Crime

Father of Olympic athlete hurt in shootout

The father of a Fresno Olympian may have suffered a flashback to Vietnam when he led police on a high-speed chase Monday that ended in a shootout, his brother said.

Clifford Darrell Finch, 58, owner of Cliff Finch's Topiary Zoo in Friant since 1981 and the father of Olympic snowboarder Andy Finch, was in critical condition Monday night at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno.

Fresno police said Finch was on his way to the home of his wife, who had obtained an emergency protective order against him, when police were alerted Monday morning.

Police tried to stop him in northeast Fresno, but Finch fled, speeding through red lights along Herndon Avenue and clipping a car before police forced him off the road near Highway 99. That is when Finch began firing a handgun at them, police said. Four officers returned fire, striking Finch several times. No officers were injured.

This was the fourth officer- involved shooting in Fresno this year, compared to seven in 2006, police said. None of the officers involved in Monday's shooting were identified.

Joan Finch, his wife of 35 years, described the situation as "a deep family crisis. We're hurting terribly, but I've been advised not to say anything."

But Finch's brother, Craig Finch of Ventura, was critical of the police response.

"I don't think he is going to make it and if he does he has attempted murder charges facing him," Craig Finch said. "It was mishandled by police."

Fresno police spokesman Jeff Cardinale said officers correctly handled the situation: "We received a call of a man looking for his wife with a gun. He fled at 80 mph on one of the busiest streets in Fresno with reckless disregard for other motorists.

"He had two choices -- surrender or fire at our officers. Our officers had no choice but to return fire. That is never their first choice -- it's always their last choice."

Cardinale said officers and others were endangered by Finch's actions.

Craig Finch said his brother was in the midst of a flashback to Vietnam and had not slept in five days. Craig Finch said his brother earned a Purple Heart and returned from Vietnam in 1969.

"He was not Cliff -- something snapped," Craig Finch said. "We knew something was terribly wrong and it needed to be handled by the VA, not by Fresno police at gunpoint."

Craig Finch said he and Joan Finch were trying to get Cliff to check into the Veterans Administration hospital in Fresno, but they couldn't get him to cooperate.

Craig Finch recounted the 24 hours leading up to the shootout:

Sunday in Morro Bay, Cliff Finch walked out of a restaurant without paying his bill for breakfast. Morro Bay police went to the home he was staying at to confront him about the unpaid bill. He told them he had not eaten breakfast.

Joan Finch suspected her husband was having an episode of post-traumatic stress and was worried that he could harm family members or himself. Since he had access to a gun, she obtained a protective order from Morro Bay police Sunday. Morro Bay police confirmed that they issued a protective order.

On Monday, Cliff Finch went looking for his wife at her sister's house in Fresno.

Fresno police said they received two calls about 10:20 a.m., one from Finch's wife, and one from a second person, who said Finch was armed and en route to where his wife was staying. The calls were almost simultaneous, Cardinale said.

Police intercepted Finch near Cedar and Spruce avenues.

"We had good descriptions and quickly found the vehicle," Cardinale said. "He took off and we had to pursue him."

Finch fled west on Herndon Avenue. His truck clipped one vehicle sitting at a red light at Blackstone and Herndon avenues. He also drove through several other red lights and hit speeds of 80 mph, police said.

On Golden State Avenue just north of Herndon, an officer used his cruiser to ram Finch's pickup, causing it to spin and land in a ditch in front of a Johnny Quik convenience store.

Police said they ordered Finch to get out of the truck. Instead, police said, he picked up a gun and began firing at officers, who returned fire.

Mary Blake was inside the Johnny Quik about 11 a.m. when she heard squealing wheels.

"I heard this screeching noise and saw this truck lose control and went into the front of our station," she said. "I heard all these gunshots and thought, 'My God, they're shooting.' "

Several men working on gas pumps scattered as Blake hustled her employees away from the glass doors at the front of the store.

"I told them to get down and I was trying to find a place to hide, too," she said.

She said police pulled the bloodied Finch from the Chevrolet Silverado truck.

They tried to resuscitate him, Blake said, but he was not moving. She also saw police remove a gun from Finch's truck.

Finch will be held on suspicion of attempted murder on a police officer, according to a Fresno police news release. He faces several other felony charges, too, police said.

Finch's neighbors were surprised to learn that he was a suspect in the chase and shooting. They described Finch and his wife as friendly, and hadn't heard any disturbances at his northwest Fresno home.

"We're all shocked," said Brenda Weakley. "There's not a friendlier family around."

Said neighbor Marian Ota: "You're talking about Cliff? I can't believe it."

Ota, who has lived next door to the Finches for 16 years, said Cliff Finch is personable, often talking to them when he was in his front yard. Ota said the only thing unusual she has noticed about Finch was his recent purchase of a new red motorcycle, which struck her as odd for someone over 50 years old.

The motorcycle was in the back of Finch's pickup when he crashed.

Tim Jones, Cliff Finch's cousin, said he was surprised at what transpired: "I think the family is a bit in shock. We hope everybody will reserve judgment until we learn a little more and keep Cliff in our prayers."

Andy Finch, who last year reached the finals of the men's snowboarding competition at the Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, competes internationally. He was reportedly traveling Monday in France and could not be reached.

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