At 2:30 a.m., Habersham County SWAT busted in the door at 182 Lakeview Heights Circle in Cornelia, Georgia. Seconds later, a flash and a bang rang out inside the house.
The cops and the family of five adults and three kids converged on each other in the front room. The only family member that didn’t run toward the commotion was 19-month-old Bou Bou Phonesavanh, sleeping in a playpen six feet from the front door. The stun grenade that an officer had thrown detonated inside baby Bou Bou’s crib.
Bou Bou’s father, Bounkham Phonesavanh, entered the room and saw the blood on his son’s crib.
He saw blood on an officer standing over his son.
Then Bounkham was tackled to the ground, put in a chokehold, and handcuffed.
The mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, tried to get to her 19-month-old who was crying out.
“Please! He’s scared! He needs me,” Alecia pleaded with police.
A SWAT officer swooped Bou Bou up before Alecia could get to him and brought him outside into the driveway.
Bou Bou’s mother and father were told over and over by SWAT to “shut up and sit down! Shut up and sit down!”
It was early on the morning of May 28, 2014, and the Phonesavanh family was supposed to leave Georgia for good the very next day. They would end up staying another month and a half.
Why did cops kick in the door of a house in a quiet Georgia suburb occupied by a family that included four children under the age of 8?
According to Habersham County police intelligence, 182 Lakeview Heights Circle was also the home of Wanis Thonetheva, a low-level drug dealer and Bounkham Phonesavanh’s nephew.
The day before the raid, Thonetheva sold $50 of methamphetamine to an informant in the driveway of 182 Lakeview Heights Circle. Following the successful drug buy, special agent Deputy Nikki Fautry drew up an affidavit for a warrant to raid the house at that address and arrest Thonetheva.
Because of a prior assault weapons charge against Thonetheva — and what would turn out to be bad police intelligence that there were multiple armed men guarding the home — a Habersham County judge signed off on a “no knock warrant” — giving the cops clearance to descend on the house, kick the door in, and use diversionary tactics like a flash-bang grenade without warning. According to the incident report obtained by BuzzFeed News, the police intelligence also said that there were no children at the residence.
Police would find no armed men, no drugs, no guns, and no Thonetheva at 182 Lakeview Heights Circle.
Ten minutes after the raid, the ambulance still hadn’t arrived on the scene to help her son, Alecia Phonesavanh told BuzzFeed News.
She and her husband and their three daughters had been taken out of the house and told to sit at the end of the driveway. Officers shielded Baby Bou Bou from their view.
“I was devastated as a mother because I couldn’t get to him. I couldn’t do anything for him,” Alecia said.
Her husband Bounkham, helpless and handcuffed, begged the officers to tell him what was going on.
“The officer walked toward my husband like he was going to kick him, telling him to shut up and be quiet or he would go to jail,” Alecia said.
Finally, the paramedics arrived to take Bou Bou. His parents were not allowed to go to the hospital with him. As the ambulance drove away, Bounkham and Alecia were taken to the back of the house to be interrogated by the Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression team, the narcotics officers who were looking for Thonetheva.
Alecia was questioned first. The officer asked her if she knew why they were there and started asking her about Thonetheva.
“I told him, no, I don’t understand what’s going on. We didn’t do anything wrong,” Alecia said. “I told him, I don’t know anything about my husband’s nephew. He was never there.”
The NCIS officer brought in her husband. The officer said they had a warrant for his nephew’s arrest. Bounkham told the interrogator that Thonetheva didn’t even live here.
Hours later, Thonetheva was arrested a few doors down the street at the house where he actually stayed. The cops knocked on the front door and arrested Thonetheva peacefully when he came out. There was no kicking in the door, there were no flash-bang grenades. Thonetheva was later charged with distribution of narcotics for the $50 in meth he sold to the confidential informant.
Alecia and Bounkham were held at the scene for almost three hours after Bou Bou was hurt. At around 5:30 a.m., they were given a piece of paper with an address for an Atlanta hospital and told they could go pick up their 19-month-old son. They weren’t given any other information about Bou Bou other than he was “taken for observation.” The parents and their three daughters drove two hours from Cornelia to Atlanta.
They didn’t know if Bou Bou was alive or dead.
How did this family end up living in a home that became the target of a middle-of-the-night drug raid with cops believing they might be armed and dangerous?
Prior to coming to coming to Georgia, the Phonesavanh family called Janesville, Wisconsin, home.
Earlier this year, Alecia, who is white, and Bounkham, who is Laotian, celebrated their 10-year wedding anniversary.
In Wisconsin, Alecia worked as a full-time nurse caring for elderly and disabled people. She worked 16-hour days, sometimes seven days a week to support the family.
Bounkham stayed at home and cared for the couple’s three daughters — ages 3, 5, and 7 — baby Bou Bou, and Alecia’s mentally disabled brother.
In March, a fire broke out and their Janesville house accidentally burned to ground, leaving them homeless.
For the past couple of years, Bounkham’s sister in Georgia had been asking the couple to come down and help her refinance her mortgage. She didn’t speak English well and could benefit from their help in negotiating the deal. With nowhere to go after the fire, Bounkham and Alecia decided it would be a good idea — they would have a free place to stay with his sister while they helped her, while also getting themselves back on their feet.
Six weeks went by in Cornelia, Georgia, and then Thonetheva started to come around. He was Bounkham’s sister’s son, but hadn’t lived at her home for over a year according to the family. Bounkham got a bad feeling about Thonetheva right away. And his sister told him that Thonetheva had recently stolen from her.
Bounkham decided that if Thonetheva was going to be hanging around the house, then it was time for his family to go back to Wisconsin.
The day before the raid, Bounkham was at the house at 182 Lakeview Heights Circle when he witnessed Thonetheva hanging out in the driveway. He noticed a bunch of people coming and going. He was nervous — he sensed drug-related activity was going on but says he never saw any drugs.
Luckily, he thought at the time, Bounkham had booked a U-Haul and the family was set to pack up and leave for Wisconsin.
Hours after the raid, Alecia and her family finally arrived at the hospital in Atlanta. She was the only one allowed to go in and see Bou Bou.
The 19-month-old was in a medically induced coma and had been intubated. His face was covered because his nose had been blown off by the flash-bang grenade that landed in his playpen. His chest was also blown open. His left nipple was gone. He had burns on most of his body.
“No mother should have to ever see her child that way,” Alecia said.
Bou Bou spent the next month and half in two different hospitals. He spent ample time in and out of the burn unit and underwent multiple reconstructive surgeries on his face and chest.
Initially, no charges were brought against any of the officers involved in the raid. It would not be until the family’s lawyers petitioned the Habersham County district attorney that a grand jury investigation would be opened to investigate what happened during the raid on May 28.
A 23-person grand jury spent six days hearing testimony from the responding officers and Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrill. They reviewed photo and audio evidence from the scene. They received a statement from Alecia Phonesavanh. Multiple attorneys were assigned to the case, with prosecutor Brian Rickham leading the presentation to grand jury.
Meanwhile, the deputy who secured the warrant for the raid on 182 Lakeview Heights Circle, Nikki Autry, resigned in June.
Then, a week before the grand jury’s decision, the Mountain NCIS team responsible for the bad intelligence on the house was disbanded and the investigation was reassigned to another drug task force. Prior to the Baby Bou Bou tragedy, the now-defunct NCIS team was facing a history of sloppy investigation that caused innocent casualties. The unit was also involved in at least one other botched drug raid that caused the accidental death of a young pastor in 2009.
The 15-page report presented on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014, by the grand jury called the investigation and raid “hurried, sloppy and unfortunately not in accordance with the best practices and procedures.”
At the same time, the report commended the officers (calling them “well intentioned”) and pointed out that the police, along with the family, are ailing from the incident. On the police, the grand jury wrote, “Rather than seeing un-feeling or un-caring robots, what has not been seen before by others and talked or written about, is that these individuals are suffering as well.”
On the Phonesavanh family, the grand jury wrote, “the evidence shows that the children were in danger from the moment they moved into the residence and the parents and extended family had some degree of knowledge concerning family members involved in criminal activity.”
“There is evidence that [the Phonesavanh family] were aware of criminal activity and drug sales on the part of persons at the residence, and specifically Wanis Thonetheva.”
Ultimately, the grand jury decided no criminal charges should be made against any of the cops that raided the house. The grand jury also said that the “no knock warrant” — which prompted the use of the flash-bang grenade that maimed Bou Bou — was justified given Thonetheva’s criminal past.
The Phonesavanh’s lawyer, Mawuli Davis, received the grand jury’s report the night before it was made public — he didn’t know how to explain the contents of it to Bou Bou’s parents, Bounkham and Alecia. “I could not explain to them why the law didn’t apply to them,” Davis told BuzzFeed News.
The next day at a press conference, Davis excoriated the actions of the grand jury, stating that they were protecting the officers who lived in the tight-knit Georgia community. “They’ve decided to stand on the side of their neighbor, their friend, the people they know.”
Representatives for Bounkham and Alecia read statements at the press conference that called the grand jury’s decision “devastating,” “unbelievable.”
For the Phonesavanh family, what is as discouraging as the contents in the grand jury’s report is what was omitted. For one, it makes no mention of the fact that Thonetheva was arrested without incident a few hours later at a different house — begging the question of why the mistakes in police intelligence and the officers’ actions at 182 Lakeview Heights Circle were not considered reckless in the eyes of the grand jury.
“The subject of the warrant was apprehended at his original place of residence. He was apprehended by a knock on the door,” family spokesman Marcus Coleman said at the press conference. “Why wasn’t he considered armed and dangerous at location B?”
The U.S. attorney for Northern Georgia told BuzzFeed News last week that she is taking up the case. Davis said that he will continue to seek charges brought against the deputy who obtained the “no knock warrant” and the officer who threw the flash-bang grenade.
A month and half after the raid, Bou Bou was released from the hospital and the Phonesavanh family left Georgia.
Their fight is far from over.
In August, the family suffered an additional blow when Habersham County informed the Phonesavanhs that it would be illegal for the county to assist the family in paying Bou Bou’s medical bills — which are in excess of $1 million and climbing.
Habersham County’s attorney said in a statement, “The question before the board was whether it is legally permitted to pay these expenses. After consideration of this question following advice of counsel, the board of commissioners has concluded that it would be in violation of the law for it to do so.”
The family has set up JusticeAndPrayersForBouBou.org to try to offset the cost. Also, last week Alecia was finally able to return to work so that the family has income again.
Alecia says she won’t have enough to throw Bou Bou a birthday party when he turns 2 on Oct. 14.
Baby Bou Bou’s fight for recovery may never be over. After the raid, he was diagnosed with brain shearing. Doctors told the family that it will be a couple years before they know the full extent of his brain damage.
This month, he is going in for another surgery that will scrape gun powder out from under the skin on his chest and arms.
Bou Bou suffered permanent nerve damage from the blast and his skin on his face and chest won’t grow back on it own. He is facing two plastic surgeries every two years until the age of 20.
At night, Bou Bou wakes up screaming and holding his face, Alecia says.
“It’s very tormenting to my husband and I,” Alecia said. “Nobody wants to go to sleep.”
“Every day is a battle for him. We’re trying to make things feel as normal for him as possible,” Alecia said.
Alecia says that when Bou Bou sees himself in the mirror, he stops and looks at himself, touching his face, trying to understand the scars on his face that he will likely have for the rest of his life.
“I know he’s going to ask what happened,” Alecia said. “He’s going to ask why does he have these scars?”
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