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Charges declined in Clifford family dispute

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - As former University of North Dakota President Thomas J. Clifford lay dying in his 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.

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 Grand Forks 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 in Grand Forks 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 Saturday 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 was 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.

Sorting it out

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.

"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,' s" 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.

No evidence of crime

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."

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 percent 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."