A felony charge filed Thursday against Amy Senser in the hit-and-run death of a popular Minneapolis chef offers a stark admission and little more.
Though authorities decided they had enough evidence to bring Senser into criminal court for the death of a motorist struck while putting gasoline in his car on a Minneapolis interstate ramp, they are still uncertain of exactly what happened that night.
"We don't know," Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said of where Senser had been that night in her Mercedes SUV or what caused her to hit Anousone Phanthavong, 38, of Roseville, who was run over within walking distance of a hospital emergency room.
The complaint charges Senser with criminal vehicular homicide operation in the Aug. 23 death of Phanthavong. It explains only where Phantavong's shoeless body was found -- about 40 feet in front of his car -- and includes a statement that Senser gave authorities Sept. 2: "I, Amy Senser, was the driver of the vehicle in the accident in which [Phanthavong] lost his life."
Senser surrendered to the State Patrol and was taken to the Hennepin County jail and booked Thursday morning, said her lawyer, Eric Nelson.
Nelson also gave a preview of the defense, saying the state would have to prove that Senser "knew she hit a person, specifically a person, and not just that she was involved in an accident."
"That will obviously, and we made no secret of that, become a part of the defense in this particular case," he said.
Bail was set at $150,000. Senser posted bond and was released after about two hours, leaving with her husband, former Vikings star Joe Senser. She did not speak to reporters. One condition of her release set by the court was that she surrender her passport. Her next court appearance is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Friday.
Senser's attorney surprised
Despite the lack of details in the complaint, the evidence already in hand was sufficient to charge her, Freeman said at a news conference. Those facts include that she was the driver, that her vehicle struck Phanthavong and that he died as a result.
"Having a confession isn't a bad place to start,'' Freeman said. "Obviously we need collaborating evidence; if we needed more for probable cause we would have listed it in the complaint."
Senser's attorney expressed surprise at the filing of the charge. The accident reconstruction is complete, he said, adding that the process typically takes about six months.
"I'm not suggesting this is a rush to judgment, but I certainly think the county is feeling public sentiment and issued the charges, " Nelson said.
"He's wrong," Freeman said.
Phanthavong's family members, through their attorney Jim Schwebel, expressed relief that charges have been filed. Schwebel spoke immediately after Freeman at the news conference. Next to him were Vilayphone Phanthavong, Anousone Phanthavong's older sister, and his niece, Souksavanh Phanthavong.
"We remain committed to searching for the truth of what really happened that evening," said Schwebel, who has filed a wrongful-death suit against the Sensers.
Phanthavong, a chef at True Thai restaurant in Minneapolis, was hit at 11 p.m. Aug. 23 on the Interstate 94 ramp at Riverside Avenue just east of downtown.
The State Patrol immediately asked for help in finding the vehicle. The following night, Nelson directed patrol investigators to the damaged SUV, parked in the garage at the Senser home, blood still on the hood.
Nelson waited more than a week to publicly identify Amy Senser as the driver, and he advised the Sensers to invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. He said Thursday that she will continue to invoke that right.
"I know there is lots and lots of speculation on what happened," Nelson said at the time. "The man's death and media attention have absolutely taken a toll on Amy."
Freeman said Amy Senser is not a flight risk or a public safety threat, and didn't need to be jailed immediately after she was identified as the driver. Authorities must charge a suspect within 36 hours of an arrest.
"I think we also have a public responsibility when we have the evidence to prove the case," he said. "I think we have an obligation to charge."
Freeman said members of his office don't file charges unless they "believe in our hearts" a person committed the crime and there is sufficient evidence to prove it.
"We have that level of evidence," he said.
Phanthavong's family will continue with the wrongful-death lawsuit filed last week, Schwebel said. He anticipates it will proceed parallel to the criminal investigation.
Depositions set for Sensers
Both Sensers are named in the suit. Joe Senser, 55, co-owner of Joe Senser's Sports Theater restaurants, is on leave from his WCCO Radio job providing commentary for University of St. Thomas football games. He is listed as an owner of the vehicle that struck Phanthavong.
A deposition with the Sensers is scheduled for Oct. 11, while others will be questioned Oct. 12, Schwebel said. He declined to identify the second group of people to be deposed.
He said he anticipates that the Sensers will invoke their right not to answer questions Oct. 11, and said that, unlike in a criminal case where prosecutors must prove only a few elements, more facts are necessary in a civil case.
"We all know ordinary negligence where someone is inattentive and misses a red light is a far different scenario than someone who is drunk or impaired and kills someone, flees the scene, hides the car and doesn't come forward until 10 days later," Schwebel said. "We want a lot of specific facts because we want a jury to feel the full impact of what happened that night. We want them to appreciate the pain and grief for all family members in this tragic loss."
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482 Abby Simons • 612-673-4921