Joe Senser knew his wife hit more than a construction cone or barrel when he examined the damage to his Mercedes-Benz the morning of Aug. 24.
He was still giving Amy Senser the silent treatment, he testified Wednesday, angry for being roused from bed the night before to pick up their teenage daughters and two of their friends from a concert at the Xcel Energy Center after she failed to show up.
The next morning, he said, his annoyance turned to panic when he looked at the "odd" damage to the front right fender, then saw a news report online that a man had been killed on the Riverside Avenue exit ramp. The report said parts at the scene belonged to a similar model as the damaged luxury hatchback parked in the driveway of their Edina home.
"I said 'Margaret, is this you? Were you in this area?'" he said he asked his wife of 22 years, referring to her by her middle name. "She said, 'I had exited that ramp.' I questioned her again. I said, 'Are you sure you hit a construction barrel?' She was adamant about it. I said, 'There was someone struck here fatally, Margaret.' She said there was no way."
Joe Senser testified that she was shaken, "but I believed her." Still, he reached out to his brother-in-law, an Edina police sergeant, and asked for the number of a good attorney.
His testimony on the third day of Amy Senser's criminal vehicular homicide trial detailed for the first time the Sensers' actions in the hours after Anousone Phanthavong, 38, was struck and killed as he put gas in his stalled car on the westbound I-94 exit ramp. Amy Senser faces three felony counts -- one for leaving the scene, a second for failing to call for help and the third over negligence.
'This looks like you hit a deer'
The former Minnesota Vikings star, public speaker and restaurateur was affable on the stand as he answered prosecutor Deborah Russell's questions about that night and the ensuing days before Amy Senser was charged. He gave his wife a supportive look and occasionally coaxed a smile or laugh from the jury or spectators with stories about his charity work, his differences with his daughters in musical tastes and his messy garage.
The Phanthavong family, sitting in the front row, looked on without response.
Senser testified that he got in touch with his wife as he drove home from picking up the girls and she told him she'd gotten lost. He asked if she needed directions and she said no. He said he headed home, passing and briefly noticing the accident scene at Riverside Avenue. Amy Senser was on the porch when he got home, and he sent the girls inside and briefly lectured her, but didn't ask her to account for her actions. She said nothing, he said.
"She just smiled at me," he said.
The next morning, she told him about the damage.
"She said, 'I think you're gonna be mad, but I think I hit a cone, construction barrel,'" he testified. He said he told her to contact the insurance company and became concerned once he took a closer look.
"I called Margaret and said, 'What's going on here, this looks like you hit a deer.' I don't mean any disrespect to the family, but it looked odd," he said.
"Because of the blood?" Russell asked.
"I didn't see any blood," he said. "The spattering looked like mud to me."
Daughter was fearful
Joe Senser testified that he got in touch with defense attorney Marsh Halberg, and meetings began immediately at his Bloomington law firm. Per the firm's direction, he testified that he moved the Mercedes into the garage, and turned the keys, garage door opener and a check over to the attorneys. He and Amy Senser then took their teenage daughters to Stillwater for the night and weren't home when the State Patrol seized the vehicle.
He admitted that he waited a day or two to contact his daughter, Brittani Senser, 28, who testified Tuesday and Wednesday. Brittani Senser told the court that she compelled her stepmother to come forward because Brittani felt she was being implicated in the crash. Brittani said she was concerned because she and her fiancé knew a brother of Phanthavong's and others were asking her if she was involved, but said she was never threatened.
Joe Senser contradicted his daughter on that point.
"She was fearful for her life," he said. "So much so, Ms. Russell, that I parked outside her home from 11 to 7 in the morning just to make sure that she would be OK."
Under questions by his wife's attorney, Eric Nelson, Senser said he regretted being angry with his wife for getting lost that night because she was on antibiotics for a sinus infection and her migraines were returning. He said he never smelled alcohol on her or suspected she had been drinking.
"Not at all," he testified. "Never even crossed my mind."
Nelson has contended that Amy Senser didn't know she hit a person when she struck and killed Phanthavong. Joe Senser testified he believes that to be the case, too.
"I've been married to Margaret for 22 years, and she never has lied to me," he said. "I tried asking her every which way whether she was involved in that accident, and she adamantly told me she was not."
Joe Senser's testimony will resume Thursday morning.
Staff writer Matt McKinney contributed to this report. Abby Simons • 612-673-4921