published Friday, May 30th, 2014

Toddler severely burned in drug raid in Georgia

Alecia Phonesavanh, right, is hugged by her mother, Marlene Haygood, left, on May 30, 2014, in Atlanta as they talk about an incident in which Phonesavanh's 19-month-old boy was critically injured when a police device was tossed into his bed Wednesday morning in Habersham County by a SWAT team in search of a drug suspect.
Alecia Phonesavanh, right, is hugged by her mother, Marlene Haygood, left, on May 30, 2014, in Atlanta as they talk about an incident in which Phonesavanh's 19-month-old boy was critically injured when a police device was tossed into his bed Wednesday morning in Habersham County by a SWAT team in search of a drug suspect.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ATLANTA — Officers raiding a Georgia home in search of a drug suspect used a flash grenade not knowing children were inside, severely burning a toddler who was sleeping just inside the door, authorities and the boy's family said.

Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell said the officers were looking for a suspect who may have been armed and followed proper procedure by using the device, which creates a bright flash and loud bang to distract suspects. A lawyer for the family said he believes the officers acted improperly and he would like to see them prosecuted.

"It's a tragic incident," Terrell said. "The baby didn't deserve this."

Alecia Phonesavanh told local media her son was sleeping in his playpen when the raid began Wednesday morning.

"The cops threw that grenade in the door without looking first, and it landed right in the playpen and exploded on his pillow right in his face," Phonesavanh told WSB-TV.

Phonesavanh said the boy's face was severely burned, and he was in a medically induced coma in a hospital. She said her family had been visiting from out of town and were all sleeping at the house in Cornelia, about 80 miles northeast of Atlanta, when the raid happened around 3 a.m.

The toddler's family was staying with family in Georgia after their home in Wisconsin recently burned down, 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 would not have used the flash grenade, Terrell said.

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 them a no-knock warrant because Thonetheva had a recent prior arrest involving a gun and drugs, Terrell said.

When the officers arrived at the home, 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.

Thonetheva was not at the home, but officers found methamphetamine residue and drug paraphernalia in his room, Terrell said. Thonetheva was arrested a few hours later at another location and charged with distribution of methamphetamine. He was being held Friday on $15,000 bond, and it wasn't immediately clear if he had a lawyer.

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. It will be up to the local prosecutor to decide whether the case merits further investigation, the sheriff said.

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. "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."

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