Sensers' text messages show a family grappling with tragedy

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 8, 2012 - 8:32 PM

Hennepin County District Court released evidence in the hit-run case, including hundreds of text messages.

A thick printout containing hundreds of text messages sheds little light on what happened when Amy Senser struck and killed a man on a Minneapolis freeway ramp last summer.

But it does paint a picture of a family struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy in the glare of news media and public attention while she faced serious felony charges.

Asked by a friend a week after the accident whether the Sensers had reported it to the State Patrol, Joe Senser texted back: "Yes, that's all I can say. Humiliation, and it's just starting."

The phone records of Senser, 45, and her husband, a restaurateur and ex-Minnesota Vikings star, were part of more than 140 exhibits released Monday, four days after a Hennepin County jury convicted her in the hit-and-run death of 38-year-old Anousone Phanthavong.

The exhibits include dozens of photos of the crash scene and Senser's damaged Mercedes-Benz SUV, along with replicas of the traffic cones and construction barrels on the ramp that night.

Amy Senser was found guilty of two counts of felony criminal vehicular homicide and misdemeanor careless driving for striking and killing Phanthavong, who was putting gas in his car on an exit ramp off westbound Interstate 94. She claimed throughout her trial that she didn't know she had struck someone that night.

Senser will be sentenced on July 9. She faces up to four years in prison.

Trust in God -- and lawyers

The messages on the Sensers' phones from late August to early September include words of support, prayer and encouragement from friends to Amy Senser, whose text messages to her teenage daughters showed her to be an attentive mother. Even after the crash, she wanted to make sure they were safe and enjoying themselves at activities like basketball games and the State Fair.

She discussed the accident with Hannah, 14, and sternly warned her not to talk about the case, including "no comments on facebook ... none."

In a text thanking one friend for her support, Amy Senser wrote: "We are taking each day as it comes, trusting in God ... and our lawyers."

During the seven-day trial, Assistant County Attorney Deborah Russell pointed out that 45 text messages had been deleted from Amy Senser's phone on the day after the crash. Her attorney, Eric Nelson, countered that it was common for his client to delete text messages.

In one text message, Amy Senser asked her husband to record the 10 p.m. news.

"I know I shouldn't watch it," she wrote. "I just have to see what they are saying ... I haven't heard anything."

There were only occasional exchanges between Joe and Amy Senser, according to records. On Sept. 4, she wrote: "Joseph, God has shown me something, just now ... I'm comforted and trust He will protect us. I will share more when you get home ... I love you."

'Take responsibility'

Standing out among the exchanges is concern expressed by Joe Senser's adult daughters, including Brittani Senser, 28, who testified that she compelled her stepmother to come forward because of speculation that Brittani was the driver.

Although the Sensers' attorneys turned in the Edina family's SUV the day after the crash, Amy Senser waited 10 days to identify herself as the driver. During that time, Brittani Senser's tone of support for her father and stepmother turned to one of panic as local media speculated she may have been behind the wheel that night.

"Im so sorry this is happening. But dad u need [to] clear your name," Brittani Senser texted her father on Sept. 2. "The news is talking about how much of a stand up guy u are and that ur a charitable and loving human being. Its not ur job to protect someone who prob[ably] wouldn't protect u if the shoes were on the other feet."

In an expletive-ridden text to Amy Senser on Sept. 2, Brittani Senser was more direct.

"Amy everyone thinks its me. That is so [messed] up that by u guys not fessing im getting thrown under the bus. Take responsibility 4 ur actions. Go online watch the news that is so [messed] up amy."

In a terse response, Amy Senser replied: "Brittani, there will be a press release issued very soon that will clarify issues for everyone. I love you."

That day, a fax was sent to the State Patrol in which Amy Senser admitted being the driver.

In the meantime, Joe Senser told Brittani to discuss the allegations made by a local TV station and demand a retraction. He wrote that he would also demand the Phanthavongs' civil attorney, Jim Schwebel, be held responsible "for false allegations."

In a text to her father, Ashlee Senser said she was incredulous that speculation seemed to skip Amy Senser and go straight to the daughters. In a message, she said they were hurting but would stand behind their father as he supported his wife.

"At least we still get to have Amy," she wrote. "It might be a few rough years but we have her. This family lost their son and brother. I can't stomach it."

"Well said," Joe Senser responded.

"I also pray that you guys tell the truth in every aspect of this case because that will be the only thing to set you free," Ashlee Senser wrote. "It will be the only thing to save our family. The truth."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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