Alecia and Bounkham Phonesavanh never imagined their family would be at the center of a controversy over the militarization of police. But that’s exactly where they found themselves when their toddler was seriously injured by a SWAT team, also leaving them with a $1 million medical bill they have no hope of paying.
“They messed up,” Alecia Phonesavanh told ABC News' "20/20." “They had a faulty search warrant. They raided the wrong house.”
In the spring of 2014, the Phonesavanh’s home in Janesville, Wisconsin, was destroyed by fire. Homeless with four young children, they packed one of their last remaining possessions – their minivan – and drove 850 miles to the home of Bounkham’s sister in Cornelia, Georgia.
At approximately 2 a.m. May 28, the family awakened to a blinding flash and loud explosion in their bedroom. A Special Response Team (aka SWAT team) from the Habersham County Sheriff's Office burst unannounced into the bedroom where they were sleeping. According to police reports, Habersham Deputy Charles Long threw a “flash-bang” grenade – a diversionary device used by police and military – into the room. It landed in Bou Bou’s pack-and-play.
“Bou Bou started screaming,” recalls Alecia Phonesavanh. “I immediately went to grab him.”
But Alecia says Habersham Deputy Jason Stribling picked up the child before she could reach him. “I kept telling him, ‘Just give me my son. He's scared. He needs me. The officer wouldn't. And then he walked out of the room with [Bou Bou] and I didn't see him again.”
What they didn’t realize at the time was that the blast from the flash-bang grenade severely burned Bou Bou’s face and torso and collapsed his left lung. Alecia says the officers wouldn’t allow her to see her child before he was whisked away in an ambulance.
“I asked if he got hurt. And they said, ‘No, your son is fine. He has not sustained any serious injury,” Alecia Phonesavanh remembers. “They ended up telling us that he had lost a tooth.”
But her husband became alarmed after seeing a pool of blood and the condition of the crib. “Burnt marks on the bottom of the crib where he sleep[s],” recalls Bounkham Phonesavanh. “And the pillow blown apart.”
Bou Bou was rushed to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta where doctors placed him in a medically induced coma. “His chest wall had torn down to muscle,” says Dr. Walter Ingram, head of Grady’s burn trauma unit. “And it tore his face down to bone, down to his teeth.”
Bou Bou’s parents say they were detained by the police for nearly two hours. When they arrived at the hospital they were shocked to learn the truth about their son’s injuries. “Why couldn't [the police] just be honest with us and tell us what happened?” asked Alecia Phonesavanh.
It all came about because a drug task force had been looking for Bounkham Phonesavanh’s nephew, 30-year-old Wanis Thonetheva, who police suspected was selling methamphetamine. Using information from a confidential informant, drug agent Nikki Autry had secured a “no-knock” search warrant that allowed the police to enter his mother’s home unannounced.
According to the warrant application, the informant had allegedly purchased drugs from Thonetheva at his mother’s house where the Phonesavnah’s were staying.
The use of “no knock” warrants has become controversial, according to Atlanta-based community activist Marcus Coleman. “There needs to be a strict criteria before you're able to knock someone's door down in the middle of the night,” says Coleman. “We also have to look real hard at how the police force has been militarized and what does that mean for your ordinary citizen.”
As Bou Bou lay in the hospital, agent Nikki Autry resigned from her job with the Mountain Judicial Circuit’s drug unit. Judge James Butterworth, the chief magistrate of Habersham County, who signed the “no-knock” warrant, announced his retirement within days of the raid.
The search warrant had identified his mother’s home as Wanis Thonetheva’s “residence.” But Alecia Phonesavanh says they never saw Thonetheva while they were staying in Georgia. She says his mother did suspect that her son had stolen valuables from her.
“He had broken into her room and stole some of her jewelry and stuff,” recalls Alecia Phonesavanh. “We knew him as a thief.”
Wanis Thonetheva was arrested hours after the raid without a “no-knock” warrant and without a SWAT team. He pleaded guilty to selling methamphetamine and is serving a 10-year sentence in a Georgia prison.
After more than five weeks in a coma, Bou Bou left the hospital and the family was relieved that they could finally return to Wisconsin.
In Georgia, Habersham County’s District Attorney Brian Rickman convened a grand jury to look into the botched police raid. After six days of testimony, the grand jury found “the drug investigation that led to these events was hurried, sloppy.”
They did not recommend criminal charges against any of the officers involved, which deeply upsets Bou Bou’s mother. “They made the mistake,” claims Alecia Phonesavanh. “And we got the backlash of everything.”
“The intelligence on the front end, in this particular situation,” says District Attorney Rickman, “is how the tragedy could have been avoided.”
The drug task force that gathered that intelligence was disbanded four months after the raid that injured Bou Bou Phonesavanh. It also happened to be the day after “20/20” arrived in Habersham County to investigate.
Since the incident, the toddler has undergone surgeries to repair his face and torso. The Phonesavanh family says they are facing close to $1 million in debt from hospital costs. Habersham County officials will not pay the medical bills, citing a "gratuity" law in Georgia that prohibits them from compensating the family.
But the Phonesavanh’s attorney, Mawuli Davis, believes the SWAT team’s actions during and after the raid make it accountable.
“The child was taken into their custody,” says Davis. “Taken from his family, as a result of an injury that was caused by the [sheriff’s department]. It would be our position that they should have to pay, and it is far from a gratuity.”
Under the state's law, the county government has sovereign immunity from negligence claims against it, and thus the payment would be an illegal "gratuity" to the family.
As the holidays approach, the Phonesavanh family is mired in debt with medical bills they have no hope of paying. “Before this we didn’t owe anybody anything,” says Alecia Phonesavanh. “And now after all this, they have completely financially crippled us.”
Who is responsible for Bou Bou Phonesavanh’s injuries may still be a question for the courts to decide. The Phonesavanh family still has the option to file a civil lawsuit. And a federal investigation is now underway by the office of Sally Yates, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.
“As a parent, I can’t imagine the horrible nightmare that this family is enduring,” Yates said in a statement to ABC News. “Now that the state grand jury has declined to return an indictment, we are reviewing the matter and conducting our own investigation.”