West Fargo landlord convicted of running over ex-tenant
FARGO - A West Fargo landlord will spend at least two years in prison after a Cass County jury on Thursday convicted him of running over an ex-tenant with his Hummer, which the jury deemed a dangerous weapon.
Twelve jurors deliberated for just over an hour before finding Alois Vetter guilty of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment, both felonies.
Their finding that the Hummer constituted a dangerous weapon means Vetter, 73, must serve a mandatory minimum of two years in prison, said Assistant State's Attorney Cherie Clark, who co-prosecuted the case.
"I think this verdict says that you're not allowed to run over people because you perceive danger," Clark said. "(Vetter) had many opportunities. He could have called 911. He could have driven to the police station. He could have laid on his horn. You don't get to plow down or mow down people on the streets of (West) Fargo."
Assistant State's Attorney Reid Brady delivered the closing argument, seamlessly intertwining samples of Vetter's testimony in court and recordings of his police interviews to illustrate how his version of what happened the night he ran over 31-year-old Brian Hemphill evolved over time.
At one point during cross-examination on Thursday, Vetter said he doesn't admit to running over Hemphill, saying, "I personally do not believe it." The statement came after jurors had already heard Vetter say in a police interview, "Now that I know it was Brian that I hit, I was more relieved."
"That was the most surprising thing to me in this trial," Clark said.
Vetter's attorney, Mark Meyer, explained that Vetter was relieved he had hit Hemphill and not someone who wasn't associated with the apartments in the 600 block of Second Avenue West in West Fargo where the incident took place.
As for Vetter's conflicting testimony about running over Hemphill, Meyer told jurors, "I'm not sure if he was confused or misunderstood the question." He asked jurors to resolve the conflict in Vetter's favor.
Vetter grimaced as the aggravated assault verdict was read aloud, and family members behind him began to cry after the second guilty verdict was announced. Vetter hugged his wife of 50 years after the jury left the room.
Judge Steven McCullough said sentencing will be in about 60 days after a pre-sentence investigation.
Vetter faces up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine for each conviction.
Vetter and his family members did not comment outside the courtroom.
"We're disappointed with the verdict," said Vetter's attorney, Meyer.
On the stand, Vetter maintained that he didn't know it was Hemphill who was standing in the street in front of the Hummer - a claim Brady called "ridiculous," considering that Hemphill was pushed back 86 feet by the Hummer before he fell and was run over, according to a measurement by police.
Brady said Vetter tried to distance himself from Hemphill because he knew the bad blood between them over unpaid rent and Hemphill's complaints about the apartment would make Vetter look guiltier.
Meyer argued in his closing that Hemphill was looking to pick a fight with Vetter. He said Vetter acted in self-defense because he was scared of drug activity in the neighborhood and felt trapped by Hemphill standing in front of his Hummer and another person behind it.
Brady pointed out that Vetter owns six properties on the street and his family owns the Sunset Motel around the corner.
"This is his neighborhood," Brady said.
Meyer also called into question Hemphill's motive, noting he has hired a personal injury attorney and stands to benefit financially if Vetter is found at fault in the incident.
But Brady said it was Vetter who acted out of anger, leaving Hemphill with a collapsed lung, broken ribs and abrasions across his body.
"Don't get out of line with the defendant. That's the moral of this story," Brady said.