Cliff Finch Facing the Past, Fighting for Freedom

May 8, 2009 12:02:54 AM PDT
He served in Vietnam and came home to Fresno a decorated veteran. Four decades later his world is upside down and he's facing charges of the attempted murder of police officers. This is their story of hope for the future, fueled by help from Fresno's Veterans Hospital that brought healing and the outdoors back into their lives of Cliff and Joanie Finch.We met them in their home where a life time of living poured out of their family photo albums. Joanie says she takes the pictures except for one taken 40 years ago, "I think I was about 16 or 17 in that picture." They met all that time ago at Fresno High School.

Cliff Finch graduated two years ahead of her and was drafted by the U.S. army, "Sixty-eight, Sixty-nine was a really intense time in Vietnam." During his year in Vietnam she wrote every day and everyday he forged personal bonds steeped in war, "Everybody looked out after everybody. I mean everybody covered more than just their own back. Eventually, you know, you just deal with it by trying to forget about it."

Looking through a life time of happy photos that afternoon we learned a lot about the times they don't want to forget, " Nancy: Where was this? Joanie: That was at the airport the day he came home." Cliff arrived at the Fresno airport from Vietnam with a purple heart and a bronze star to Joanie waiting to greet him. The couple continued their education, married and raised a son, Andy Finch who became a snow boarding phenom, an Olympic contender and X-Games star.

All that changed in late September almost two years ago. According to Cliff's family the past came roaring back into his head forty years post Vietnam. Cliff says he doesn't remember what happened next, "It's hard to believe that you can't remember something like that happening. It's like it didn't happen." But 'it' did. His family describes a lapse into a post traumatic stress episode sending a faithful, steady husband into a disturbing week of unstable rage.

They called police for help. When officers located finch he led them on a high speed chase armed with two guns. It ended in a 'hail of bullets'. No officers were injured but Finch was struck by seven rounds that destroyed both elbows, ripped through his head and jaw and lodged in his neck and back. Finch says when he came to the impact of what had happened was overwhelming, "Knowing you were going to be a prisoner for you life in this body that was the tough part."

His son Andy in France when he got the news. He took the next flight home, "My prayer was, the plane ride home, is that I would get to see him one more time before he passed. And that was answered."

Following three months of intensive care at Community Regional Medical Center where the arraignment on the charges were held, Finch's bail was reduced. Joanie explained that allowed for his discharge to the Fresno VA hospital,." It was like angels of mercy. They've been a life line for us."

But the partially paralyzed Finch was in bad shape. After evaluation Finch was moved to the Spinal Cord Center of the Palo Alto VA facility. He was there for three months, "(We) just kept working trying' to make things better, trying' to get that leg to move and trying to get this arm to move."

Once back in Fresno he had another year of intense outpatient physical therapy. Andy Finch is still amazed at his Dad's progress, :If you look at where he is now from even just a year ago, it's incredible." And with that progress a new goal: to take part in the winter sports clinic sponsored by the Disabled Veterans of America in Aspen, Colorado this spring.

His physical therapist and fellow veteran, Terry Tuite believed it would happen, "Gotta balance on it. Gotta make that transfer of weight." The both believed Cliff could do it on a snowboard. Tuite fashioned a training tool to focus specific muscles and it worked. Andy was stoked, "This, this is really exciting for me to get my dad back on snow 'cause this is what we shared in my childhood."

Snowboarding was their father and son 'thing' and Father was equally excited to be back in the great outdoors, "We had fresh powder and it was beautiful. We were cruising down the mountain and these guys were just along side of me."

This march that goal was met. With the help of adaptive equipment and skilled assistance. Father and son were back on snow ... together. Andy Finch took home the evidence, his home video, taken with one arm in a sling from a recent surgery of his own. His Dad was pretty proud of the accomplishment, "I was able to snowboard better than I can walk with that one leg, you know, with that adaptive equipment they could hold on to in case something happened."

Cliff finch has other goals. He wants to gain more use his rigid jaw and elbows and he wants to let go of the Vietnam War. The Fresno VA confirms what the family explained to us; he is receiving ongoing psychiatric care and he believes its working. He has also been diagnosed as disabled by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

He also hopes he will one day be free of the legal system. Felony charges from the shootout are still pending. His wife, meantime, works most days at their topiary business near Friant Dam trying to keep it open. And together they live each day looking for a quiet life just the way they began forty-two years ago.

The criminal case against Cliff Finch is still moving foreword. Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Eagan tells Action News the case will go to trial. Finch's attorney says he offered a plea of 'no contest' or guilty as long as Cliff Finch was not incarcerated. The offer, he says, was rejected.

The next court date rolls around in June.

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