Amy Senser faces felony charge in fatal hit-and-run

Amy Senser
This photo provided by Halberg Criminal Defense law firm taken on Sept. 1, 2011, shows Amy Senser, wife of former Minnesota Vikings tight end Joe Senser, in a Bloomington, Minn., law office.
AP Photo/Halberg Criminal Defense law firm

Amy Senser, the wife of former Minnesota Viking Joe Senser, was charged Thursday with one count of criminal vehicular homicide operation for the death last month of a restaurant chef who was hit while filling his car with gas on an Interstate 94 ramp.

Follow Bob Collins on the News Cut blog as he live-blogs a news conference announcing the charges.

Senser, 45, was released Thursday afternoon from the Hennepin County jail after posting $150,000 bail on the felony charge. She had already posted bail by the time Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman held a news conference on the lawn in front of the Hennepin County Government Center to announce the charge.

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Freeman said he still doesn't know the circumstances that led to the hit and run, but that his office will be able to prove the major elements of the case. He said the state patrol gathered enough evidence to convict Senser.

"We have sufficient evidence in the file to establish probable cause that she was driving the car, that this was the car that struck Mr. Phanthavong, and that the collision caused death and that she left the scene," Freeman said.

According to the criminal complaint, authorities found Anousone Phanthavong lying face down on the ramp about 40 feet in front of his Honda Accord. His shoes had come off on impact, and he was dead when State Patrol troopers found him at about 11:10 p.m. on Aug. 23, a Tuesday.

A gas can was found near his car, and authorities said in the complaint that it appears he was filling his car with gas when he was hit.

Nearly 24 hours later, Senser's attorney called the State Patrol, notifying them that the vehicle involved in the incident was parked at Senser's home in Edina. Troopers then towed the Mercedes ML350, which had damage to the front passenger side, a broken headlight and fog light. The front passenger fender was also dented and there appeared to be blood on the hood, the complaint said.

Senser did not admit to being the driver until more than a week later, on Sept. 2.

Freeman wouldn't comment on whether officials have tapped the Global Positioning System information in Senser's mobile phone to confirm she was at the scene. He said investigators still don't know whether drugs or alcohol were involved. And DNA testing hasn't been completed.

Criminal vehicular homicide carries a maximum penalty of 10 years and prison and a $20,000 fine.

Senser and her husband also face a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Phanthavong's family members, represented by local attorney Jim Schwebel, who also attended the press conference. The family is seeking at least $50,000 in damages from the Sensers.

Schwebel said his clients want more facts, and appeared with the victim's nieces, Vilayphone and Souksavanh Phanthavong, who were quiet and held hands.

"We remain committed to searching for the truth of what really happened on that evening," Schwebel said. "We want the specific facts, because we want a jury to feel the full impact of what happened that night."

Senser's attorney, Eric Nelson, said there's been a rush to judgment, saying that he's surprise charges were filed before even the accident reconstruction was completed.

Freeman said Senser is not getting special treatment. He said people in the same situation are allowed to turn themselves in and are required to post the same amount of bail.

Nelson said his client will continue to exercise her constitutional right against self-incrimination.

"She is grieving the loss of this man's life and she will deal with these charges," he said.

Nelson said prosecutors will not only have to prove that she hit Phanthavong and fled but that she knew she hit a person when she fled the scene.

"We've made no secret that that will be a part of the defense in this case," he said.

Freeman acknowledged that the only evidence he has that Senser was behind the wheel is her confession.

"One of our challenges here is there are really only two people who know what happened that night. one of them tragically is dead and the other is exerting her constitutional rights not to talk, other than to issue a one-sentence phrase that she was driving the car."

Senser is scheduled to appear in court for a hearing on the charge Friday afternoon.