Investigation into botched Habersham County drug raid growing

Marcus Coleman speaks while the Phonesavanh family attends a prayer vigil for their 19-month-old son at Grady.

The investigation into the botched drug raid that left a baby critically injured is growing to include state and federal authorities.

“As a parent, I can’t imagine the horrible nightmare that this family is enduring,” said U.S. Attorney Sally Yates on Tuesday. “Federal and state authorities are coordinating to get to the bottom of what happened.”

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced Tuesday that at the request of the district attorney it would investigate whether narcotics officers violated the law in executing a controversial “no-knock” search warrant last Wednesday.

Meanwhile civil rights advocates delivered a letter to Yates asking that federal authorities investigate whether the rights of 19-month-old Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh and his family were violated in the highly aggressive search that yielded no drugs, no drug dealer and no weapons. It was unclear how active a role federal authorities would play.

“It is not unusual for the U.S. Attorney to conduct a simultaneous investigation in these type of cases,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who helped deliver the letter to Yates. “They did it in the Kathryn Johnston case.”

Three Atlanta police officers eventually went to federal prison for their role in the 2006 raid that left the 92-year-old Johnston dead when the officers were serving a no-knock warrant on her house. Authorities contended Johnston and Bou Bou were innocent victims but tragic accidents in the war on drugs.

Both cases prompted huge public uproar and backlash directed at the police and political fallout. In the Habersham case, the GBI’s announcement that District Attorney Brian Rickman had requested the agency determine if officers violated the law or were criminally negligent in the raid represented something of an about face for the prosecutor.

He told The Atlanta Journal Constitution on Monday that his office would investigate whether there was any criminal wrongdoing by law officers in how they handled the raid. Now, the GBI appears to be the lead agency.

“As tragedies goes, it is as awful as it comes,” he said of the child’s injuries, but suggested criminal negligence was a tough standard. “From what we look at, Did they have reasons to know there were children involved? Was there any criminal intent when the device was deployed?”

On Monday, Gov. Nathan Deal said he was confident Rickman would do a thorough investigation.

Rickman was not immediately available for comment Tuesday. His office said he was overseeing cases in drug court.

“Bou Bou” was injured when police tossed a flash-bang stun grenade into a home in Cornelia during a 3 a.m. raid, and it landed on his pillow in his playpen where he was sleeping. His three sisters and parents were sleeping the same room but were uninjured.

Police said an undercover agent bought drugs at the house the day before. No drugs or guns were found during the raid. The target of the raid, Wanis Thonetheva, was not there and was arrested later and only charged with drug possession, not sales, according to the sheriff’s office.

Lawyers for the Phonesavanhs also have asked for state and federal investigators, contending Habersham County sheriff’s deputies and Cornelia police officers were criminally negligent because they claimed not to know four children were in the house.

Family lawyer Mawuli Mel Davis said any competent investigation would have revealed the presence of the Phonesavanhs, who moved into home in April after their house burned in Wisconsin. Alecia Phonesavanh, the mother, said they discovered a “bad environment” in the home and had rented a U-Haul to leave last Thursday.

“We believe it is criminally negligent that you come into a home with four children and the person you are looking for isn’t even there, and the people who are there aren’t involved with drugs,” Davis said. “I don’t know what kind of surveillance they did but that can’t be the standard.”