How Cops Became Baby Burners

The horrifying collateral damage inflicted by the war on drugs


When Alecia Phonesavanh heard her 19-month-old son, Bounkham, screaming, she thought he was simply frightened by the armed men who had burst into the house in the middle of the night. Then she saw the charred remains of the portable playpen where the toddler had been sleeping, and she knew something horrible had happened.

Bounkham "Bou Bou" Phonesavanh, who is in a medically induced coma at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, may never wake up. But the appalling injuries he suffered during a police raid in Habersham County, Georgia, last week should awaken the country to the moral obscenity that is the war on drugs.

Two months ago, after a fire at their home in Wisconsin, Alecia Phonesavanh, her husband, and their four children, ranging in age from 1 to 7, moved in with relatives who live just of outside of Cornelia, Georgia. The whole family slept together in a garage that had been converted into a bedroom.

Sometime before 3 a.m. on May 28, a SWAT team consisting of Habersham County sheriff's deputies and Cornelia police officers broke into that room. One of the cops tossed a flash-bang grenade, which creates a blinding light and loud noise that are supposed to disorient the targets of a raid. It landed in Bou Bou's playpen and exploded in his face, causing severe burns and a deep chest wound.

The cops were looking for the Phonesavanhs' 30-year-old nephew, Wanis Thonetheva, who a few hours before had allegedly sold methamphetamine to a confidential informant from the same doorway through which the SWAT team entered. They had obtained a "no knock" warrant by claiming Thonetheva was apt to be armed and dangerous.

Thonetheva was not there, and police did not find any drugs, cash, or guns either. When they arrested him later that morning at a different location, he had about an ounce of meth but no weapons.

Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell and Cornelia Police Chief Rick Darby said their officers would not have used a "distraction device" if they knew children were living in the house they attacked. But their investigation of that possibility seems to have consisted entirely of asking their informant, who according to Terrell was at the house only briefly and did not go inside.

Even rudimentary surveillance should have discovered signs of children, who according to the Phonesavanhs' lawyer played with their father in the front yard every day. Alecia Phonesavanh told ABC News there were "family stickers" on the minivan parked "right near the door they kicked in," which contained four child seats, and "my son's old playpen was right outside because we were getting ready to leave" for Wisconsin. Anyone who entered the house would have seen toys and children's clothes.

Last week Terrell claimed Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Brian Rickman had assured him the officers involved in the raid did everything right and "there's nothing to investigate." Rickman, who says he is conducting a thorough review, denies telling Terrell that. But the issue here goes beyond sloppy police work.

Terrell says Thonetheva is to blame for Bou Bou's injuries, and the alleged meth dealer may even face criminal charges based on that theory. But Thonetheva did not toss an explosive, incendiary device into a baby's crib; the police did that, in the service of an odious ideology that says violence is an acceptable response to consensual transactions in which people exchange money for drugs that legislators do not like.

"The little baby [who] was in there didn't deserve this," Terrell told WXIA, the NBC station in Atlanta. "These drug dealers don't care."

Terrell, by contrast, cares so much about the psychoactive substances his neighbors consume that he is willing to endanger the lives of innocent bystanders in his vain attempt to stop people from getting high. If people like Terrell cared a little less, Bou Bou would be home with his parents instead of clinging to life in a hospital.