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Joe Senser

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Hit-and-run victim Anousone Phanthavong

Provided by Anna Prasomphol Fieser,

Joe Senser's home on 416 John St. in Edina.

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

SUV at center of fatal hit-and-run off I-94 belongs to Joe Senser

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS
  • Star Tribune
  • September 2, 2011 - 10:55 AM

The Mercedes-Benz SUV that the State Patrol believes was involved in the hit-and-run that killed a Roseville man last week belongs to former Minnesota Vikings star Joe Senser, the family's attorney confirmed Thursday.

Attorney Eric Nelson wouldn't say, however, who was behind the wheel on the night of the accident. Nelson added that he advised the Senser family members to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights to remain silent before a meeting with investigators on Tuesday.

"Based on the information that I have in this case, and I do not have access to the entire State Patrol report or what they have, but in any potential charges the driver would face, the state would have to prove who the driver was," Nelson said. "If the Sensers were to tell the State Patrol who the driver was, that would essentially guarantee criminal charges against the driver," he added.

Nelson refused to rule out any family members as the possible driver. He would not discuss the circumstances of the accident.

The Aug. 23 hit-and-run crash killed Anousone Phanthavong, 38, as he was putting gas in his car after it ran out of fuel on the ramp leading from westbound Interstate 94 to Riverside Avenue about 11 p.m. Phanthavong was head cook at True Thai, a restaurant on nearby Franklin Avenue.

Attorney Jim Schwebel, who is representing Phanthavong's family, said he will pursue civil action as soon as next week to find out who was driving the SUV at the time of the accident.

Senser is "not going to be able to keep this information private for very long," Schwebel said. "We will get to the bottom of it."

No one is under arrest while the investigation continues, said Lt. Eric Roeske of the Minnesota State Patrol.

"We'll explore all avenues in an effort to find out who killed this man," Roeske said. "Someone out there knows exactly what happened, and we want that person to come forward so we can piece it together."

Blood on the hood

According to a search warrant drafted last week, parts from a Mercedes vehicle that appeared to have blood on them were found near Phanthavong's body. Investigators working with a Mercedes dealer determined that the parts belonged to a 2009 or newer Mercedes-Benz ML350, ML550 or ML450.

Investigators received a call at 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 24 from Nelson, an attorney at Bloomington-based Halberg Criminal Defense, indicating he was calling on behalf of the registered owner of the suspect vehicle and the owner's family.

He directed them to Senser's Edina home, where the 2009 Mercedes ML350 was parked in the garage. According to the warrant, the vehicle had damage to the front passenger side including the fender, and what appeared to be blood on the hood. The vehicle was towed to the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office crime lab.

Inside the car, investigators found a bobby pin, a Mike's Hard Lemonade bottle cap and a set of earrings, according to the warrant. They also took swabs, tissue samples and fingerprints.

Roeske said no one has been ruled out as a suspect. The testing and investigation continues, he said.

Schwebel said that under state law, a vehicle owner is liable for the negligence of anyone who operates the vehicle with his consent. Since Senser didn't report the SUV was stolen, he said, he must have given consent to the driver.

The victim's family, Schwebel said, "is obviously deeply saddened and grieving from their loss. They'd like to have answers. ... It compounds their grief that someone is trying to hide the identity of the driver."

Senser, 55, played tight end for the Vikings from 1980 to 1984 and was a color commentator for the team. He is part-owner of Joe Senser's Sports Theater restaurants and will provide color commentary this season for University of St. Thomas football games on WCCO Radio.

According to records, Senser does not have any traffic tickets in Minnesota. His wife, Amy, 45, received a 2003 ticket for failing to obey a stoplight. Two of their four daughters are adults who live in Minneapolis, and the other two aren't old enough to drive.

A swarm of television news trucks was parked outside the Senser home in Edina on Thursday night, with the family inside and in shock, according to Nelson.

"Obviously the Senser family recognizes this is a tremendously tragic incident, and the Senser family has significantly cooperated with the State Patrol in their investigation," Nelson said.

"Joe is well-known for being a man of tremendous integrity, and as this process plays itself out that integrity will again be demonstrated," Nelson added. "It's a very difficult situation for everyone involved, and I can't stress that enough. They are in shock, they are grieving for the victim and they are fearful of the future."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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