A federal judge has approved settlements of $3.6 million to the parents of Bounkham “Baby Bou Bou” Phonesavanh, who suffered severe injuries to his face and chest when a flash grenade blew up in his playpen during a drug sting operation in 2014.
As the Washington Post reports, the judge signed off on settlements reached with three Georgia counties: $964,000 with Habersham, and $1.65 million each for Stephen and Rabun counties. The city of Cornelia also reached a settlement for $1 million. The settlements were announced Friday by attorney for Alecia and Bounkham Phonesavanh, Mawuli Mel Davis.
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“We have worked diligently with our counsel to obtain the best possible result for Baby Bou Bou and his family. What we have achieved will not fix what has happened or take away the nightmares, but we hope it helps them move forward as a family,” Davis said in a statement.
In May 2014, former Habersham County Deputy Sheriff Nikki Autry led a team of informants and special agents from the Suppression Team and local Narcotics Criminal Investigation in “an attempt to make undercover narcotic buys.” Autry allegedly presented flawed information to a magistrate judge, claiming that a “reliable informant” had bought methamphetamine at a house. She also reportedly alleged that there was “heavy traffic in and out of the residence,” prompting the judge to issue a “no knock” search warrant.
Finding the door blocked, a member of the SWAT team threw a flash-bang grenade inside the house. Upon barging in, the team realized that a portable playpen had been in the way and the flash-bang grenade had landed on sleeping Baby Bou Bou’s pillow. The explosion left him with severe injuries to the face and chest. He spent weeks in the burn unit in a medically induced coma because the pain was simply too much for him to bear.
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The Phonesavanh family comprising of four children were inside the residence. They were living with relatives in the interim because their Wisconsin home burnt down. Wanis Thonetheva, the suspect in the raid, was not home at the time. He was later arrested at a nearby residence and charged with distribution of methamphetamine.
After the 2014 incident, Habersham County Sherriff Joey Terrell said that if they were aware children were inside the residence, the operation would have been handled differently. “We might have gone in through a side door…we would not have used a flash-bang,” he said.
The federal indictment concluded that the raid should not have taken place. Acting U.S. Attorney John Horn said, “Without Autry’s false statements, there was no probable cause to search the premises for drugs or to make arrests. The consequences of the unlawful search were tragic.”
Autry was charged with four counts of civil rights violations “willfully depriving the occupants of the residence of their rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.” She was also charged for providing false information to obtain a “no knock” warrant. Autry was the only officer charged in the raid. A grand jury found the investigation “hurried and sloppy”; Autry resigned after being found not guilty.
Her attorney, Jeff Brickman, insisted that his client was not to blame for the toddler’s injuries and had been the victim of scantily designed search and seizure policies of an ineffective department and disbanded drug task force.
Marcus Coleman, president of the Save OurSelves Organization, said, “Since no one will be held criminally liable, the monetary victories will have to be used as a way to somewhat offset this unfortunate preventable tragedy. Considering that this family was still held responsible for the medical bill is itself a travesty.”
[AP Photo/David Goldman]