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Judge says Hummer-assault charges warranted in Fargoi landlord case

FARGO - After hearing from a police detective and a priest, a judge ruled Thursday that there is enough probable cause to warrant the charges against a West Fargo landlord accused of purposely running over an ex-tenant with a Hummer.

The 73-year-old landlord, Alois Vetter, faces felonies of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment in connection with the Feb. 18 incident, in which police say he intentionally drove the large vehicle over Brian Hemphill, a tenant evicted about a week earlier, after Hemphill ap­proached him while he was driving.

Vetter has said he plans to fight the charges, as he contends he was scared by the tenants who had congregated outside his duplex in the 600 block of Second Avenue West and was just trying to escape a threatening situation.

In Cass County District Court on Thursday, Vetter contested the preliminary hearing in the case, which requires the state to show it has probable cause - the standard for charging or arresting but not convicting a criminal suspect. It's often a procedural formality that defendants waive.

As Judge Steven McCullough said, the preliminary hearing isn't to weigh the evidence like a "mini-trial"; it's a "safety device" to root out spurious prosecutions.

"It's clearly enough at this stage," he said in giving the case the go-ahead.

Following McCullough's ruling, Vetter pleaded not guilty to both charges.

West Fargo Detective Derek Cruff testified that the ex-tenant, who had alcohol in his system when struck by the Hummer, was pushed about 60 feet down the road before he fell and was run over foot to head on his left side with both tires. Several of Hemphill's ribs were broken, and his lung was collapsed, Cruff said.

"This wasn't a split-second instance that oc­curred," he said.

In cross-examination, the detective said Vetter had claimed he looked down at his shifting stick while trying to drive past Hemphill, and when he looked up, he wasn't there. He said he hadn't recognized that it was Hemphill who had approached his Hummer.

Vetter called his priest at Holy Cross Parish, the Rev. James Meyer, to testify that he told him before Feb. 18 that he was afraid of the tenants in the duplex where Hemphill lived, some of whom faced drug-related charges.

After the collision, the priest said, Vetter told him "he didn't feel he had done anything wrong."