MINNEAPOLIS – The wife of a former Minnesota Vikings tight end has admitted being behind the wheel of her husband's sport-utility vehicle last August when it struck a man on a highway exit ramp, killing him.
But much of what happened that night is disputed, including whether Amy Senser even knew she hit someone.
Jury selection begins Monday in Senser's criminal vehicular homicide trial — a case that has captured headlines as attorneys sparred over everything from why she waited more than a week to come forward to whether she was drinking or talking on her cellphone. The case has also generated public outcry over perceptions that Senser was trying to cover something up, while the victim, an immigrant, was left to die.
Senser, the wife of former Vikings player Joe Senser, has claimed she is innocent and says she didn't stop or call for help because she didn't know she hit anyone.
"She is tremendously grief-stricken over the loss of this man's life," her attorney, Eric Nelson, said after charges were filed. "She is a very religious person, a born-again Christian, and has a strong sense of morality."
Nelson did not return phone calls as the trial approached. The Hennepin County Attorney's Office also declined comment for this story.
Senser, 45, faces three felony counts of criminal vehicular homicide. The first two allege she caused the accident that killed Anousone Phanthavong, 38, then left the scene and failed to notify authorities. The third alleges she was negligent and using her cellphone. Each count carries a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Authorities say that about 11 p.m. on Aug. 23, Phanthavong, an immigrant from Laos, had run out of gas and pulled his car to the side of a highway exit ramp in Minneapolis. He was filling the car's tank when he was hit. The driver of the car didn't stop, even though authorities say the impact was hard enough to throw Phanthavong 40 to 50 feet.
Authorities found parts of a Mercedes at the scene, and sought the public's help in looking for a suspect.
Nearly 24 hours later, Nelson called authorities to tell them they could pick up the Mercedes involved. The Edina address he gave was that of former Viking Joe Senser.
Senser, a household name in Minnesota, played four years with the Vikings in the early 1980s before a knee injury ended his career. He co-owns Joe Senser's Restaurant and Sports Theater, a Minneapolis-St. Paul-area restaurant chain, and is also known for being a Vikings radio color commentator.
The Sensers gave up the vehicle, which was damaged and appeared to have blood on the hood, but didn't talk to police — fueling speculation about who was driving and whether alcohol was involved.
Court records show that the day after the crash — before contacting authorities — Joe Senser called his brother-in-law, an Edina police officer, and asked which attorney should be contacted if one was hypothetically involved in an accident. Senser also placed a call to the law firm where Nelson works.
More than a week after the crash, Amy Senser admitted she was the driver.
Despite her relative silence, Nelson has insisted Senser was cooperating with authorities.
Even routine legal developments in the case have attracted media attention. The Sensers have been attacked in online comments, and a "Boycott Joe Sensers Restaurants" Facebook page was created. Two restaurants have closed since the accident for financial reasons, but two others remain open.
According to court documents, Senser claimed she had gone to meet her daughters and their friend at a Katy Perry concert in St. Paul, but left because of a migraine. She said she felt better when she was driving home, so she decided to return to pick up the girls. According to the complaint, the girls were tired of waiting and called Joe, who went to get them and told Amy to "just go home."
The complaint says Joe Senser and the girls found Amy Senser asleep on the porch.
Prosecutors say they can prove Senser knew she struck Phanthavong that night and fled the scene so she wouldn't be caught. But Nelson wrote in court documents that Senser's actions show she was "completely unaware of the severity of the accident."
Last week, prosecutors alleged in court that Senser told one of her daughters she was drinking on the night of the crash, the Star Tribune reported. But Hennepin County District Court Judge Daniel Mabley ruled that prosecutors cannot question witnesses about Senser's alcohol use in general, but may offer evidence about alcohol use on the date of the accident.
Nelson maintains Senser wasn't under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Amy Senser has also filed an affidavit saying she had never been assessed or treated for chemical dependency issues.
Mabley also said prosecutors can't use Senser's silence against her, and the defense can't present evidence that Phanthavong had cocaine in his system when he died. Phanthavong was a chef at a Thai restaurant near the site of the accident. Family members have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Sensers seeking $50,000 in damages.
The family's attorney, Jim Schwebel, did not return phone or email messages seeking comment. He has said family members have been frustrated by the Senser family's unwillingness to share details of what happened.
Follow Amy Forliti on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/amyforliti.