ATLANTA — A woman whose toddler son was severely burned by a flash grenade during a drug raid early Wednesday says police should have known there were children in the house.
Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell said the officers were looking for a suspect who might have been armed and followed proper procedure by using the device, which creates a bright flash and loud bang to distract suspects.
The officers were looking for Wanis Thonetheva, 30, who lives at the home with his mother and had recently sold drugs to an informant at the house, the sheriff said. A judge granted a no-knock warrant because Thonetheva had a recent prior arrest involving a gun and drugs, Terrell said.
Police said they didn’t know children were in the house. Alecia Phonesavanh, the mother of the injured child, says that can’t be true if police had used an informant.
“If they had an informant in that house, they knew there were kids,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They say there were no toys. There is plenty of stuff. Their shoes were laying all over.”
Phonesavanh said her son, 19-month-old Bounkham, was sleeping in his playpen when the raid began about 3 a.m. in Cornelia. She said the flash grenade landed in his playpen and exploded. Phonesavanh said the boy’s face was severely burned, and he is in a medically induced coma in a hospital.
The family was staying with family in Georgia after their home in Wisconsin burned down, Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell said. In an interview with investigators, the toddler’s mother said she knew methamphetamine was being sold out of the home and tried to keep her four children away from any drugs or drug activity, Terrell said.
If there had been any indication that there were children in the house, the officers would have used a different door and not used the flash grenade, Terrell said.
“It’s a tragic incident,” he said. “The baby didn’t deserve this.”
When the officers arrived, they found the door locked and used a ram to get it open enough to toss in the flash grenade, Terrell said. The officers then pushed their way in and found the injured child in a playpen that had been pushed up against the door, Terrell said. A medic with the team took the child, who was taken to Atlanta for treatment.
The officers involved are very upset and they and their families have been receiving death threats, Terrell said. There is no continuing investigation, and the officers involved are still on duty, he said.
Habersham County District Attorney Brian Rickman told WSB-TV his office will review the incident and witness statements to determine whether charges should be filed.
The family disputes the sheriff’s claim that the playpen was pushed against the door, said lawyer Mawuli Mel Davis, who’s representing them. “That’s a flat-out lie,” he said, adding that the playpen was six or seven feet from the door.
Thonetheva wasn’t at the home, but officers found meth residue and drug paraphernalia in his room, Terrell said. He was arrested a few hours later at another location and charged with distribution of meth.
“It’s not even logical for them to block the door with a playpen with their son in it.”
A lawsuit is possible, Davis said, but right now the family is focusing on doing everything possible to encourage further investigation and to push for criminal prosecution of the officers.
“It’s unbelievable those officers continue to be on the street and continue to be employed after the way the family was treated and the son was injured,” Davis said.
Cornelia Police Chief Rick Darby, whose officers were also involved in the raid, didn’t immediately return a call from The Associated Press Friday. He told WSB-TV that officers were distraught over what happened.
“You’re trying to minimize anything that could go wrong and in this case the greatest thing went wrong,” Darby told the station. “Is it going to make us be more careful in the next one? Yes ma’am, it is. It’s gonna make us double question.”