As a judge and two lawyers discussed Aaron Whiteaker’s hit-and-run case in a judge’s chambers the day before his plea hearing, one thing they noted was that the young man hadn’t been drinking before he ran over Thanh Vu and left him dying in a parking lot.
Friends of the victim say there are witnesses who say otherwise.
Those friends also believe it’s telling that Whiteaker, 21, fled the scene, had people who were with him blame a 17-year-old girl for driving and wasn’t immediately checked by police to determine if he had been drinking.
Even if Whiteaker wasn’t too drunk to drive when he hit Vu during a confrontation in a downtown Mankato parking lot Sept. 24, he would have had incentive to avoid contact with police if he had been drinking at all. In addition to being underage at the time of the incident, Whiteaker was on probation in Freeborn County.
He had pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct with a child under the age of 16 in September 2009. One of several conditions of his probation was that he not possess or consume alcohol.
Whiteaker admitted to being at an underage drinking party at a house near the parking lot before the fight started. He told investigators he wasn’t drinking, swerved to miss another man when he hit Vu and estimated he was only driving about 5 mph when he pulled out of the parking lot. During his plea hearing, he also said he doesn’t believe he was negligent because he was afraid of the people around him and never saw Vu.
Some witnesses from the party, including one who said she was never interviewed by police, say Whiteaker was drinking and started the fight that eventually led to the problems outside. Witnesses who were outside also say Vu was the only person in front of Whiteaker’s car and Whiteaker was driving much faster than 5 mph.
If District Court Judge Bradley Walker follows a plea agreement that was reached in May at Whiteaker’s sentencing hearing Monday, Whiteaker’s sentence will be stayed for 10 years. Whiteaker was released from jail after his plea and the agreement will limit his jail time to the eight months he served after his arrest.
The sentence is a departure from state guidelines, but Walker said he was willing to go along with the agreement due to the “accidental nature” of the incident and because no alcohol was involved.
Walker also said the deal was discussed during a private meeting a day earlier in his chambers with Whiteaker’s attorney and a prosecutor. Vu’s family and his friends say they weren’t told about the deal until after the plea hearing. They are not happy and have sent dozens of letters, as well as a petition with more than 600 signatures, to the judge.
Kate Philippi was at the party and said she witnessed the initial problems that eventually escalated to the confrontation in a nearby parking lot.
Philippi has known Vu since they were both in kindergarten and was the person who invited him to the party. It was taking place at 319 Warren St., a rental house where her boyfriend, Luke Mattson, lives.
The party started with a handful of friends, but grew as Mattson’s six roommates also started calling friends. Two of the other people living in the house were from the Mankato area, which is how Whiteaker and his friends found out about the party.
It was a fight between Vu and Whiteaker that started the problems, Philippi said.
“He was talking about Thanh,” she said. “He kept pointing at Thanh and saying, ‘That Asian guy over there.’ A fight broke out, so my boyfriend cleared out the party except for our friends.”
Most of the people just left with no problems. That was around 2 a.m.
“Aaron and his friends left, but they stayed in the parking lot. Then they wanted to come back to look for a hat and an earring. Luke told them they had two minutes.”
Whiteaker’s friends told police they were being confronted by more than two dozen people when they left the parking lot. Philippi said there were 15 people at most, including Whiteaker and his friends, when the confrontation moved outside.
She also said Whiteaker was drinking at the party.
“I saw him drinking some beers,” Philippi said. “I wasn’t outside when the police were there, so I didn’t talk to them. They didn’t try to talk to me, but my boyfriend and other witnesses also saw them drinking.”
Henock Yacob, a student at Minnesota State University, said he doesn’t remember who started fighting, but there were about three people surrounding one guy after the fight started in the house. He didn’t know Vu or Whiteaker, but he said Whiteaker was with the group surrounding the one guy.
“I helped that guy out,” he said. “Then I think it might have been Aaron who grabbed me by the throat and started choking me out. That’s when the group we weren’t familiar with was told to leave. They were the people causing problems all night.
“Once everybody went outside, there were a bunch of arguments and everybody was cussing at each other.”
Yacob said Whiteaker and his friends left in three cars. The first car pulled out of the parking lot without a problem. The second car, which he said was the car that hit Vu, went forward, backward, then forward again. Mattson was hit first and a third man started chasing the car. Then Vu was run over as the car went over some grass, a sidewalk and a curb on its way out of the parking lot.
“I saw Thanh with a branch in his hand,” Yacob said. “I saw the car coming at him and it ran him over. It was pretty gruesome. The car was definitely going faster than 10 mph.
“From the point where I was standing, I just saw Thanh by himself. I don’t remember seeing anybody else. It was a split second. He was standing first, then he was underneath the car. The car just kept going.”
Vu’s girlfriend, Alyssa Dahlgren, and her friend, Meg Sweeney, launched a petition drive they called “Justice for Thanh Vu” after they heard about Whiteaker’s plea agreement. They are questioning, among other things, why investigators and prosecutors never filed charges related to the injuries Mattson received when he was hit. They said Mattson was treated at the hospital for internal injuries.
They also are wondering why more wasn’t done to determine if Whiteaker was drinking, especially considering he was on probation and his plea deal seemed to hinge on him saying he was sober at the time of the hit and run.
“That’s why it’s so difficult to read in the newspaper that he is not negligent,” Sweeney said. “He doesn’t feel he acted with negligence. It’s laughable that the court is actually believing this. The prosecutor just wants another win — a notch in his belt and another case off his desk.”
Police officers did interview Yacob after they responded to the early morning hit-and-run. He was called to the Police Department a day or two later to talk to investigators again.
Yacob told them about the party, about the fight, about the confrontation after Whiteaker and his friends returned and how everything ended with tragic and “gruesome” results.
“I drew a diagram,” he said. “What I said to police is I saw a white person who appeared to be female driving the car. If I would have been called to testify at a trial, I wouldn’t have been able to say Whiteaker was driving.”
Police initially arrested the 17-year-old daughter of the couple who owned the car because they suspected she was driving. They had an independent witness from the incident, Yacob, as well as several of Whiteaker’s friends saying she was driving.
The girl was detained in a juvenile detention center until some of Whiteaker’s friends changed their stories. They eventually told investigators it was actually Whiteaker behind the wheel of the car that hit Vu. They also said they were told to lie about who was driving. Some said Whiteaker and others met at residence near Park Lane Liquors after leaving the parking lot and discussed what they would say to police.
Those types of problems with witnesses, along with the fact that everything took place during and after an underage drinking party, made it difficult to determine exactly what happened, said Pat McDermott, the assistant Blue Earth County attorney prosecuting the case.
McDermott said he also had to consider that Whiteaker was saying he left the scene of the crash because he was concerned for his safety. Many witnesses at the scene admitted there had been a confrontation between people who had been drinking. Like Yacob, they also said Vu was being aggressive and had a large branch in his hand before he was hit by the car.
“Every case is a little different,” McDermott said. “The facts of this case and the witnesses were a problem. Ultimately, it was a good resolution in my opinion.”
McDermott also said he understands how Vu’s family and friends can be disappointed with the outcome. When he discussed possible plea deals with the family and others, they made it clear they wanted Whiteaker to face a five- or 10-year prison sentence. That wasn’t going to happen even with guilty verdicts from a jury, he said.
“I need to make my decision without emotion,” McDermott said. “I need to remain objective.”