A Georgia toddler has been put into a medically induced coma after he was badly burned by a police “flash bang” grenade that landed in the crib where the boy was sleeping during a drug raid, his mother told ABC News today.
The raid occurred before dawn Wednesday night in Habersham County while the Phonesavanh family was sleeping.
“It was a big flash, a loud bang, a bunch of yelling, and my son screaming,” the boy’s mom, Alecia Phonesavanh, 27, told ABC News.
“Two of my other girls were next to my husband. There was a member of the SWAT team pinning him down, another man had my son who was screaming and crying,” Phonesavanh said.
“At that time I didn’t see his playpen, but I kept telling him to ‘Please just give him to me,’” Phonesavanh said of 19-month-old son Bounkham. “‘He’s just scared.’”
According to Phonesavanh, authorities reassured her that everything was fine, “‘He’s okay, he’s just fine, there’s nothing wrong with him,’” she recalled through tears.
“They lied to me. They kept telling me my son was okay,” she said. “When I saw his playpen I just about threw up. I got really sick, I was so scared.”
“That picture is enough to traumatize anybody knowing that there was a baby lying there,” Phonesavanh said.
When police raided the house early Wednesday morning, they dropped a “flash bang” which police concede landed and exploded in the child’s portable crib.
“It landed in his playpen and exploded on his pillow right in his face,” Phonesavanh told ABC’s Atlanta affiliate, WSB-TV.
Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell told ABC News, “It felt like somebody just hit me in the gut with a sledgehammer when I heard. I got the call at about 2:25 a.m. and I just didn’t sleep no more the rest of the night.”
“That’s pretty much how the rest of the guys on our team felt… it brings tears quite regularly these days, and I’m not ashamed to admit it,” Terrell said.
The sheriff said that the Special Response Team, SRT, did the best they could with the information they were given.
A confidential informant was sent to the residence on Tuesday to make a buy for methamphetamine, Terrell said. At the time of the purchase, there were two Mercedes SUVs parked in the driveway, with a guard standing at the front door and the back door. The informant did not enter the home and made the alleged purchase in the doorway, the sheriff said.
“It was really uncomfortable, and really intimidating. The informant made the purchase and left the residence,” Terrell said. “He didn’t see anything to indicate that there was a child in the house.”
After the buy, the SRT came back with a no-knock warrant to arrest the suspected dealer.
“The door was locked, so they breached it with a ram, inserted a device,” Terrell said. “It was dark, they couldn’t see.”
The SRT is taught to insert the “flash and bang” three to five inches inside the door. “Unfortunately there was a pack and play there,” Terrell said. “It does get hot. It uses gun powder to flash… it’s used as a distraction device,” Terrell said.
An SRT member took over the care of the child as soon as he realized what happened as the child started screaming and yelling, the sheriff said.
A whole side of the baby’s playpen was blown out, the boy’s mom said.
“The pillow where he lay was blown up, char marks all over his pillow and the mattress of the playpen itself,” Phonesavanh said.
The Phonesavanhs have been staying at their relative’s home for two months.
Authorities did not make any arrests, nor did they find anything at the house during the raid. The Phonesavanhs’s nephew, Wanis Thonetheva, 30, was arrested later that day and charged with knowingly and willfully distributing methamphetamine. Thonetheva is being held in Habersham County Detention Center. He has appeared before a judge, but the result of that appearance could not be immediately determined.
According to police, Thonetheva was arrested previously for assaulting an individual, but not convicted.
The nephew had been kicked out of the house and when he started coming and going, Phonesavanh said the family grew worried.
“We were trying to get out as soon as I knew what was going on,… we just wanted to get out,” Phonesavanh said. The family was planning on leaving the home the next morning.
“My son’s old playpen was right outside because we were getting ready to leave, we were going to throw it away… it was very, very visible,” Phonesavanh said.
“They can’t tell me there was no signs of kids,” Phonesavanh said. “My van sits right next to the door that they busted into. My van has family stickers on it, four car seats inside, right next to the door that they kicked in,” Phonesavanh said.
Terrell defended his officers.
“Based on the informant information, prior arrests, and weapons charge, they did everything given the information they had,” Terrell said. “Nobody in their right mind would ever dream of anything like this.”
“We would have picked a different door to go in the house, picked a different scenario on how we approach the residence,” Terrell said.
“Pray for the children, pray for the baby, pray for the family,” Terrell said. “It makes you do some soul-searching, and it makes you question, ‘Are you doing what you’re supposed to be doing?’”
“It’s hard, it’s difficult,” Terrell said.
“It’s going to make us double, triple, and quadruple check to know that there aren’t innocent parties in the house,” Terrell said. “It’s going to make us approach each situation differently.”
Bounkham, named after his father, or “Bou Bou” as his parents call him is at the Grady Memorial Hospital burn unit.
“My baby is nowhere near recovering,” Phonesavanh said.
The parents have yet to leave the hospital.
“By the way the process is going, the reconstructive cosmetic surgery he has to go through, I’m not seeing this ending any time soon,” Phonesavanh said.
“He doesn’t deserve any of this and there’s nothing I can do for him,” the mother said through tears. “I look at him lying in the bed, and I want to trade place with him, I don’t want him to go through this.”
The Phonesavanh family is without insurance and have set up a fund to pay for medical expenses. According to Terrell, the sheriff’s department has already contacted the hospital social worker to request that all hospital bills be forwarded to the county.