By all accounts, Anousone “Ped” Phantavong was on the right track in life. Separated from his family when they fled war-torn Laos, young Ped remained in the old country as an obligation to look after his elderly grandfather. It would take 15 years before he would be reunited with his family in America, but once given the opportunity the 38-year-old lifelong bachelor made the most of his predicament, helping to build Minnesota’s premiere Thai restaurant and becoming an award winning culinary superstar.
But on the evening of August 23, Phantavong’s life came to an abrupt end, ironically on the very same I-94 ramp that he traveled daily and frequently, just two blocks away from the restaurant he loved so much.
Authorities believe that Phantavong’s Honda had run out of gas and was pulled over on the side of the I-94 ramp exiting towards Riverside Ave., in Minneapolis. Investigator Dan Beasley of the Minnesota State Patrol concluded that as the victim was attempting to put fuel into his Honda, “A vehicle struck Phantavong, damaging the right side of his body.”
The impact from the suspect’s vehicle sent Phantavong 40-feet away from his Honda. Investigators have not yet revealed whether he was thrown or dragged.
One of the first responders at the scene after investigators had processed the area was Anna Prasomphol Fieser, the pre-registered owner of the Honda that Phantavong was driving and also his employer for over 10 years.
“I saw the place where Ped had pulled his car off the ramp and onto the grass,” Fieser continued, referring to the victim by his commonly used nickname, ‘Ped’. “I saw a trail of blood where his body had been violently dragged 40 feet by the [vehicle] that hit him. The first person who reported seeing Ped’s body directly told me that she saw Ped on the ground with nothing more than his white t-shirt and underwear on the pavement where he was left for dead. How did his shoes and pants fall off? He was dragged, I would say.”
Clues were scattered throughout the scene, providing investigators with some clarity as to what occurred on that tragic night. A major break in the case occurred when investigators found a set of headlights and fog lights that had fallen off the suspect’s vehicle. The unique nature of the parts allowed investigators to quickly determine that it belonged to a newer model Mercedes Benz GLK300.
However, the single most important piece of this entire tragedy had nefariously disappeared from the scene: The driver and the damaged Mercedes Benz SUV were nowhere to be found.
The following day, with widespread media blasts calling for the driver of the Mercedes to come forward, the victim’s family grieved and questioned why the driver didn’t stop to possibly save their brother’s life.
“The hospital is down the street, one block,” pleaded Vilayphone Phanthavong, sister of Ped. “She could have called the hospital. What do these people have to hide?”
That very evening as the 10 O’clock news ended, attorney Eric Nelson would call the State Patrol to report that the vehicle involved in the incident belonged to his clients, Joe and Amy Senser.
This information would spark a media firestorm with one of the most famous men in Minnesota at the center of the storm. A former professional football player with the Minnesota Vikings, Joe Senser is one of the all-time favorite sports celebrities in the state. After his football days, Senser moved on to gain media stardom while providing color commentary for Viking game broadcasts.
Senser is also an owner of Joe Senser’s Sports Theater and Restaurant, a chain of popular, upscale sports bars spread throughout the Twin Cities. Advertisements for the restaurants are often heard on the radio and seen on local television, keeping Joe Senser’s name relevant in the Minnesota landscape.
Upon receiving this information from their attorney, State Patrol Troopers immediately went to tow the Mercedes from the Senser’s residence in Edina.
Court documents noted, “Damage to the front passenger side of the vehicle was observed as well as a broken headlight and fog light…the front passenger side was also dented and there appeared to be blood on the front hood.”
Despite finding a cap to a ‘Mike’s Hard Lemonade’ alcoholic beverage inside the Mercedes, authorities decided not to question any of the residents at the Senser home, including Joe, the registered owner of the vehicle, his wife or four daughters.
Hmong Today asks why
Hmong Today posed questions to Lt. Roeske of the MN State Patrol:
Hmong Today: You had a confession and the damaged vehicle, yet why did it take so long [3 weeks] to charge Amy Senser with a crime?
Hmong Today: Was there any attempt to bring Amy Senser in to ask questions about that night?
Hmong Today: Up to this point, has Amy Senser been required to take any kind of toxicology test to see if she might have been impaired with any illegal substances?
In fact, it would take ten more days before a one-sentence confession was faxed to authorities stating that it was indeed Joe Senser’s wife, Amy Senser, behind the wheels of the Mercedes that evening when Phantavong died.
With a confession and the damaged Mercedes in their possession, authorities still did not make any attempt to arrest and question any of the Sensers until more than three weeks after the incident when authorities finally charged Amy Senser with one felony count of Criminal Vehicular Homicide.
The length of time that authorities took to file charges in the case was perplexing to the victim’s family. They expressed their frustrations at a press conference hosted by their attorney Jim Schwebel who is representing them in the civil lawsuit against the Sensers.
“It is disturbing that the Senser family continues to frustrate Minnesota State Patrol’s investigation of this tragedy,” stated Schwebel, pointing to the appearance that the Senser family might be receiving special treatment from the authorities. “There’s a lot of frustration in the community, with people thinking that the rich and powerful don’t have to answer for what they’ve done.”
Vilayphone Phanthavong, sister of the victim, added, “Poor people, I’d say, would be sitting in the jailhouse right now.”
When asked why it had taken so long to charge Amy Senser with a crime after she had come forward, Lt. Eric Roeske of the State Patrol explained that it was a matter of gathering all the right information before a charge could be made.
“I can say with 100% confidence that [Senser] received no special treatment in any way, shape or form. But whenever a case involves a fatality, we have to be very thorough with our investigation and we have to be completely confident that we have enough evidence to present the case to the county attorney. And often times, these cases don’t get charged out for months. If anything, this case progressed more rapidly than other similar cases that I can think of, but because of the media scrutiny, it appears we took our time, but that is certainly not the case.”
When Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman finally charged Amy Senser on September 15, Senser turned herself into the authorities and went before a district judge. It would be the first time the Sensers would publicly face the Phantavong family since the death of Ped.
“I couldn’t look her in the eye or anything like that,” said Ped’s sister Vilayphone to reporters. “I guess I was upset. It’s gonna hurt, but we need to know the result.”
After posting the $150,000 bail, Senser left with her husband without making any statements. However, her attorney Eric Nelson expressed to the media his surprise that the charges had come so quickly, noting that, “Investigations of this type take up to six months to finish,” but that public pressure forced the state to file the charges.
“He’s wrong,” replied Freeman in response to Nelson’s accusation. “Our office wont file charges unless they believe in our hearts that a person committed the crime and there is sufficient evidence to prove it. In this case, we have that level of evidence.”
Nelson also claimed that his client may not have known she hit a person that evening, hinting that they are basing their criminal defense on a recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision (State v. Al-Naseer) that reversed a hit-and-run conviction against a man because the prosecutors failed to prove that he knew he struck and killed a man changing a tire when he left the scene.
“You basically have to know you committed a crime. If you don’t know you committed a crime, what obligation do you have to report it?” Nelson added that the area where Phantavong died was a construction site and that his client could have thought a number of different things when her vehicle hit something on the road that night. “Was it a deer, was it a construction cone, was it a car, was it something else?”
Attorney Lee Moua, giving his independent analysis and not in association with this particular case, elaborated that as a tool of criminal defense, the El-Naseer decision places the burden to prove that a driver had to know she struck a person on the shoulders of the prosecution.
“Hypothetically speaking, If Amy Senser can convince a jury that she did not know she hit a person that night,” Moua proposed. “She could walk away from this without getting convicted of a crime.”
The victim’s family don’t feel that this defense will work in this case because of the way in which their brother died.
Attorney Jim Schwebel pointed out that, “This was a violent impact, his body was airborne, it took off the left rearview mirror of his car and he was carried quite a distance and his body was shattered. This is not the kind of thing that happens without you knowing that you’ve been in an accident.”
When asked by reporters if he thought the driver in this incident could have missed the fact that she hit a person that night, Lt. Roeske was certain that the driver could not have mistaken what happened, “Somebody of sound and sober mind would recognize striking a person.”
Adding to the frustration in this case, some have complained, is the way in which the local media has handled this case after it was found out that the ever popular Joe Senser was involved.
Pointing to some examples of how some media outlets have actually applauded the Sensers for coming forward after the incident, Anna Prasomphol Fieser stated simply that the “media have an obligation to defend their own.”
“I do not think the local 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.”
The story of Ped is one of perseverance and an unending commitment towards serving others, said Fieser.
“The night that he died was Ped’s night off from work, but he insisted on coming in to make sure I was safe,” Fieser detailed with tears swelling in her eyes. “It was the one year anniversary of when I was mugged and robbed at the restaurant. Ped called me to tell me he was coming here to ‘protect’ me because I had mentioned I was frightened.”
It was Ped’s commitment to the restaurant, Fieser continued, that True Thai had been able to grow from a small, one room restaurant into what it has become now—a giant in the Minneapolis eatery scene.
With over 40 culinary awards, including being named “Best Thai Food in the Twin Cities” on numerous occasions by influential magazines such as City Pages and Minnesota Monthly, Fieser is quick to credit Phantavong’s contribution as the key ingredient to the restaurant’s success since it opened 10 years ago.
In fact, when the world renown pop-group U2 played at a sold-out TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis this past summer, Phantavong was given the honor of cooking their meals during their stay in the Twin Cities. The road manager for U2 was so impressed, Feiser states, that other bands have since requested by name the chef at True Thai.
“Ped was the cook for stars and around here was a star himself. He was truly a good guy. We will miss him tremendously.”
The criminal case against Amy Senser promises to be one of the most intriguing media stories of 2011. Mixed in with the celebrity factor are the classic elements of social privilege versus the death of a poor minority man.
Perhaps it was stated best when Phantavong’s attorney Jim Schwebel commented on a radio interview with Minnesota Public Radio on the length of time it took to charge Amy Senser in this case: “There is a troubling message here. Some people said that there are two systems of justice. One for the rich and powerful…and one for average people. Folks have told me that if this happened to them, their wife would have been in jail within half an hour. And yet, three weeks passed by and nobody was charged yet.”