The other side of the Senser story

  • Article by: ANNA PRASOMPHOL FIESER
  • Updated: September 15, 2011 - 7:29 PM

'Ped' Phanthavong -- the actual victim, mind you -- will be sorely missed.

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Anousone Phanthavong was killed in the hit-and-run involving a vehicle owned by former Minnesota Viking Joe Senser. The Senser family's attorney said that Senser's wife, Amy Senser, was driving the vehicle at the time.

Anousone "Ped" Phanthavong was a dear friend and valued coworker of mine. We opened our restaurant, True Thai, in 2002, and Ped was the only person still working for us who had been on our original staff.

State troopers woke me one night last month at 3:45 a.m. because I was the registered owner of Ped's car. My partner slept through the troopers knocking on our door but awoke upon hearing my cries of anguish at learning that Ped had been killed.

The next day I saw the place where Ped had pulled his car off the ramp and onto the grass. I saw blood stains from his body being dragged 40 feet by the Mercedes SUV that hit him. He was left for dead only three-quarters of a block from the University of Minnesota Medical Center's emergency room.

More than 300 people jammed the funeral home for Ped's funeral. Everyone wore white, the Buddhist color of mourning.

It took four cars to bring all the floral arrangements -- all white, because that was Ped's favorite color. He always wore white T-shirts. Even on a moonless night, it would have been difficult not to see him on a well-lit freeway exit ramp.

The day after Ped died, the state troopers told us he had been hit by a Mercedes SUV. They told the news media, and shortly after that, an attorney representing the family of former Minnesota Vikings player Joe Senser contacted authorities.

It would be another nine agonizing days before the Senser family said that Amy Senser, Joe's wife, was driving that night.

I was acting as an interpreter when a trooper advised Ped's brother that the family should get a high-powered attorney. The trooper, perhaps, should not have said that, and he didn't say why the family needed an attorney.

But by then it was obvious that the Sensers were not going to send the Phanthavongs so much as a sympathy card, let alone meet with them to discuss what happened that night.

Joe Senser is a sports broadcaster now and has many friends in the media. Esme Murphy of WCCO-TV posted about the accident at her blog. She said that she could not defend a hit-and-run, but spent the rest of her post praising the Sensers.

Almost immediately, an anonymous contributor posted Ped's arrest record in the comments. That was a shameful thing for the Phanthavong family to see.

Yes, Ped had some run-ins with the law. Many refugees from war-torn countries do. It takes a while for young men to understand that while fighting helped them stay alive in Laos, you do not need to fight to survive in the United States.

Ped ended up spending some time in the Ramsey County workhouse, but we picked him up and took him to work each day -- not just because we liked him, but because he was, from his first day at True Thai, our best cook.

After Ped was reunited with his family, he spent every day helping his mother cook, and she taught him well. As True Thai won award after award after award for its dishes, Ped grew more confident and cleaned up his life.

He had been sober for almost three years, but he did not trust himself. Almost his entire paycheck would go to his parents. Ped never carried more than $20 in cash, because he was afraid he would weaken and spend that money on bad things. He knew his limitations and still managed to overcome them.

But Ped was not a celebrity, and Esme Murphy is not the only Twin Cities journalist to defend the Sensers. The Star Tribune's Gail Rosenblum also wrote about the Sensers. Yes, she mentioned Ped, but like all the other local media she just repeated what I had written about him in my blog.

I do not think the local news media cares about Ped's side of the story.

That is OK. Joe Senser is a media guy, and you stand up for your own. But maybe the media should read my eulogy for Ped that was read at his funeral:

Ped is my brother and my best friend. When I was mugged last summer, Ped was the first person to show up to comfort and reassure me. ... He cared so much about True Thai and all of us who worked there; but Ped loved everyone, not just his friends. Once he made me park my car so he could help a stranded motorist change her tire. When a panhandler would ask Ped for money, Ped would tell them to wait and then would run and cook them a meal.

Each night when I go to True Thai, I go into the kitchen because seeing Ped in his white T-shirt gives me comfort and lets me know everything is running the way it should. I will never see Ped in our kitchen again ... smiling in that slightly sad, boyish way we all knew so well.

His spirit is with us still at True Thai, guiding us, telling us everything is all right.

Ped once told me, "Anna, I know I am going to die before you do." Ped, I am so sorry you were right. I will remember you the rest of my life. You were the soul of True Thai. You are the soul of True Thai. You will always be the soul of True Thai.

Only the Senser family knows for sure what happened that night, and they are not talking. Not to us, not to the family's attorney, not to anyone.

But they do have friends in the media. At a news conference, a reporter asked me something about "why the family is just after the money?" I was so shocked I could not answer him.

The Phanthavongs did not "lawyer up" until after a trooper suggested they should, and well after the Sensers had decided to speak only through their attorney.

No one in the media is trying to find out what happened. It has been decided that the lawyers will do all the talking and that this might take years to be resolved.

Well, I am talking. And I will keep talking. The media can feel sorry for Amy Senser all they like, but some day the Phanthavongs will have their day in court, and I will be there to see that they receive the justice they deserve.

But that day will not come soon.

Until then, Ped's nephew and two of his nieces will be working at True Thai, busing tables and waiting on customers, so that their grandparents will not be cast out into the street while waiting and waiting and waiting for justice.

* * *

Anna Prasomphol Fieser is co-owner of True Thai Restaurant, where Anousone "Ped" Phanthavong worked as head cook.

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