Patio attack victim better; cop free on bail

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 20, 2012 - 12:09 AM

Attorney says Vander Lee "was out of control" before incident.

A June 17, 2012 photo provided by the Anoka County Sheriff's Department shows David Richard Clifford. Clifford, the executive officer of the Minneapolis Police SWAT Unit, is accused of punching another man in the head at an Andover bar over the weekend, leaving him seriously injured. Clifford remained in custody while the Anoka County Attorney�s office was reviewing the case for possible charges.

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Sgt. David Clifford, a leader on the Minneapolis SWAT team, is considered "somewhat of a regular" at Tanners Station in Andover, according to bar employees. Brian Vander Lee is a friend of the bar's management. And until a year ago, Vander Lee's wife, Kourtney, was a waitress there.

Their lives collided violently on the Tanners patio Saturday, when the off-duty officer punched Vander Lee, knocking him to the pavement.

Clifford, 47, was charg-ed with third-degree felony assault Tuesday and released on $15,000 bail. Vander Lee, 43, remained in critical but stable condition.

Vander Lee, who was seen on a surveillance video talking on his cellphone as Clifford approached his table and shortly afterward punch-ed him in the face, was speaking, moving and showing improvement after two surgeries for swelling of the brain.

"We're sorry about what happened to Mr. Vander Lee," said Fred Bruno, Clifford's lawyer. "There are two sides to this story. There are witnesses who have another perspective. I'm confident officer Clifford will be exonerated."

Kourtney Vander Lee remained at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids with her husband, who works in the advertising department at the Star Tribune. She said she wondered why Clifford was released, why he wasn't charged with a harsher crime and why he allegedly ran after punching her husband.

"It was bad enough what he did to Brian, coming out of nowhere and throwing that punch. But he ran away! Why would a police officer do such a thing and then run?"

It's possible the third-degree assault charge could be amended, pending further investigation, said Anoka County prosecutors Paul Young and Blair Buccicone. Conditions for the bail ordered by Judge Tammi Fredrickson prohibit Clifford from consuming alcohol or having any contact with the Vander Lees.

At Tuesday's hearing, Buccicone said alcohol might have been a factor in the incident. Attorney Brooke Bass, who represented Clifford because Bruno was in Colorado, said Clifford had consumed half of a mixed drink served to him Saturday.

Clifford declined to comment when met by reporters 40 minutes after his appearance.

As recounted in the criminal complaint, Clifford said he approached Vander Lee after taking offense at Vander Lee's language. Vander Lee's wife and brother, Mike, said Clifford mentioned noise, but never complained about foul language.

Bruno said Tuesday evening that Vander Lee "was out of control." He said witnesses claim that Brian and Mike Vander Lee were "involved in fisticuffs" earlier that day and that Mike Vander Lee broke Clifford's ribs when he and another man chased Clifford down after the alleged assault.

Told of Bruno's account, Mike Vander Lee said that he "wrestled down" Clifford and tried to hold him until police arrived, and, he said, Clifford "came at me." As for any altercation between the brothers, he said, "We punch each other in the shoulder, like brothers do."

Renee Sauvageau, a licensed nurse from Blaine, was at the restaurant on Saturday. When Vander Lee was hit, he fell back, his head hitting the pavement.

Sauvageau rushed over, saw blood oozing from his mouth and lifted his head "so his tongue wouldn't fall back into his throat."

"He wasn't breathing. His eyes were rolling back in his head," she said. "He was getting eight to 10 respirations per minute and was unconscious for [about] five minutes."

Benefit planned

Tanners Station is planning a benefit for Vander Lee on July 21 -- two days after Clifford's next scheduled court appearance.

Clifford, executive officer of the Minneapolis SWAT team, has been placed on home assignment, said police spokesman William Palmer. He also is the subject of an internal affairs investigation.

"The Minneapolis Police Department does not wait until a criminal investigation has been completed to make internal findings and take disciplinary action," Chief Tim Dolan said Tuesday morning in a statement. He also said: "I pray for Mr. Brian Vander Lee and his family."

At Tanners, Mike Donnelly, who was the manager on duty Saturday night, said Clifford's is a familiar face. Kourtney Vander Lee wasn't sure, she said -- until she was asked by authorities to look at Clifford's mug shot.

"It was his eyes," she said. "I'd seen those eyes before."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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