]he lovable star of Diff'rent Stokes grew up to be a petty crook, an addict, an alcoholic and, with her death at age 34, a Hollywood casualty." The New York Daily News added that by the early '90s "she was spending most of her time playing the nickel slots in Las Vegas after she was turned down for a $6-an-hour job picking up garbage and cleaning bathrooms." But in the last month of her life, Dana started an even more unlikely business relationship with Shane Bugbee, a 31-year-old Chicago-based promoter, which ensured her continued infamy after death.
For one thing, he'd put her alleged autopsy on the Internet: "Internal examination, external examination, graphical view..."
Dana started down this final road to degredation earlier that month. She'd scheduled an appearance at Bugbee's Expo of the Extreme — along with alternative metal acts like Marky Ramone, Jello Biafra, and Motorhead — and got time on Howard Stern's radio show to promote it. That interview landed Bugbee a brief flirtation with notoriety when Stern read the name of his vulgar-punned Web site (MikeHuntsOnFire.com) on the air. Her appearance on the Stern show was important, Bugbee had told her, because "my response, from the Web page, from everyone, is no one believes I'm even talking to you."
Bugbee's proud press release for the Expo — headlined "Dana Plato Speaks!" — was soon followed by one titled "Dana Plato Silenced," after she died of an overdose of painkillers and muscle relaxants just two weeks before the big event. Dana's years of notoriety were over, and all Bugbee had left were the tapes of their phone conversations.
Plato on Tape
But if there are no second acts in America, Bugbee at least provided Dana with a sordid epilogue. Bugbee contacted Internet Entertainment Group, according to a company spokesperson, and offered the recordings for their pornography Web site. But there was more to come.
In August, Bugbee launched the "Dana Plato Cult Web site," and began hawking memberships for $30 apiece. (Archive.org's 1999 version of the site is here). The site included more attempts at exploiting the former child star's notoriety. One page offered to let visitors "Ask Dana questions from the grave through the Dana Plato Psychic Network." (Presumably, they'd be answered by excerpts from his recordings — but nearly four months later, it still led to a page "under construction," and the same held true for the site's message board.) But have no fear, every page ended with a banner ad marketing Bugbee's CD: "Dana Plato's Last Breath."
The disc featured the doomed actress talking extremely fast, in her hyperactive voice with childish enthusiasm, about resting from the flu, or lisping because she'd bit her tongue. Plato is chatty and erratically candid, but it's not necessarily the "tell all" promised by the site's promotional copy. Dana does ramble in their last conversation, but there's no explicit descent "into a drugged-out Hollywood HELL!" ("Listen in HORROR...") And though it does open with a montage of sound clips, to advertise it as "Kimberly Drummand's [sic] audio suicide note CAUGHT ON TAPE!!" was an exaggeration.
But nonetheless, they are recordings from the last week of Dana's life, which ironically include an eerie clip from her appearance on Howard Stern. (Howard Stern: "Hi Dana, how you doing? You don't look near death. I look near death, actually." Robin Quivers: "Right, we look in worse shape!")
Former child star Barry Williams, who played Greg on The Brady Bunch, told me a few months after her death, "I listened to the interview and it didn't — something didn't sound okay, even then... It sort of reminded me of the Shakespearean line, you know — 'She doth protest-eth too much.'" If she was loaded, it wouldn't be the first time. Diane Anderson-Minshall, who interviewed Dana for the lesbian magazine Girlfriends in 1998, remembers that "she came to our cover shoot drunk."
Even on Bugbee's recordings, you can hear him emphasizing an important point to Dana about her New York trip. "It's a non-refundable ticket... It's not transferable for cash or anything." And Dana does sound strangely anxious to please on the tapes. In Bugbee's recording of their last phone call, the night before she died, Dana can't seem to hang up. Clinging for more than 20 minutes, her thoughts gets less and less organized. (Bugbee later told IEG that "she sounded loaded.") After sentimentally blathering about working for free, Plato seems to start crying when her 14-year-old son Tyler asks if he can be an actor. She asks for an earlier flight home from New York ("so that I have some time to rest, and not look like hell,") and when it turns out that's not an option, she says "That's fine. I'll get a valium from someone and sleep."
Towards the end, she burbles out "I really, really, really, really, really have a good vibe that this is — this is it."
The Last Stop
Wrong. The next track on Bugbee's CD is the call he'd attempted to make to Dana the night she overdosed. Yes, he's morbidly included the recording of Robert Menchaca, Dana's fiance, trying to wake her up. ("Dana. Dana! Hey, Dana....") Bugbee went so far as to title the track, as well as the CD, "Dana Plato's Last Breath," though there's no evidence that it's her last breath, or even who it is that's breathing on the tape. Bugbee can be heard telling Menchaca "That's okay, man, let her sleep it off, dude. Whatever."
Bugbee's also included two additional conversations with Menchaca. In the first, Menchaca calls crying from the hospital the day after the suicide, and in the next he talks about the autopsy and the investigation. He tells Bugbee police found syringes, a pill bottle, and a pack of rolling papers. Ironically, he complains to Bugbee about the media. "They turned a light on this as soon as I got out of the truck."
The autopsy Bugbee posted was presented under the heading: "You decide... Accident, Suicide, or Murder?" It was clearly a publicity stunt. A link at the bottom of the page read: "Learn more about the life and death of Dana Plato by getting your own copy of Dana Plato's Last Breath by clicking here! " Inside the scandal-mongering booklet that accompanied the CD, Bugbee listed Menchaca as a possible suspect. Dana's mother-in-law was listed as "Suspect #2", and the next subhead was "Government Plot." ("after all, the government has done weirder things....")
It all marked the gravy train's last stop. In his booklet, Bugbee wrote that he and Dana had discussed a coffee table book, a biography, and other business deals. But 15 minutes into the recording of their last conversation, he said "It's been great talking to you and just getting to talk to you the little bit I have. If that's all I walk away from this whole experience is having a few conversations with you, I feel like a lucky guy."
And there was one final irony. As their last conversation wound down, Dana babbled, "Um, It's just, it's, no one, no one ever takes [sic] attention to me, you know, and I will not let you down, ever."
Bugbee blustered optimistically, "Well, good! Then I won't you. We'll have a long relationship, then.
"We'll know each other forever."
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