MINNEAPOLIS – A friend of a man who was allegedly punched in the head by an off-duty Minneapolis SWAT officer and suffered brain injuries said Tuesday that he and his friend were joking around on the phone when the line went dead.
Mike Archambault said he was in the parking lot at Tanners Station and about to meet his friend, Brian Vander Lee, on the suburban restaurant's patio when their cellphone call abruptly ended. Archambault said he thought his friend had hung up on him, but then saw Vander Lee — a husband and father of four girls — lying on the ground, unconscious.
"I've never ever seen anybody get angry with him," Archambault said of Vander Lee. "He would never harm a fly. ... It's a horrible freaking thing."
Minneapolis police Sgt. David Clifford was charged with third-degree assault and was released Tuesday after posting $15,000 bail. Under 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 assistant Anoka County attorney, 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 to a friend 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 fell backward and may have hit his head on concrete, Sommer said.
Archambault, who said he has been friends with Vander Lee since they were both 13 years old, told The Associated Press that he was talking with Vander Lee on the phone. They were trying to meet, and Archambault was in the parking lot.
Archambault said Vander Lee is a jokester, and the two always kid around together. So when Vander Lee answered his phone and said "Where are you at?" Archambault said 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 men joke around with each other.
Archambault said he then saw a man run from the restaurant, and Archambault went in to see Vander Lee on the ground.
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, employees of the bar did not hear Vander Lee use offensive language. Lisa Blomquist, manager at Tanners Station, said Tuesday that employees would not talk to the media.
Clifford has been placed on paid home assignment, and there is an internal investigation, 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.
Vander Lee had two brain surgeries and remained hospitalized Tuesday, but as of Monday night he was breathing on his own, Archambault said. He has also responded to some commands.