State, federal agencies to investigate drug raid that injured baby

CORNELIA, Ga. -- State and federal officials will look into the Habersham County drug raid that injured a baby.

According to a release from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, agents met with the district attorney of the Mountain Judicial Circuit, Brian Rickman Tuesday. During that meeting Rickman asked the GBI to investigate.

After meeting with state Sen. Vincent Fort and the attorney of the injured boy, U.S. Attorney Sally Yates issued a statement saying, "As a parent I can't imagine the horrible nightmare that the family is enduring. This is a terrible tragedy that must be fully investigated. Federal and State authorities are coordinating to get to the bottom of what happened. "

The toddler, who was seriously injured when a police flash grenade exploded in his playpen, was scheduled to have another surgery Monday. A fever prevented him from having that surgery as scheduled.

Bou Phonesavanh cannot breathe on his own, according to family members. The 19-month-old boy is now in Grady Memorial Hospital's burn unit in Atlanta. A spokesman for the family told 11Alive on Monday that the boy has lost the use of one of his lungs and remains in a medically-induced coma fighting for his life. He had been scheduled to undergo a second surgery on Monday, but a fever forced it to be postponed.

The raid in which the child was injured was at a house just north of Cornelia, in Habersham County, early Wednesday morning.

Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell, who described the device in various ways -- a "stun grenade," "flash grenade" and "flash bang" -- said there was no indication that a family with four children were guests in the suspected drug dealer's house when his team went in and threw that device to try to arrest the suspect.

Terrell said his team made an undercover drug buy at the house just a few hours before the raid.

When sheriff's deputies and Cornelia police officers, who make up the Special Response team, obtained a no-knock warrant and tried to go into the drug suspect's house just after midnight Wednesday, something was blocking the door from the inside. Terrell said they didn't know it was Bou's playpen and that the boy was sleeping inside it.

"There was an obstruction, they inserted a flash bang, they had to push the door open. When they entered the door, they noticed it was a playpen, or like a pack-and-play type device," Terrell said. "There was a young child in the pack-and-play."

The flash grenade had exploded next to Bou. He suffered serious burns. Family friends have sent up a gofundme site to raise money for his medical expenses.

One of the residents of the home told 11Alive that the crib was seven feet away from the door, and not propped against it.

The sheriff did arrest the suspect, 30-year-old Wanis Thonetheva, along with three others. He said his deputies interviewed the parents, who told them that the suspect is a relative, and that the family only recently moved in with him because their house in Wisconsin burned.

"They [told us they] knew that the homeowner's son was selling meth, so they kept the children out of sight in a different room while any of these going-ons were happening," Terrell said. "So when [our confidential informants] did go up and buy drugs at the house, they didn't see any evidence of children in the home."

Thonetheva has nine previous arrests, include drug and weapons charges.

Terrell said his office is keeping in contact with the boy's mother, who is with her son at Grady Memorial Hospital. The sheriff says he and all the law officers who were part of this raid are heartbroken, but he says he doesn't know what they could have done differently.

"The information we had from our confidential informant was there was no children in the home. We always ask; that determines how we enter the house and the things we do.... Did we go by our training, did we go by the intelligence? Given the same set of circumstances, with the same information dealing with a subject who has known gun charges on him, who is selling meth, they [the deputies and officers] would go through the same procedures... Nothing would change.... Had no way of knowing the child was in the house. The little baby was in there, didn't deserve this. These drug dealers don't care."

The family has hired attorney Mawuli Mel Davis to represent them.

"They've already said, preliminary, that this case is not one that needs to be prosecuted," Davis said. "We know that's a lie."

Back in 2009, Jonathan Ayers, a young pastor with no criminal history, was shot and killed during another drug bust by the same unit. In February, a jury awarded Ayers' widow $2.3 million in damages.

Davis joined State Sen. Vincent Fort to personally ask U.S. Attorney Sally Yates to investigate the latest incident.

Davis said he was concerned that the crime scene hadn't been secured when he went to the house on Monday.

"None of this evidence has been collected," Davis said. "That is what's problematic. You cannot do an investigation without collecting evidence -- without taking the time to go back through and to do a reconstruction of what happened."

David said his investigators found a pin from the flash grenade used to breach the home still lying in the driveway. He said the playpen the boy was lying in was still in the spot it was when the child was injured.

A spokesperson for the family of the injured child said that they don't believe the sheriff's office can objectively investigate its own failure.

On Monday, a group gathered outside Grady Memorial Hospital at noon to hold a prayer vigil and rally.

RELATED: Bou Phonesavanh's gofundme page


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