Amy Senser recounts night of fatal I-94 crash, through tears

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS and LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: May 1, 2012 - 12:37 PM

Amy Senser testified that she was sure she had hit a barrel or a pothole when she exited I-94.

Testifying in her own defense Monday, Amy Senser tearfully crystallized what bothers most people who ponder her case -- a logistical hurdle she must clear in the minds of jurors when they go into deliberations as early as Tuesday:

"I don't know how you wouldn't know you had hit somebody," she testified, still incredulous about her involvement in the crash that killed Anousone Phanthavong, 38.

Saying she was "terrified" but glad "I finally get to speak," Senser denied that she knew she struck him with her Mercedes the night of Aug. 23, saying she thought she hit a construction barrel or pothole.

Her testimony marked the climax of her weeklong criminal vehicular homicide trial, which included testimony by most of her family, including her husband, former Minnesota Vikings star Joe Senser. Her account of the hit-and-run crash -- what led to it, and what happened after -- marked the first time she publicly told her story. The jury is expected to begin deliberations after closing arguments Tuesday.

Senser, 45, of Edina, spoke softly but articulately and was generally composed as she recounted that night, when she joined her daughters at a concert at the Xcel Energy Center but didn't feel well and decided to leave. She was on Interstate 94 when she changed her mind and decided to head back to St. Paul to wait for the girls, and heard what she later described as a "clunk."

Under questioning by defense attorney Eric Nelson, Senser told the jury how it slowly dawned on her that she was the driver the next morning, after Joe Senser confronted her, and later contacted attorneys.

"Were you hopeful that it wasn't your vehicle?" Nelson asked.

"It's still difficult to believe it is ..." she said.

Why is it hard? Nelson asked.

"I just never saw him," she sobbed. "It just couldn't have been me."

Pushed to elaborate, Senser said she heard a clunk when she thought she struck the barrel. Nelson asked: "At that point, did you see Mr. Phanthavong's body come on to the hood of the car?"

"No" she said.

"Did you see his car at all?" Nelson asked

"I don't remember seeing his car," she said.

She also said she came forward as the driver 10 days after the crash, against her attorney's advice, to allay her stepdaughter's fears. "People were saying really bad things, and she was feeling afraid for her safety," she said about Brittani Senser, 28. "She couldn't understand why we couldn't say anything."

Text messages at issue

Prosecutor Deborah Russell pressed Senser about some inconsistencies in her story, including why Senser sent her daughter several text messages while en route to the Katy Perry concert that night, but sent none to her husband and daughters when she decided to leave the venue.

Russell also asked her about several pre-crash text messages from that night that were deleted. Senser said she frequently deletes her text messages.

Citing heavy construction, she struggled to recall which routes she had taken after the accident, when she exited on to Riverside Avenue. Russell countered that as a graduate of the University of Minnesota, she should likely be familiar with the areas off that exit.

Asking Senser whether her memory may have fogged some since the incident, Nelson asked, "You would agree this was eight months ago?"

"It's 251 days," she said.

Senser said she planned to leave work and meet her two teenage daughters and two of their friends at the concert. Once she got there, she said she decided to stop at the nearby Eagle Street Grille and wait for the opening act to finish. She said she ordered a glass of wine and sat down.

"I had some of it, yes," she testified, adding that she didn't feel well and it made her feel worse.

Senser testified that she went into the concert at 9 p.m. and stayed until about 10:30, seated elsewhere from the girls. Her head was throbbing, she said, and someone told her the show would last until midnight.

"I wouldn't be able to sit for another hour and a half," she said. She left, then decided to turn around to wait for the girls, taking the Riverside exit -- not knowing the bridge she hoped would take her over to the eastbound side of the freeway was closed. She said she looked left at the bridge when she got to the exit to determine whether it was the right one. It was then, she testified, that she unknowingly struck Phanthavong.

'Wasn't sure what it was'

"I remember being jolted back to the front" by some sort of impact, Senser testified, referring to her attention. When Nelson asked her to describe what she felt, Senser said "I've never been in an accident so I wasn't quite sure if I'd hit a pothole or one of those construction signs. I wasn't sure what it was."

The next day, she said, she and Joe Senser looked at the damage to her sport-utility vehicle together. Like her husband, she testified she never saw blood.

"What I recall seeing is something that looked like mud," she said.

She said Joe Senser, who was looking up an online news report about Phanthavong's death, called her over, asking if she was involved. "No way that is me," she replied.

Later that day, he contacted attorneys, who advised him to park the SUV in the garage and give them the keys and garage door opener.

Senser's testimony fell between two expert witnesses who said she would have had no more than 2 seconds to avoid hitting Phanthavong, and when she did, it was a "very glancing blow" by the far edge of her SUV. The testimony contradicted that of a prosecution reconstructionist, who testified last week that Phanthavong's body may have wrapped around the hood.

Daniel Lofgren, a retired State Patrol accident investigator, said that, based on the location of Phanthavong's injuries and the height of the damaged portions of Senser's vehicle, Phanthavong was likely bent over as he tried to put gas in his car.

Lofgren also testified that because of the ramp's topography, the curving roadway and the road construction that had caused street lights to be disconnected, it would have been difficult for drivers that night to see the flashing hazard lights on Phanthavong's vehicle, both as they approached and in their mirrors after passing it.

The prosecution will question him Tuesday.

asimons@startribune.com • 612-673-4921 loakes@startribune.com • 612-673-1751

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