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Testimonies clash at trial of Fargo landlord accused of running over tenant

FARGO - Alois Vetter sounded concerned as he quizzed the West Fargo police sergeant on the phone about the person he'd just run over with his Hummer minutes earlier.

Who got hurt? How bad is he? Vetter asked, adding he had heard the person might not live.

Sgt. Jason Dura told Vetter he had just spoken to the Cass County state's attorney and that Vetter, a 73-year-old landlord, was a suspect in an aggravated assault.

"Well, if that's all that they're going to charge me with, that's not the worst," Vetter replied.

The recorded exchange played for jurors Wednesday marked a key moment in a second day of trial filled with testimony that painted vastly different pictures of what happened leading up to the incident on the evening of Feb. 18, when Vetter's Hummer drove over his ex-tenant Brian Hemphill in front of Vetter's rental duplex in the 600 block of Second Avenue West.

Vetter is charged with aggravated assault and reckless endangerment, accused of intentionally running over Hemphill, 31, who suffered three broken ribs and injuries to his head and face that resulted in a 10-day hospital stay.

In the weeks leading up to the incident, the landlord was at odds with Hemphill and his roommate over late rent payments and what the tenants claim were maintenance problems Vetter failed to address.

Vetter, taking the stand in his own defense, testified that he didn't know who was standing in the street that night as he drove toward the duplex to see if Hemphill's ex-girlfriend, Jennifer McFarling, had finished moving out like he told her to do. Hemphill, whose name was on the lease, had moved out days earlier after he and McFarling broke up, but he returned that night to pick up some belongings from his friend Garner Gallant III, who lived in the other duplex unit and whom Vetter also suspected of dealing drugs and had threatened to evict on multiple occasions.

Vetter said a second person - testimony has suggested it was Gallant - appeared in the street and walked past the Hummer to get behind it. The first person - wearing a black jacket with a white emblem that Vetter, in a police interview three days after the incident, said initially made him think it was a police officer - started walking toward his slow-moving Hummer.

"I felt I was trapped," Vetter said.

Hemphill put his hands on the hood and lowered his shoulder into the Hummer, Vetter said. He said the road was too narrow to go around Hemphill, but he didn't want to stop because it was a "drug-infested" area and he was scared. He said he spotted a driveway where he thought he could maneuver around Hemphill, and as he turned toward it, his right hand accidentally shifted the Hummer into neutral. Vetter said it looked like Hemphill had moved to the left as the Hummer turned right, and when Vetter looked up from shifting the Hummer back into drive, Hemphill was gone.

"I stepped on the gas and tore out of there," said Vetter, who owns the Sunset Motel in West Fargo.

Under questioning from his attorney, Mark Meyer, Vetter said he didn't feel the tires going over Hemphill.

"The tension was so high, that anything like that didn't mean anything," he said.

Hemphill told a different version of events, saying he was upset to learn that Vetter had been driving past the house, and went out into the street to stop Vetter and tell him to slow down because of children in the neighborhood. Hemphill said Vetter slowed down and stopped the Hummer just shy of him.

"He said, 'Get the (expletive) out of the way,' " Hemphill said.

Hemphill said he didn't grab the Hummer, but began backpedaling when it bumped into his chest. When Assistant State's Attorney Cherie Clark asked Hemphill why he didn't just get out of Vetter's way, he said, "I didn't want to be bullied by him anymore."

Hemphill - who acknowledged he was legally intoxicated at the time of the incident but said he doesn't remember drinking that night - said the Hummer kept bumping him back, and the last thing he remembers is yelling for someone to call 911.

McFarling testified she saw Hemphill fall and Vetter drive over him.

"I just heard him hit the gas and climb up over Brian, just like if you hit a speed bump," she said, later testifying she heard Vetter scream out "(Expletive) you!" as the Hummer drove over Hemphill.

Vetter said in the recorded police interview that he "never said a word" during the incident and that his windows were rolled all the way up.

Vetter and Hemphill both described the other person as someone who started off nice but became increasingly aggressive after Hemphill and McFarling moved in mid-2010. Vetter, a landlord for 40 years, said complaints about apartments are often used by tenants late on their rent, as Hemphill and McFarling were.

Meyer, the defense attorney, took aim at the police investigation, pointing out that Hemphill's medical records were delivered to police by his personal injury lawyer and that no accident reconstruction was performed. Police initially measured the distance the Hummer pushed Hemphill at 68 feet, but Detective Trent Stanton said it was measured a second time at 86 feet based on Hemphill's recollection of events.

Shortly after Vetter began his testimony on Wednesday, Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick entered the courtroom. Last week, Vetter filed a federal lawsuit claiming malicious and negligent prosecution by Cass County officials - including Burdick - who brought the criminal charges against him. The lawsuit seeks more than $50,000 in damages plus attorney fees.

The trial broke for the day with Vetter still on the stand. Testimony will resume this morning.