Minneapolis police Sgt. David Clifford, a SWAT team leader once lauded by the United Nations for the "highest level of dedication and professionalism," was charged with first-degree assault Tuesday in an off-duty incident last month that left a Ramsey man temporarily on life support.
Brian Vander Lee, who had two brain surgeries after the alleged assault at Tanners Station in Andover on June 16, has been recovering at home since undergoing a third surgery, on July 4. The latest operation became necessary after an earlier incision erupted, leading to an infection, Anoka County prosecutor Blair Buccicone said on Tuesday.
Clifford, 47, who has been a member of the Minneapolis Police Department since 1993, was originally charged with third-degree assault, a felony. Asked why the charges were upgraded, Buccicone said: "If there hadn't been medical intervention, Brian Vander Lee likely would have died."
According to court documents, a surveillance video shows that Vander Lee, 43, was sitting at a patio table when Clifford, seated at the next table, approached him, allegedly complaining about offensive language. After a verbal confrontation, Clifford struck Vander Lee in the mouth with his right fist. Vander Lee fell backward, hitting his head on the pavement. Clifford then fled on foot from the scene.
The video was obtained Tuesday by the Star Tribune, and a portion is posted on the newspaper's website. When Anoka County Sheriff's Cmdr. Paul Sommer viewed the video after last month's incident, he described what he saw as "a one-sided assault."
After watching the video in slow motion numerous times, Clifford's attorney, Fred Bruno, said Vander Lee moved his left arm before the punch. Bruno said he is convinced that Vander Lee took the first swing.
The video also shows Vander Lee and his brother Mike shoving one another long before Clifford arrived at the bar. Mike Vander Lee said the brothers were "just horsing around, doing what brothers do." Bruno says the brothers had been drinking for hours and "were out of control."
"It's horrible what happened to Brian," Kourtney Vander Lee said on Tuesday, adding that she has struggled to explain to the couple's four young girls what happened that day. "He still has the staples from the third surgery. This is emotional stuff."
At the same time, she said that Vander Lee, who works in advertising at the Star Tribune, is "in such good spirits. He told me, 'I'm just glad to be alive, basically. I'm lucky to be here.'"
For Clifford, last month's incident is the latest chapter in a career fraught with contradiction. It came less than a month after his peers recommended him for the department's life-saving award for helping to prevent an apparent suicide attempt at a Minneapolis bridge.
Clifford has earned praise from the U.S. State Department and the Hennepin County sheriff, and from the St. Paul police for his work during a 2008 Republican National Convention challenged by riots. The laudatory comments from the United Nations followed his service from September 2000 to September 2001 as a team leader for the International Peace Mission in Kosovo. He has earned two medals of valor from the Minneapolis Police Department.
But Clifford, an Osseo High School and University of Minnesota graduate, also was part of a botched SWAT team drug raid in 2010 that resulted in the city of Minneapolis paying a $1million settlement.
In another case in 1995, Clifford, suspecting he had confronted a prowler while on patrol, allegedly pepper-sprayed a man and then hit him several times in the head with a flashlight. Charges of fifth-degree assault were dropped for lack of evidence. The city of Minneapolis paid $55,000 in a settlement of a civil suit.
Clifford's next appearance in Anoka County District Court is scheduled for Thursday.
Staff writer David Chanen contributed to this report. Paul Levy • 612-673-4419