Friend recalls chat before SWAT officer bar punch

Minneapolis police Sgt. David Clifford was charged with third-degree assault and was released Tuesday after posting $15,000 bail


By Amy Forliti
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Mike Archambault says Brian Vander Lee has been a jokester who wouldn't hurt a fly since they met as long-haired 13-year-olds, and he can't understand what could have led an off-duty Minneapolis SWAT officer to allegedly attack his friend in a bar.

Archambault, who has known Vander Lee for 30 years, said Tuesday he was joking around on the phone with Vander Lee while going to meet him on Saturday at Tanners Station restaurant. Vander Lee was in the parking lot when the line went dead — and moments later a man ran out.

Archambault went to the patio and saw his friend lying on the ground, unconscious. The married father of four girls was rushed to a hospital, where he underwent brain surgery twice and where he remained Tuesday in critical condition, according to his brother.

"I pieced it together that this guy that was running did it to him," Archambault said. "Why in the hell would he do that? ... It's a horrible freaking thing ... It's unbelievable."

Minneapolis police Sgt. David Clifford was charged with third-degree assault and was released Tuesday after posting $15,000 bail. Under the terms of his release, he is not allowed to have contact with Vander Lee, and cannot use alcohol. No plea was entered, as is standard.

Blair Buccicone, an Anoka County prosecutor, said alcohol was a factor.

Brooke Bass, Clifford's attorney, said there was no mention of alcohol in the criminal complaint, and that Clifford is hoping for the chance to tell his side of the story.

Anoka County authorities said video surveillance from Saturday night shows Clifford and Vander Lee were seated at adjacent tables on the Andover restaurant's patio.

Anoka County Sheriff's Cmdr. Paul Sommer said Vander Lee was apparently talking loudly on his cellphone when Clifford got up and approached him. Sommer said the video shows Clifford appeared to say something to Vander Lee, who was still on his phone, then punched him as Vander Lee was getting up.

Vander Lee, 43, fell backward and hit his head, Sommer said.

Archambault told The Associated Press he called Vander Lee from the parking lot and was talking to his friend when the attack happened. Archambault said Vander Lee said "Where are you at?" when he answered and that he replied something like: "I'm in the parking lot, you dumbass."

Archambault said Vander Lee responded with something like: "Well get in here you jackass." And then a few more things were said and the line went dead. He said he couldn't recall the exact wording of the conversation, but that is typically how the two joke around with each other.

According to the criminal complaint, Clifford told police he "took offense to some language" Vander Lee was using and asked him to stop. Clifford told authorities he went over to Vander Lee, and when Vander Lee stood up and cursed, Clifford punched him, thinking he was going to be hit himself.

According to the complaint, restaurant employees didn't hear Vander Lee use offensive language. Lisa Blomquist, manager at Tanners Station, said Tuesday that employees would not talk to the media.

Clifford, 47, has been placed on paid home assignment, and an internal investigation is under way, Minneapolis police spokesman Bill Palmer said. Chief Tim Dolan said he was praying for Vander Lee and his family.

Palmer said Clifford joined the Minneapolis department in 1993 and has been a SWAT officer since the mid-1990s. He has no disciplinary action in his file, and has received two medals of valor and other awards. He was promoted to sergeant in 2008.

He also has worked for the United Nations as a police officer in Kosovo, Palmer said.

In 1999, the city of Minneapolis paid $55,000 to settle a lawsuit with a man who claimed Clifford beat him with a flashlight in 1995. Clifford claimed the man was resisting arrest and that Clifford hit him accidentally. A misdemeanor assault charge was dropped due to lack of evidence.

Clifford was also one of three Minneapolis SWAT team officers sued by a woman who was suffered third-degree burns on her legs when police threw a flash-bang grenade into her boyfriend's apartment in 2010. The woman settled with the city last fall for $1 million.

Copyright 2012 Associated Press

Court records show Clifford and his wife also filed for bankruptcy in 2007.

"I pray for his family," Archambault said of Clifford. "I don't know if he had a bad day or if something set him off. I don't think it was anything Brian did."

Vander Lee's brother, Mike Vander Lee, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he was in critical condition Tuesday but was conscious and breathing on his own. He even spoke Tuesday morning, and asked for a glass of milk.

"He's still in a tough condition but anything is an improvement," Mike Vander Lee told the paper.

Brian Vander Lee works in the advertising department at the Star Tribune.

Copyright 2012 Associated Press

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