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Anousone "Ped" Phanthavong was a dear friend and valued coworker of mine. We opened our restaurant, True Thai, in 2002, and Ped was the only person still working for us who was on our original staff. The State Troopers woke me at 3:45 a.m. because I was the pre-registered owner of Ped's car. My partner slept through the Troopers knocking on our door, but awoke immediately upon hearing my cries of anguish at hearing that Ped had been killed.
The next day I saw the place where Ped had pulled his car off the ramp and onto the grass. I saw bloodstains from his body being dragged forty feet by the Mercedes SUV that hit him. Later I talked to the partner of one of our hostesses who had taken that exit shortly after Ped was killed. His shoes and pants had been ripped off by the pavement as he was dragged up the ramp, leaving him clad only in his white t-shirt and underwear on the pavement where he was left for dead, only three-quarters of a block from Riverside Hospital's Emergency Room.
Over three-hundred people jammed into the funeral home for Ped's funeral. Everyone wore white, the Buddhist color of mourning. It took four cars to bring all the floral arrangements to the funeral home. All white because that was Ped's favorite color. He always wore white t-shirts. Even on a moonless night it would be difficult not to see Ped on a well lit freeway exit ramp.
The day after Ped died the State Troopers told us he was hit by a Mercedes SUV. They told the news media and shortly after that the Senser family's attorney contacted the State Troopers. It would be another nine agonizing days before the Senser family told the Troopers that Amy Senser was driving that night. That did not stop the rumors.
Since Amy Senser came forward, many people have passed rumors on to me and our employees. A daughter was driving, the rumors say. Are the rumors true? We do not know. All we know is what the Sensers have told the State Troopers, and that is not much. So little that a State Trooper advised Ped's brother that the family should get a high-powered attorney. The Trooper perhaps should not have said that, and he didn't say why the family needed an attorney, but by then it was obvious that the Sensers were not going to send the Phanthavongs so much as a sympathy card, let alone meet with them to discuss what happened that night.
Joe Senser is a sports broadcaster now, and has many friends in the media. Since the accident WCCO's Esme Murphy posted about the accident at her blog. She said that she could not defend a hit and run, but then spent the rest of her post defending the Sensers' right to a fair trial. Almost immediately an anonymous commenter posted Ped's arrest record in the comments. That comment was not removed, and it was a shameful thing for the Phanthavong family to see. Yes, Ped had some run-ins with the law. Many refugees from war-torn countries do. It takes a while for young men to understand that while fighting helped them to stay alive in Laos, you do not need to fight to survive in the United States. Ped ended up spending some time in the Ramsey County workhouse, but we picked him up and took him to work each day. Not just because we liked Ped, but because he was, from his first day at True Thai, our best cook.
After Ped was reunited with his family, he spent every day helping his mother cook, and she taught him well. As True Thai won award after award after award for our dishes, Ped grew more confident in his abilities and cleaned up his life. He had been sober for almost three years but he did not trust himself. Almost his entire paycheck would go to his parents. Ped never carried over $20 cash because he was afraid he would weaken and spend that money on bad things. Ped knew his limitations and still managed to overcome them. Exactly one month before he was struck and killed on that off ramp, U2's tour manager stood in our kitchen and watched Ped cook Bono's pre-concert meal. She was so pleased she referred Sade's tour manager to us. Sade's tour manager told us she would refer all her tour management friends to us. None of these bands ever saw our restaurant, but they ordered from us because of Ped's cooking.
But Ped was not a celebrity. Esme Murphy is not the only Twin Cities media personality to defend the Sensers. The Star Tribune's Gail Rosenblum also wrote about the Sensers. Yes, she mentioned Ped, but like all the other local media she just repeated what I had written about him in my blog. Until they held a press conference two weeks after Ped's death, not one Minnesota news person bothered to interview Ped's family. My day job is as a public health nurse for Ramsey County. If the local news media cannot find Lao-English interpreters, I can refer the media to dozens of them.
But I do not think the local news media cares about Ped's side of the story. Gail Rosenblum's column does not allow people to leave comments. You can leave a comment at Bob Collin's MPR News Cut blog, but if you defend Ped, he will argue with you in the comments.
That is OK. Joe Senser is a media guy, and you stand up for your own. But maybe the media should read my eulogy for Ped that was read at his funeral:
Ped is my brother and my best friend. When I was mugged last summer, Ped was the first person to show up to comfort and reassure me. Ped often stopped by the restaurant on his days off to make sure everything was OK. After my mugging, he would come around to check on me to make sure I was OK. I give some of our employees a ride home after work. After the mugging, Ped began stopping by on his nights off to give his coworkers a ride home so I could get a little more sleep.
Ped helped me to keep my feet on the ground, and gave me guidance when I wasn't sure what I should do. More than even me, he cared so much about True Thai and all of us who worked there but Ped loved everyone, not just his friends. Once he made me park my car so he could help a stranded motorist change her tire. When a panhandler would ask Ped for money, Ped would tell them to wait and then would run and cook them a meal.
Each night when I go to True Thai, I go into the kitchen because seeing Ped in his white t-shirt gives me comfort and lets me know everything is running the way it should. I will never see Ped in our kitchen again, but this week I have seen him many times. I will be working up front and I look up and there he is, smiling in that slightly sad, boyish way we all knew so well. His spirit is with us still at True Thai, guiding us, telling us everything is alright.
Ped, when I think of you, the one thing I always think of is your kindness and generosity, which were written all over your face. Such a kind person. Others always came first. You would feed your coworkers first, then you would eat. You always put others before you.
Ped once told me, "Anna, I know I am going to die before you do." Ped, I am so sorry you were right. I will remember you the rest of my life. You were the soul of True Thai. You are the soul of True Thai. You will always be the soul of True Thai. Thank you for always being there for us.Ped's family and friends and I all miss him very much. Only the Senser family knows for sure what happened that night, and they are not talking. Not to us, not to the family's attorney, not to anyone. But they do have friends in the media. At the press conference a reporter asked me something about "why the family is just after the money?" I was so shocked I could not answer him. The Phanthavongs did not "lawyer up" until after a Trooper suggested they should, and well after the Sensers had decided to speak only through their attorney. No one in the media is trying to find out what happened. It has been decided that the lawyers will do all the talking and that this might take years to be resolved.
Well, I am talking. And I will keep talking about this because I miss my friend Ped, and I am angry that the woman who admitted to driving the Mercedes SUV that dragged him forty feet up an off-ramp still has her drivers license, and is still free to go about living her life. The media can feel sorry for her all they like, but some day the Phanthavongs will have their day in court and I will be there every day to see that they receive the justice they deserve. But that day will not come soon. Until then Ped's nephew and two of his nieces will be working at True Thai, bussing tables and waiting on customers so that their grandparents will not be cast out into the street while waiting and waiting and waiting for the trial of the woman who ran over their son.
Anna Prasomphol Fieser is co-owner of True Thai Restaurant where Anousone "Ped" Phanthavong worked as head cook.