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By CP Staff
As the family of Anousone Phanthavong looked on, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced that his office is charging Amy Senser with felony criminal vehicular homicide.
But the short, one-page criminal complaint yields far more questions than answers.
"The investigation is not yet complete," Freeman said. "Right now, in the file, there's sufficient evidence to charge."
According to the complaint, Phanthavong was returning from work at True Thai when his Honda Accord ran out of gas at the ramp to I-94. As he was filling his car's gas tank from a blue container, he was struck on his right side by a vehicle that did not stop to assist him. The complaint says Phanthavong's body was 40 feet in front of his car and that he'd been thrown out of his shoes. The 38-year-old chef was declared dead on arrival.
Strewn around the scene were several bloody car parts, including a headlight from a Mercedes.
Working through their attorney Eric Nelson, the Senser family contacted state troopers the next day and turned over their Mercedes ML350. It was found in the Sensers' garage with blood still on the hood. The complaint says the passenger side had a broken headlight and fog light, and the fender was dented.
Ten days after the accident, Amy Senser released a statement to authorities admitting she was the driver. She has since invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.
Last week it was revealed that Senser is facing a single count of felony criminal vehicular operation, which comes with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison or a $20,000 fine. She turned herself in Thursday but quickly posted bail.
Freeman declined to comment on whether alcohol was involved in the accident, saying the investigation is incomplete. Contrary to speculation that Amy Senser may be taking the fall for one of her daughters, Freeman affirmed that Amy was the driver but wouldn't elaborate on how that conclusion was reached.
"Having a confession from the defendant isn't a bad way to start," he said wryly.
When asked for a response to allegations from Senser's lawyer that the county attorney's office rushed the charges to appease the public, Freeman said simply, "He's wrong."
Jim Schwebel, the attorney for the Phanthavong family, appeared with Anousone's sister Vilayphone and niece Souksavanh. The two women held hands and listened silently as Schwebel responded briefly to the announcement.
"The family is relieved that there have finally been criminal charges filed in this case," he said. "We remain committed to searching for the truth of what happened that evening."
Because the family has filed a civil suit against the Sensers, Schwebel says, his investigation will reveal far more than today's criminal charges do. He said they plan to find out if Senser was drinking or on drugs, and if she was alone at the time of the accident.
"We certainly believe that there are people out there that know what Amy Senser was doing that night," he said. "We will find them."
The Phanthavongs are seeking damages upward of $50,000 in the wrongful death suit.
Nelson expressed "surprise" at the speed with which the charges came down, speculating public outcry affected the decision. He said that proving whether Senser knew she'd hit a person, not just an object, would be a pivotal piece in the case.
"Her prime concern is the family," said Nelson, referring to the Phanthavongs. "It may not seem that way because she's exercising her constitutional rights."