June 07, 1999 12:00 PM

Despite her deeply troubled past, friends recall Dana Plato as an overgrown little girl who loved butterflies, rainbows and sunsets. So the setting for her May 23 memorial service, in the late afternoon in an amphitheater in L.A.’s scenic Topanga Canyon, seemed fitting. “She is in a better place,” Plato’s ex-husband Lanny Lambert told the 120 mourners—among them other former child stars including Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman, her screen brothers on TV’s Diff’rent Strokes. “She suffered, and I’m happy she’s not suffering.”

But if Plato’s life was mired in drug addiction and scandal, the weeks since her May 8 death at age 34 have brought little comfort. Friends have accused her boyfriend, Robert Menchaca, 28, of planning to peddle photographs of her; he in turn is claiming ownership of the 37-ft. Winnebago that was registered in her name but which he maintains he bought. And a ruling of suicide by the Chief Medical Examiner of the State of Oklahoma, where she died, has further upset Plato’s grieving loved ones. “In my heart of hearts I do not believe she committed suicide,” says her former manager Gerald Wolff. “Dana loved life too much.”

But she also craved drugs—from alcohol to prescription pills like the pain relievers Soma and Lortab that she swallowed in lethal doses in the Winnebago, which was her home. Whether or not she intended to die this time, she reportedly overdosed on Valium at 14 and, according to the Chief Medical Examiner, had “a past history of suicidal gestures.”

“She took quantities of drugs that are known to be fatal and died,” says Moore, Okla., police Sgt. Scott Singer. Under the law, he adds, “that’s suicide.”

If it was suicide, some intimates believe that being mocked by several callers on shock jock Howard Stern’s national radio show on May 7—they called her a drug addict, a has-been and a nutcase—was the catalyst. “I mean, she did Howard Friday night and Saturday afternoon she’s dead,” says Kim Jaafil, a cousin. (After Plato’s death, Stern countered that she had “called a bunch of times to say how happy she was with the interview.”) But to others, her demise was inevitable. Says a friend, former child star Brandon Cruz (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father), himself in recovery: “The life of an addict will lead you to three places—rehab, jail or death.”

By that count, Plato already had two strikes against her. Since 1984, when she was written out of Diff’rent Strokes, addiction and desperation had landed Plato in both rehab and jail. After being arrested for a 1991 robbery, she was placed on five years’ probation. (She had gotten pregnant at 18 with son Tyler and married Lambert six months later; they divorced in 1989.)

What part Menchaca, whom Plato met in January and who claims to have been her fiancé and manager, actually played in her life is unclear. The couple visited his Moore, Okla., family home three days before she died, but to Plato’s family and friends, it is Menchaca’s actions since her death that have raised questions.

According to former Family Affair star Johnny Whitaker, who had been her manager, Menchaca had asked Plato’s family for the return of the ring he gave her. “Yeah, and he wanted her underwear too,” Whitaker attests. Joni Richardson, Plato’s former mother-in-law, says she and Lambert were outraged when Menchaca arrived at the funeral parlor with a camera intending to take photographs of Plato’s dead body. “He thought he was going to get rich by selling pictures of her,” says Richardson. “He said ‘The Enquirer wanted a photo of Dana and me for $10,000.’ ” Menchaca did not respond to the allegations. “He’s so upset,” says his mother, Marcela Menchaca. “He just wants to be alone.”

The tawdry wrangling has only intensified the grief of those closest to Plato. “I really don’t know what to say,” a stricken Tyler, 14, told the congregation at his mother’s memorial service. “I loved her my whole life, and I’m really going to miss her, and that’s it.” Except for one last gift. In the days after the service, Tyler and his father planned to take a boat out and sprinkle Plato’s ashes over the Pacific, just as she had wanted.

Anne-Marie O’Neill

Ken Baker and Champ Clark in Los Angeles, Gabrielle Cosgriff in Moore and Ward Morehouse III in New York City

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