An off-duty leader of the Minneapolis police SWAT team was charged Monday with assaulting a man at an Andover restaurant, leaving the victim hospitalized after two surgeries to relieve swelling of his brain.
Sgt. David Clifford, 47, executive officer of the SWAT unit, was to appear in Anoka County court Tuesday morning on a charge of third-degree felony assault. He remained in the Anoka County jail on Monday night.
Brian Vander Lee, 43, of Ramsey, who works in the Star Tribune advertising department, was in stable condition at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids on Monday afternoon and was breathing on his own, said Steven Engelhart, Vander Lee's boss. A family spokesman said Vander Lee was moving his hands and feet and was no longer on life support.
According to the criminal complaint, a surveillance video shows that Vander Lee was sitting on the patio at Tanner's Station in Andover with his wife and brother on Saturday evening when Clifford, who was sitting at the next table, confronted him. Vander Lee was on his cellphone when Clifford leaned over and began talking in his ear, said Anoka County Sheriff's Commander Paul Sommer. Witnesses described it as a "verbal confrontation," according to the criminal complaint.
Then Clifford struck Vander Lee in the mouth with his right fist, Sommer said the video showed. Vander Lee fell backward, his head hitting the pavement.
"This was not a fight in any sense of the word," Sommer said. "This is a one-sided assault. Vander Lee is starting to stand up. Before he reaches his feet, Clifford has hit him."
'We weren't being loud'
Vander Lee's wife, Kourtney, said she and her husband met his mother and brother, Mike, at the restaurant earlier that afternoon to play Bingo. After Vander Lee's mother left, Kourtney and the two brothers decided to stay.
"This was our date night," she said.
It was noisy on the patio, with motorcycles driving through the parking lot and conversation flowing, she said.
"Mike and I were talking and this gentleman yelled, 'You want to keep it down?'" Kourtney Vander Lee recalled.
"We weren't being loud," she said. "We looked at each other and thought, 'We'll keep it down.'"
According to the complaint, Clifford said he took offense to Brian Vander Lee's language.
But Kourtney Vander Lee said she remembers only Clifford saying, "Keep it down," and investigators said restaurant employees did not report hearing any offensive language.
Mike Archambault said he pulled into the Tanner Station parking lot at 7:18 p.m., and was on the phone with Vander Lee, his longtime friend. He said he had asked Vander Lee where he and Kourtney were sitting when he heard another voice in the immediate background.
Suddenly, Vander Lee's phone went dead, he said.
"We found out later that the battery was knocked out of the cellphone," Archambault said.
'Why did you do that?'
Archambault said he'd taken 10 steps from his vehicle when he saw a bald man in a black shirt running with two men in pursuit. He said he heard one of the men yell, "Call 911."
Archambault said he and Mike Vander Lee chased Clifford into a nearby parking lot.
"Why did you do that?" Archambault remembers screaming at Clifford. "Why did you hit him? Why?"
Clifford didn't answer, Archambault said. Then Mike Vander Lee and Clifford began to scuffle when a car driven by Clifford's wife pulled up, according to Archambault and confirmed by Sommer. Clifford got in and the car sped away. Archambault and Mike Vander Lee got the license number.
Clifford turned himself in to the Anoka County sheriff on Sunday.
According to the complaint, Clifford told police that he was at Tanner's with his wife and some acquaintances to discuss National Night Out. He said he was offended by some language Vander Lee was using and asked him to stop. He told police Vander Lee stopped for a few minutes and then began using offensive language again.
According to the complaint, Clifford said that when he approached Vander Lee's table again, Vander Lee "cursed and stood up from his chair." Clifford told police that he punched Vander Lee because he thought he was going to get hit.
He said he ran across the street, where his wife picked him up, the complaint said.
He acknowledged to police that he did not talk to restaurant employees or move tables to try to de-escalate the situation.
With police force since '93
Clifford has been placed on home assignment, said Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. William Palmer. He also is the subject of an internal affairs investigation.
Clifford has been a part of the department's SWAT team since the mid-1990s and currently is the unit's executive officer, handling administrative duties for the unit's commander, Lt. Robert Skoro. He has no sustained allegations on his disciplinary record and has received two medals of valor, Palmer said.
He was hired by the Minneapolis police in 1993. Two years later, suspecting he had confronted a prowler while on patrol, he allegedly pepper-sprayed the man and hit him several times in the head with a flashlight. Charges of fifth-degree assault against Clifford were dropped for lack of evidence.
The city of Minneapolis reached a settlement in a civil suit over the incident, paying alleged victim Harry Lazover $55,000.
On Monday, Kourtney Vander Lee said she has tried to explain what happened to the couple's four daughters, ages 4 to 11.
"Brian looks horrible, they're scared, they don't understand it," she said.
Said Mike Vander Lee: "We don't know why this happened. It's all surreal."
Paul Levy 612-673-4419