A drug buy, a no-knock police raid and a flash-bang grenade have left a 19-month-old child clinging to life today and his family and commentators questioning the tactics that put him in intensive care.
The child’s mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, said officers should have known there were children in the house.
“If they had an informant in that house, they knew there were kids,” Phonesavanh told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Friday. “They say there were no toys. There is plenty of stuff. Their shoes were laying all over.”
The 3 a.m. raid Wednesday in Habersham County unearthed no drugs, no weapons, no bundles of cash and not even the suspect drug dealer. It left a visiting family from Wisconsin — whom authorities described as unlucky innocents — terrified, and their son on a ventilator.
The raid also puts the spotlight on the controversial no-knock warrants and whether magistrates too easily approve them, said Robert Friedmann, a policing expert at Georgia State University.
Friedmann noted the no-knock warrants — where police officers kick in doors instead of announcing their presence — are common in drug cases but “the problem is you come up with consequences like this. Police have a hard time explaining. They can explain and they can explain. The outcome is the same.”
Habersham County District Attorney Brian Rickman told Channel 2 Action News he would investigate the raid but if officers were unaware of the presence of children they were likely safe from any criminal charges.
Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell said the raid was properly executed but resulted in a tragic result instead of an arrest of suspected methamphetamine dealer. He said their undercover agent who bought a small quantity of the drug earlier in the week spotted no evidence of children in the house.
Terrell acknowledged that the undercover agents only made a single drug buy and that they did not keep surveillance on the house. That might have allowed them to see the house was packed with kids but it also risked revealing that officers were watching the house. He justified the use of the no-knock warrant by telling the AJC that Thonetheva , reportedly possessed an AK-47 assault rifle and was arrested with other weapons during during a previous drug arrest.
That may not be enough to justify the use of the controversial no-knock warrant, which the sheriff said they used often in drug raids. Dale Mann, retired director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, said the officers had to swear under oath that a “great likelihood” that officers would be in peril or evidence destroyed if they executed a normal search warrant.
Terrell said the suspected drug dealer, 30-year-old Wanis Thonetheva, was arrested later at another house, with a quantity of methamphetamine, possibly as much as an ounce. but no weapons.
Policing expert Friedman, said botched raids in which innocents are harmed can reverberate through police departments. Nearly eight years ago, Atlanta narcotic officers conducted a no-knock warrant at an English Avenue house and killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston when she fired at the door.
Three officers later admitted to fabricating information for the no-knock search warrant and went to prison. The unit was disbanded and later reorganized.
State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, introduced legislation that would make it harder for police to obtain these types of warrants after the Johnston shooting, but it failed to pass. He said Saturday that he would likely revive the proposal in next year’s legislative session.
“This has bipartisan support,” he said. “I think it’s about time we renew the call for a new law with tougher restrictions.”
In the Habersham case, the police tossed a stun grenade into the Cornelia house and it landed in a playpen where 19-month-old Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh was sleeping, critically injuring him. His father, mother and three older sisters, were also asleep in the room but were uninjured.
“I was told they were suppose to roll those things,” Alecia Phonesavanh said. “If they had rolled it, it would not have landed on my son’s pillow.”
Now he is in a medically induced coma in the Grady Memorial Hospital burn unit and breathing on a ventilator because a lung has stopped working, said his mother.
The blast severely burned the toddler and opened up a deep gash in his chest, rendering one lung inoperable, the mother said. Doctors at Grady Memorial Hospital put the child in a medically induced coma and he is breathing on a respirator with a 50-percent chance of survival.
“I hope he is not going to remember this,” his mother said of the raid. “I know his sisters, his mom and his daddy are never going to forget this.”
Phonesavanh said she and her family had moved to live with her sister-in-law in April after they suffered a fire in Wisconsin. They knew Thonetheva had problems with the law in the past but said they were assured he had straightened his life up and had a job. But they decided it wasn’t a good environment and had reserved a U-Haul for Thursday to return to Wisconsin.
“Things were not as good as what we were told,” she said.
Now her three daughters are recording words of love and encouragement to play to their 19-month-old brother at his bedside.
“He is hanging in there … we are trying to keep him strong,” Phonesavanh said. “He is getting lots of love. Love will make anybody strong, you know.”