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Thomas Clifford

Grand Forks police investigated possible drugging of former UND President Tom Clifford less than a month before his death

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GRAND FORKS - As former UND President Thomas J. Clifford lay dying in his Reeves Drive home last month, a Jan. 17 incident involving members of his blended family brought police into the house amid allegations that someone may have tried to hasten his passing.

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Police conducted an investigation and, on Jan. 21, submitted a 70-page request for "review for charges" to the Grand Forks County state's attorney's office.

Eight days later, after receiving a supplemental report from the State Crime Lab in Bismarck, State's Attorney Peter Welte returned the police file, noting that he had found "no tangible evidence" of a crime. He declined prosecution.

Clifford's wife, Gayle, had been questioned by police after two other women, adult grandchildren of Thomas Clifford and his first wife, said they believed she had put pills in a fruit salad they were feeding him.

Gayle Clifford denied the accusation and told police she thought she was being "set up."

The granddaughters also denied having anything to do with the pills, which the State Crime Lab and police later determined were legitimately prescribed low doses of blood pressure medication.

Clifford, 87, died Feb. 4. He had been in hospice care at his home since he was released from Altru Hospital on Jan. 6. He had been taken to the hospital on Christmas Eve with congestive heart failure, treated with a pacemaker and transferred to Altru Rehab Hospital. His condition deteriorated abruptly Jan. 5.

The Jan. 17 incident became a matter of public record when Welte declined prosecution and returned the investigation file to the police. The Herald obtained the file at that time and continued to monitor the case but decided against publishing a story unless new criminal or civil actions were taken, or if through rumor or other means the incident became a matter of general public discussion. WDAZ-TV aired a report on its 10 p.m. newscast Friday night, which prompted the issuance of a statement by an attorney representing Gayle Clifford.

The statement "from the Clifford family" echoes basic findings in the police report and adds, "President Clifford was comfortable and happy to be home to receive his family members and friends in his remaining days. He died peacefully on Feb. 4 with his family at his side."

Dr. Stephen Clifford, a son of the former president, said today that "if something was done, whoever did it should be punished."

He said he didn't want "anything to affect the memory of my father or his achievements, and I'm so glad (this) didn't come out at the time of the funeral." But "one advantage of it coming out now," he said, "is that maybe somebody will come forward who knows something."

At least seven Grand Forks police officers and investigators responded to Tom Clifford's home the evening of Jan. 17 after a granddaughter called to report that she had "found pills in grandfather's food," according to a police blotter entry.

An ambulance took Clifford back to Altru Hospital "as a precaution." There, the ailing president told a police detective that he wished the matter dropped. But the investigation continued.

Clifford, a decorated Marine veteran of World War II, succeeded the late Dr. George Starcher as president in 1971 and held the top job for 21 years. After his death, he lay in state on campus and was eulogized by Gov. John Hoeven at his funeral Feb. 11 as "one of the greatest North Dakotans" ever.

During the public gatherings last week, there was obvious coolness and tension between some members of the blended family.

Tainted fruit salad

The call for assistance at 1125 Reeves Drive was made at 8:13 p.m. Jan. 17, according to the police report, which gives this account of the ensuing investigation:

The first officer arrived about 8:30 p.m. at the Clifford residence, where he had lived with Gayle since he retired in 1992. They had been married in 1986, two years after the death of his first wife, Florence, from cancer.

Most members of the family had said their goodbyes to the ailing patriarch, who continued to smile and acknowledge visitors but who was in renal and congestive heart failure. Members of the family told police he had been taken off all medications when he left the hospital.

Jan. 17 was a Saturday. Gayle Clifford left the house in the evening to be with friends. It was the first time she had been out in a long time, she later told police.

Clifford was attended that night by granddaughter Angela Heiden, 31, of Pine Island, Minn., a nurse, who had come to Grand Forks nine days earlier to help care for him. She was joined Jan. 17 by her sister, Rebecca Clifford, 27, of Laguna Beach, Calif., an attorney. They are daughters of Stephen Clifford, 61, who is a medical doctor in Iowa.

After visiting with his granddaughters, Clifford took a nap. When he woke, he asked for some of the fruit salad that Heiden had prepared the day before. The sisters were feeding their grandfather the fruit salad when he spit something into his hand. It appeared to be a small white pill. In a moment, he spit out another.

Looking through the remaining fruit salad, the sisters found a third pill.

As they were looking, their father called on his cell phone from Florida. Heiden told Stephen Clifford what they had found. He suggested they call the police.

The sisters also telephoned Tom Kenville, Gayle Clifford's son by a previous marriage. He went to find his mother and bring her home.

Suspicions

"Do you have any suspicions as far as how the pills got into the salad?" Sgt. Bill Macki asked Heiden, according to a transcript of an interview he conducted with her shortly after midnight.

"I think someone put them in there," she said.

She denied doing it herself and ruled out her grandfather because "he's been bed-bound since he was home." Asked if she thought her sister had placed the pills, she said "No."

"Do you suspect that (Gayle Clifford) did it?" Macki asked.

"It wouldn't surprise me," Heiden said.

Macki asked whether Gayle Clifford had "said anything that would indicate to you that she just wants, you know, some kind of resolution to your grandfather's illness or she wants it over?"

Gayle Clifford had made comments "that she can't keep going on like this," Heiden said, "that it's too much work, um ... yesterday she said that she didn't sign up for this journey."

In a separate interview, Macki put similar questions to Heiden's sister, Rebecca Clifford.

"You know maybe someone was ... was trying to ... you know poison or kill your grandfather or maybe someone just thought that the medication would help his condition and you know they wanted to try and ease his pain or something like that. Ah ... did you do either of those?"

"No, I didn't."

"OK. Ah, would you be surprised if anyone that's in the residence now would have done something like that?"

"No, I wouldn't."

"Ah, would you want to say who you might think ... might do that?"

"Um, my gut instinct would be his ... his wife."

Officers spoke with Tom Kenville and his sister, Kim Kenville, who said "they were very convinced that (their) mother would not do such a thing ... that their mother had a very good relationship with T. Clifford, and they had been married for over 20 years," according to the report.

They also told investigators "that T. Clifford did not have a very good relationship with the family he had started with his former wife," Florence.

Later, after talking with Gayle Clifford, an investigator reported that she "broke down some and said that she didn't want to accuse (Rebecca) Clifford and Heiden of putting the pills in the food, but she did insinuate that they may have.

"G. Clifford told me several times that '(she) couldn't believe that someone was trying to set her up,' " the officer wrote.

Police asked Gayle Clifford to show them any medications in the house. She brought them to the main bathroom and a second bathroom and showed them some pills, "but none of these resembled the ones which had been found," according to the report. Later, she led police to more medications in the kitchen, and pills in one container did resemble those that had been found in Tom Clifford's food.

Since he did not know for certain the nature of the pills found in the fruit salad, Macki asked another officer to arrange for an ambulance to come to the house so paramedics could check on Tom Clifford. He was later taken to the hospital to be checked more thoroughly.

According to the statement released Saturday by attorney Patrick Fisher, Gayle Clifford returned home when she was notified and "immediately directed that President Clifford be taken to the hospital by ambulance to be examined for any adverse effect."

In his questioning of Gayle Clifford, "I asked her how her and her husband's relationships were with his side of the family," one of the investigating officers reported. "She told me that it was not very good. She had been in disagreement with Heiden the past several days, because Heiden wanted T. Clifford to go home, and G. Clifford wanted him to remain in the hospital. G. Clifford told me that she did not get along very well with R. Clifford, but did not go into any details."

At the Tuesday vigil for her grandfather, Heiden said that he had thanked her for helping him to leave the hospital and go home.

In the police report, Macki said Rebecca Clifford told him "that her family was not very happy with how G. Clifford was taking care of T. Clifford."

At 1:40 a.m. Jan. 18, Macki went to Altru Hospital to check on Tom Clifford and see whether he was competent to answer questions. He said the former president "was very pleasant, though he did not want to cooperate in the investigation. ... He would shrug his shoulders, or wave his hands dismissively, rather than answer."

Macki outlined what the investigation had shown to that point and asked Clifford "if he was sure that he didn't want me to continue. The victim stated 'Yes.' "

He asked Clifford to sign an investigation withdrawal form, which he did.

But back at the house, a search warrant had been obtained and a search begun about 2 a.m. for medications, prescriptions and other medical forms. The search was finished about 3:30 a.m.

Clifford's granddaughters agreed to a search of their belongings and fingerprinting to test against prints that might be found on pill containers in the house.

At one point, Macki asked Rebecca Clifford whether she believed her grandfather was in pain.

"No one has really heard him complain of pain," she responded. "Today ... when we asked him if he was comfortable ... he always says, 'Yup, I'm fine.'..."

Vulnerable adult

Macki interviewed Stephen Clifford on Monday, Jan. 19, and asked him whether he thought either of his daughters put the pills in the fruit salad.

"Absolutely not," he said.

Did he suspect anyone else?

"The only other person that had access ah ... was (Gayle) Clifford and there's no doubt in my mind that, that she was the one who did it."

He went on to accuse her of "a lack of attentiveness and preoccupation with having the funeral, getting the thing done and gone."

Stephen Clifford said that he understood his father didn't want the matter investigated further. Asked whether he thought him capable of making that decision, the son hesitated.

"I, I don't know," he told Macki. "He's probably got a lot of things going on in his mind. One is that he's not going to be around much longer and he doesn't want to be around a lot of turmoil.

"He likes peace and quiet and he's always retreated to that, being in a busy, active political life. Sometimes around the house he'd just go up and play solitaire and get away from it and it was his way of dealing with a lot of things."

The search warrant filed on Jan. 18 listed "Jane Doe" as the suspect involved, with no charge specified. But the accompanying affidavit cited "reasonable grounds to believe that the crime of endangerment of a vulnerable adult may be taking place" at the Clifford residence. The charge is a felony, a Class A felony if the endangerment leads to death.

The search warrant authorized police to look for medications, food that might be contaminated, documents and "papers which may set forth or describe the victim's desire to die or family members' intent to harm the victim or expedite his death."

An inventory of 26 items collected during the search is included in the police report and includes a variety of medications, pill containers, prescriptions and receipts.

The crime lab's analysis determined that the pills found in the fruit salad matched a blood pressure medication that had been prescribed for Clifford. The level of trace amounts of the medication found in what remained of the fruit salad suggested that no more than the three found pills had been placed in the food.

Together, the three pills amounted to about 75 mg, or about 1 per cent of what the county coronor advised police would constitute "minimal overdose levels."

Macki reported the lab results to Welte, who on Jan. 29 advised the police that his office would not prosecute.

"As indicated in the State Lab report, the medication in the fruit salad was prescription medication, and there is no evidence that it was illegally obtained," Welte wrote. "The dosage didn't approach a lethal dose, or anything close to it. Additionally, there is no tangible evidence indicating how the medication got in the fruit salad. Nor is there tangible evidence that the non-lethal dose was placed there with the intent to commit a crime."

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