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Amy Senser approved for work release next month

MINNEAPOLIS – Amy Senser is getting sprung early.

The woman sentenced to 41 months for the 2011 hit-and-run death of Thai chef Anousone “Bic” Phanthavong had been scheduled to be let out on supervised release Oct. 20, but she has shaved six months off that and is now scheduled for release April 24.

Sarah Latuseck, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said Senser had applied for work release and was approved.

“Assuming she complies with the program rules and expectations, she will complete on 10/20/14 (her supervised release date),” Latuseck said in an email. “She will then advance to supervised release status.”

State prison inmates in the program live in a work-release facility; part of the money they earn on their jobs helps pay some of their housing costs.

Latuseck said that, at any given time, about 200 offenders are on work release and that historically, less than 2 percent of them commit a crime while working.

She said she couldn’t discuss whether Senser had a job lined up.

A prison handout on the program said offenders “must adhere to strict rules established by the department” and the facility. If they break the rules, they can lose privileges or be sent back to prison.

Senser’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, did not return a call for comment. A spokesman for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office said the timing of Senser’s release was a matter “strictly up to the Department of Corrections.”

Anna Fieser, who had been Phanthavong’s boss at Minneapolis’ now-defunct True Thai restaurant and spent every day of Senser’s trial in a front-row seat, said she was philosophical about the impending release.

“The judge and jury made their decision; this is part of that process,” she said. “I hope Ms. Senser leaves prison a better person than she was when she went in.”

She said she accepted Senser’s statement that she was sorry for what happened.

“I believe she expressed true remorse at the trial and hope that she someday unburdens herself and shares the complete truth of what happened that night with us,” Fieser said.

Senser, 47, is the wife of former Minnesota Viking-turned-restaurateur Joe Senser. In May 2012, a Hennepin County jury found her responsible for the August 2011 death of Phanthavong, 38, of Roseville.

Senser struck Phanthavong as he stood next to his car, which had run out of gas on an exit ramp of Interstate 94 in Minneapolis. The crash occurred about 11 p.m.

The impact from the 2009 Mercedes-Benz ML350 SUV knocked Phanthavong about 50 feet. The Laotian immigrant, who had garnered glowing reviews for his cooking at True Thai restaurant, died at the scene.

Senser testified that she had felt a “jolt” and heard a “clunk,” but thought she’d hit a pothole or a construction barricade and drove on.

She said she returned home to Edina. The next morning, when she and her husband noticed the damage to the front of the vehicle – and heard news reports about a fatal hit-and-run the night before – they called Nelson’s office, not police.

The night after the crash, the Sensers and their two teenage daughters left for an impromptu overnight trip to Stillwater. After they’d left, Nelson called the Minnesota State Patrol and surrendered the Mercedes.

He did not tell them who had been driving at the time of the crash, though. Nine days later, in a fax to investigators, he acknowledged Amy Senser had been behind the wheel.

Nobody witnessed the impact, and the case against Senser was largely circumstantial. A prosecutor argued she was probably intoxicated and had fled to avoid being tested for alcohol.

Nelson presented evidence that the conditions on the exit ramp would have made Phanthavong difficult to see and that a driver’s reaction time would’ve been gauged in fractions of a second.

“She is not the type of person who would knowingly leave a man in the road to die,” Nelson said of his client after the trial.

Jurors found her guilty on two counts of criminal vehicular homicide; one alleged she left the scene of a crash and the other accused her of failing to notify police as soon as possible. They acquitted her of a count of criminal vehicular homicide that alleged gross negligence, as well as a count of careless driving.

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