Drug War

A Bogus Warrant, a Burned Baby, and an Immoral War

A cop's indictment casts light on a drug raid that nearly killed a toddler.


Shortly after midnight on May 28, 2014, Habersham County, Georgia, Deputy Sheriff Nikki Autry asked Magistrate Judge James Butterworth for a "no knock" warrant to search a house on Lakeview Heights Circle in Cornelia. In her application, Autry, a special agent with the Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression Team, said a confidential informant "was able to purchase a quantity of methamphetamine from Wanis Thonetheva" at the house she wanted to search. She said the informant was known to be "true and reliable," having "provided information in the past that has led to criminal charges on individuals selling illegal narcotics in Habersham County." She added that she had personally "confirmed that there is heavy traffic in and out of the residence."

According to a federal indictment announced last week, none of that was true. The confidential informant was newly minted and therefore had no track record, and it was his roommate who claimed to have bought meth from Thonetheva. "There was no police surveillance to verify the purchase," federal prosecutors say. Nor did Autry monitor the house to verify that a lot of people were going in and out. According to the indictment, she made up those crucial details to manufacture probable cause for a search.

Ordinarily such misrepresentations might never come to light, and if they did few people aside from defendants and their lawyers would care. But in this case, the warrant that Autry obtained led to a drug raid that critically injured a toddler, which made it a national news story. Images of a smiling little boy juxtaposed with pictures of him lying unconscious in the hospital, horribly disfigured by a flashbang grenade tossed into his playpen during the raid, prompted much discussion of police tactics but not enough consideration of the goals served by those tactics. The war on drugs, as the name suggests, is inherently violent, and as long as it continues we are sure to see more tragedies like this one.

When Habersham County sheriff's deputies and Cornelia police officers crashed into the house on Lakeview Heights Circle a few hours after Autry got her warrant, they did not find any of the items she predicted would be there. There were no drugs, no weapons, no piles of cash, no electronic scales or drug packaging, no records of illicit sales. And there was no Wanis Thonetheva, who was arrested at another house down the street later that morning, unarmed and offering no resistance.

Instead the heavily armed cops who invaded the home identified in Autry's warrant found Thonetheva's uncle, Bounkham Phonesavanh, who was staying at his sister's house with his wife, Alecia, and their four young children—19-month-old Bounkham (a.k.a. Bou Bou), 3-year-old Bounly, 5-year-old Malee, and 7-year-old Emma—because a fire had destroyed their home in Wisconsin. It was sometime around 3 a.m., and the Phonesavanhs were sleeping.

When Alecia Phonesavanh heard Bou Bou screaming, she thought he was simply frightened by the armed men who had burst through the door. Then she saw the charred remains of the portable playpen where Bou Bou had been sleeping, and she knew something horrible had happened. The cops, who told her Bou Bou had merely lost a tooth, would not let her see him.

Bou Bou was rushed to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, where he was placed in a medically induced coma. At first it was not clear whether he would survive. The flashbang grenade had exploded in his face, blowing off part of his nose and upper lip while causing severe burns and a deep chest wound. He was released from the hospital after a month but has had to undergo a series of surgeries that will continue into adulthood. His parents, who had no health insurance, say their medical bills already exceed $1 million.

Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell initially promised to cover Bou Bou's medical expenses, but the Habersham County Board of Commissioners reneged on that commitment. Last February, Alecia and Bounkham Phonesavanh filed a federal lawsuit against Terrell, Autry, and seven other police officers who were involved in planning, executing, or supervising the raid. In April the Phonesavanhs agreed to drop their claims against Habersham County in exchange for a $1 million settlement.

Terrell blamed Bou Bou's injuries on Wanis Thonetheva, who was not even living in the house at the time and surely did not launch a paramilitary assault on an innocent family in the middle of the night. It was the police who did that. Terrell and Cornelia Police Chief Rick Darby said their officers never would have used a "distraction device" if they had realized there were children in the house. A report on the raid provided by Terrell implied that the police did all they reasonably could to make sure there were no children in the home. "According to all the information able to be gathered at the time," it says, "there were no children or dogs at the residence."

But the Phonesavanhs had been living in the house for about six weeks, and anyone paying attention would have noticed signs of children. In their lawsuit, the Phonesavanhs note that "a clearly identifiable case" for Bou Bou's portable playpen was sitting outside the house, next to the door breached by the SWAT team. The minivan parked in the driveway through which the cops approached the house contained four child seats and "had figures affixed to the rear window indicating the presence of a family with several children." In the yard were "children's toys, including a plastic child's pool." Even if the cops missed these clues in their hurry to break down the door, rudimentary surveillance prior to the raid would have revealed the presence of children, who frequently played with their father in the front yard.

Last October a Habersham County grand jury rejected criminal charges against Charles Long, the deputy who tossed the grenade that landed in Bou Bou's crib, concluding that his carelessness did not amount to criminal negligence. The jurors, who faulted Autry for a "hurried" and "sloppy" investigation, said they "gave serious and lengthy consideration as to whether to recommend criminal charges" against her. They decided that her resignation "in lieu of possible termination," combined with her surrender of the "peace officer certification" that enabled her to work in law enforcement, was "more appropriate than criminal charges and potential jail time."

Evidently John Horn, the acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, disagrees. The allegations about lying on the warrant application, which were not considered by the local grand jury but were included in the Phonesavanhs' lawsuit, go beyond mere sloppiness. By falsely obtaining a search warrant, Horn says, Autry knowingly violated Bou Bou's Fourth Amendment rights, along with the Fourth Amendment rights of his parents and his aunt, the owner of the house. The indictment says Autry also violated Wanis Thonetheva's Fourth Amendment rights, since the same false information was used to justify his arrest.

All together, that's four violations of Title 18, Section 242, which makes it a federal crime to deprive someone of his constitutional rights "under color of any law." That offense is generally punishable by up to a year in jail, but if "bodily harm" results, as happened in this case, the maximum penalty rises to 10 years.

"Our criminal justice system depends upon our police officers' sworn duty to present facts truthfully and accurately," Horn said last week. "There is no arrest that is worth selling out the integrity of our law enforcement officers. In this case, Autry is charged with making false statements to a judge in order to obtain search and arrest warrants. Without her false statements, there was no probable cause to search the premises for drugs or to make the arrest. And in this case, the consequences of the unlawful search were tragic."

All of that is true, but it does not go to the heart of the problem. After all, drug raids based on properly obtained search warrants also can cause injury or death. The Habersham County grand jury, which in some respects was excessively sympathetic to law enforcement, nevertheless got closer to the true cause of Bou Bou's injuries (emphasis added):

The zeal to hold [drug dealers] accountable must not override cautious and patient judgment….This tragedy can be attributed to well intentioned people getting in too big a hurry, and not slowing down and taking enough time to consider the possible consequences of their actions….While no person surely intended any harm to a young child, quite simply put there should be no such thing as an "emergency" in drug investigations….

No seizure of evidence or apprehension of a criminal for a drug offense warrants anything but caution and careful planning. There is an inherent danger both to law enforcement officers and to innocent third parties in many of these situations. The hard work and effort brought to apprehend suspects and seize evidence must always be tempered by the realization that no amount of drugs is worth a member of the public being harmed, even if unintentionally, or a law enforcement officer being harmed….

We recommend that whenever reasonably possible, suspects be arrested away from a home when doing so can be accomplished without extra risk to law enforcement and to citizens. Going into a home with the highest level of entry should be reserved for those cases where it is absolutely necessary. This is to protect both citizens and law enforcement officers. We have heard evidence that many drug suspects often initially believe a law enforcement entry is in fact a drug robbery. In an instant, they reach for a weapon or take an action that makes a situation escalate. This is dangerous to all involved, and neither the public nor law enforcement officers should be in this dangerous split second situation unless it is absolutely necessary for the protection of the public, which is the highest concern for our law enforcement officers under their duty.

At bottom, this sickening fiasco is about the inappropriate use of force. The grand jurors no doubt were right that less promiscuous use of paramilitary tactics would reduce the chances of injury or death. But that risk cannot be eliminated as long as violence is considered an appropriate response to the consumption of psychoactive substances that offend politicians. If "no amount of drugs is worth a member of the public being harmed," how can the war on drugs be justified?

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

NEXT: Solemn Judgment

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  1. To the boys in blue. I ain’t asking you, baby

  2. Deputy Sherrif Nikki Autry should be ahead of Judge Katherine Forrest in line at the Woodchipper.

    And no, I’m not kidding. Fuck both of those cunts.

    1. It was a dark and stormy night. Taking another sip of his drink, Gordilocks looked out the window into the darkness. A lightning flash momentarily illuminated the rusty, old machine? its square mouth gapping upward, like a baby bird waiting to be fed. “It’s time, old friend.”, he mumbled. “It’s time.”

      1. The Tree Of Liberty is hungry and wants several statists to feed its hunger.

    2. Two thumbs up. I’m tired of this too.

  3. This is a nation whose citizenry has traded its bill of rights for a bill of privileges and a bag of illusions, the natives of Manhattan got a better deal. We’re a nation that loves to publicly hail and honor freedom while trading our messy freedom and independence for easy, orderly government largess. The greatest fear of the average American is a fellow American with rights, and we insist that government have the power to take from him and give to me while somehow being restricted from taking from me to give to him. We’re a nation of optics, not reality, what it looks like matters far more than what it is, tossing a drowning man an anchor makes perfect sense because at least we’re doing something. We’re down the rabbit hole, where government can pick and choose who to treat special and where to redistribute our paychecks while citizens are forced to treat each other equally and give mandatory voluntary payments to the government charity machine.

    1. Well said!

  4. This is one of the worst atrocities committed by the state in it’s drug war. For added bullshit, they at first feigned acceptance of some sort of financial settlement, but when it began to appear like they could hide behind their qualified immunity, even for this monstrous act, they changed their tune and told the family they wouldn’t be getting one red cent from the county or the law enforcement agencies involved. Because they’re fucking sociopaths, undeserving of life.

  5. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ?????? http://www.online-jobs9.com

    1. jakubixefu gives great anal.

  6. This is what socialism has wrought. The conservative argument for legalization:

    “Even if one takes every reefer madness allegation of the prohibitionists at face value, marijuana prohibition has done far more harm to far more people than marijuana ever could.” – – William F Buckley Jr.

    1. As much as he was a Catholic, I always thought there was a bit of a libertarian streak in his thinking than just pure Russell Kirk.

  7. “In your dreams, the cops and the courts are not a scam”

    “In your dreams, the FBI is not a scam”

    “In your dreams, the Constitution was not a scam”,

    “In your dreams, the Bill of rights was not a scam”,

    “In your dreams, the Supreme Court was not a scam”…..

    See : “Dreams[ Anarchist Blues]”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0o-C1_LZzk

    Regards, onebornfree.
    The Freedom Network: http://www.freedominunfreeworld.blogspot.com

  8. I don’t know how throwing a flash bang into a crib is n’t negligence. If you do it right, you are right up against the house to one side of the window or door you are planning to use. You break the window or open the door and pitch it in so it ideally doesn’t hit anything or bounce off, the closer to the center of the biggest open space you get it, the better. I don’t know the specifics but either the playpen was up against the window and he just dropped it over the still or he actually threw it. EIther way, grenade throwing is not rocket surgery, so not knowing how to throw one is definitely negligence in my book.

    1. A fact carefully elided from this description of the case is that the cops entered through the garage of the home, where the Phonesavanh family was living — a fact they were unaware of. Nor is it likely surveillance would have revealed that the garage was being used as dwelling space, since the family wouldn’t have raised the garage door to go in and out. Since the informant said that he had bought the drugs at the side door of the garage and had not been in the house, the police not unreasonably assumed that the drugs were being kept in the garage, and entering that way would separate Thonetheva (a known drug dealer) from his stash. They were wrong, and Bou-Bou was badly injured as a consequence, but they were not as negligent as this and many other articles imply.

  9. Even with this happening over and over again. We still lack the courage to demand an end to the ‘drug-wars’ It’s easy t get the impression, we are not too bright.

  10. That’s just it. There is no justification for the War on Civil Liberties Drugs.

  11. Is Dep. Nikki the only one who will be facing any legal ramifications for this?

    I hope the County plans on sending Bou-Bou an annual Christmas Gift – like forever – since the settlement was a true gift from his parents to the County. His medical bills will just mount and mount eventually wiping out that “almost a Million” the parents accepted from the County.
    Have to think they had a lazy lawyer, because a jury would have not been as sympathetic.

    1. I think she should provide all his skin grafts. Without anesthetic.

  12. As a father, this makes me weep.
    As a citizen, this makes me mad as hell.
    As a human, this makes me fear for my life.

    1. where is the more perfect union we were supposed to always be creating?

  13. the scales of justice are way off balance and the costumed heroes, judges and cops, still act blindfolded by “law” since they dont care about justice, “law” provides more job security. cops attacking citizens over petty “laws” are good for the “enforcement” business but has nothing to do with justice. cops are causing more harm than some of the petty laws they are sent out with orders to enforce. If cops will enforce any law what is there to prevent total tyranny?

  14. But that risk cannot be eliminated as long as violence is considered an appropriate response to the consumption of psychoactive substances that offend politicians.

    Politicians aren’t so offended by their coke snorting friends in Hollywood and Wall Street. Paramilitary assaults on innocent families in the middle of the night are for the little people.

  15. modurhead: well put. It seems we learned nothing from alcohol prohibition.

    There are so many careers in the drug war business that this powerful special interest group makes it very difficult to stop fighting a war have been losing for almost a century.

  16. Sadly, this article doesn’t even begin to cover the true horror & unspeakable criminality of this situation. When this case was brought to court, the police officers won the case by claiming that THE BABY WAS A CRIMINAL BY NOT MOVING HIMSELF OUT OF THEIR WAY DURING THEIR RAID. That’s right — these mother fu**ers have stooped so incredibly low that they BLAMED THE BABY for them disabling & disfiguring this baby for its entire life. They took this baby’s entire life away from him. AND THE JUDGE ALLOWED THE POLICE OFFICERS TO WIN THE CASE.

    1. Link here: http://filmingcops.com/grievin…..s-to-help/

  17. Ropes. Trees. Drug Warriors. Some assembly required, but hours of fun for the whole neighborhood!

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