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Toddler burned by SWAT grenade faces another surgery, as police defend raid

Published time: June 02, 2014 17:44
Reuters / Stephen Lam

Reuters / Stephen Lam

The toddler severely burned and left unable to breathe on his own when a Georgia SWAT team threw a flashbang grenade in his crib during a Thursday drug raid is preparing for another surgery on Monday… all for a single meth sale of $50.

Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh, a 19-month-old, was asleep in his portable crib in the same room as his parents and three older sisters, when police opened the door to the converted garage and threw the stun grenade in. It landed in the crib with Bou Bou.

The flashbang opened up a deep gash in Bou Bou’s chest and caused severe burns. Now his family says the toddler is fighting for his life in a medically induced coma, has lost the use of one lung and is unable to breathe on his own. He faces more surgeries, and it is uncertain if he will even live. On Friday, his chances of survival were listed at 50 percent.

The multi-jurisdictional Georgia SWAT team was executing a no-knock warrant at 3 a.m. on the home where a confidential informant had purchased drugs earlier in the day. The CI said he bought methamphetamine from Wanis Thometheva there on Tuesday. Police told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that investigators had discovered Thometheva had weapons (including an AK-47) during a previous arrest on drug charges.

But a public official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Washington Post the raid was conducted over a single meth sale of $50.

The police department said they had no idea there were any children in the house. “There was no clothes, no toys, nothing to indicate that there was children present in the home. If there had been then we'd have done something different,” Cornelia Police Chief Rick Darby said to WSB-TV.

The child’s mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, said it was obvious there were children present in the home. “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 family’s attorney says police did no investigative work before embarking on the raid.

“They had been in this home for about two months,” lawyer Mawuli Mel Davis said to WSB-TV. “This is a stay-at-home dad who was out in front of the home, playing with the children on a daily basis. Any surveillance that was done would have revealed there was a father with four children who played in that driveway."

Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell acknowledged the lack of surveillance on the home, but told the AJC the raid was properly executed, but ended in a tragic result. He defended the use of the no-knock warrant and lack of investigative work, saying that it would have risked revealing that the officers were watching the house.

The informant told police there were a couple of men standing “guard” outside the room - a converted garage area - where the Phonesavanhs were living. But the CI was unsure if the men were armed, and told police there were no children or dogs present in the home, CBS46 reported.

Surveillance on the house might have prevented the raid altogether. Thometheva wasn’t in the home when the police raided, and was later arrested along with three other people at a different house on a felony drug charge of distribution of meth, the AJC reported.

The Phonesavanh family is also criticizing the police for the way they used the stun grenade. “I was told they were suppose to roll those things,” Alecia said to the AJC. “If they had rolled it, it would not have landed on my son’s pillow.”

Terrell said the team used the device because the encountered resistance when trying to push the door open. “When they entered the door, they noticed it was a playpen, or like a pack-and-play type device," he said to WXIA. "There was a young child in the pack-and-play."

A family member disputes the police’s description, telling WXIA that the crib was seven feet away from the door, not propped against it.

According to Terrell, the family knew Thometheva was a drug dealer.

"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 to WXIA. "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."

The Phonesavanhs had been staying in the house after a fire at their Wisconsin home two months before. They told the AJC they knew Thometheva had problems with the law, but were assured he had straightened up his life.

Just before the raid, the Phonesavanhs had decided the Georgia house wasn’t a good environment and had reserved a moving van to move back to Wisconsin. “Things were not as good as what we were told,” Alecia said.

Habersham County Chief Assistant District Attorney J. Edward Staples said Thometheva could also be charged in connection with the baby's injuries.

The Phonesavanh family does not have insurance, so a family friend has created an online fundraising page to help with costs.

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