The disastrous consequences of rogue law enforcement

Back in June I called the actions of a drug task force in Habersham County, Georgia, “Child abuse under color of law“.  In a botched raid, then-19-month-old Bounkham ‘Bou Bou’ Phonesavanh was critically injured when a flash grenade was thrown into his crib.  Officers refused to allow his family access to him, instead taking him to hospital themselves and not informing his mother of his injuries for several hours.  To add insult to injury, Sheriff Joey Terrell blithely informed journalists that “Our team went by the book. Given the same scenario, we’ll do the same thing again. I stand behind what our team did.”

Now it appears that the ongoing consequences of that raid are going to bankrupt the family.

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.

. . .

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.”

. . .

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.

. . .

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.

. . .

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.

There’s more at the link.

I was furiously angry when I heard of this incident, as my post at the time shows.  I’m still furiously angry.  How dare any honest, moral law enforcement officer or agency not only make excuses about ‘going by the book’, but then hide behind statutes to refuse to pay medical bills incurred by a totally innocent victim of law enforcement excess?

I think every single officer involved in this abuse of authority should either resign (if he or she has any moral courage at all – which most of them clearly don’t) or be fired.  They should never again be allowed to pin on a law enforcement badge.  Any and every elected official, law enforcement or otherwise, who authorized, endorsed or supervised anything to do with this incident should do the same.  The fact that they’ve attempted to hide behind the letter of the law and refused to take responsibility for their actions demonstrates clearly that they’re all beneath contempt.  People like that can never be trusted by anyone in their right minds, and should not be tolerated in or by any civilized society.

As I noted at the time, I speak as one who’s worn a law enforcement badge myself and held statutory powers of arrest.  Don’t try to tell me that there really was a drug dealer known to use that address, and that the Phonesavanh family “put themselves in harm’s way” by associating with riff-raff.  I associated with riff-raff every day as a prison chaplain.  Does that mean I can expect a flash grenade to be thrown into my bed by cops as well?  People like young Bou-bou and his parents are not military targets or ‘collateral damage’.  As soon as law enforcement officers start treating them as if they were, they’re no longer law enforcement personnel at all – they’ve become tyrants and jackbooted thugs.  The Golden Rule applies:  they have nothing coming if someone decides to treat them in the same uncaring, savage, violent way they’ve treated others, like Bou-bou.

The Phonesavanh family has set up a Web site to raise funds for their son’s medical expenses.  May I suggest that this Christmas, it wouldn’t be out of place to send a dollar or two their way?  I’m going to do what I can.  I hope my readers will do the same.



  1. What we need is a fund to hire people to hound these officers and other involved personnel until they move or quit (or both).

    I've donated to the Baby Boo site, but I'd donate to the other too….

  2. A short but typical story:

    My wife had cervical cancer, a massive stroke and a broken back all within an eighteen month time period. She beat the cancer, mended her back, but the stroke still has her entire right side paralyzed.

    Her cervical cancer was allowed to grow because of her doctors refusal to allow her an annual pap smear. This was something the insurgence companies were promoting awhile back, claiming women over 50 didn't need them, and many doctors went along. It was a cost-saving stunt which did not pan out. Same stunt with the mammograms a few years back.

    A four page report stated her stroke was caused by the chemotherapy for the cancer.

    The broken back was caused when the therapy people dropped her in the gym.

    When one is paralyzed, they cannot fall in such a way as to prevent massive damage. They fall like a sack of flour and whatever is on the bottom gets broken.

    All three of her difficulties were created when the so-called professionals messed up.

    Now she is in a nursing home under the care of two Medicaid doctors, whose course of action for anything is pills, pills and more pills. I have been fighting these two pill pushers for over a year now, demanding they justify the pills they feed my wife, or take them off her list of drugs.

    The first year they (using their own records) shoved a bit over 6,900 pills down her throat in twelve months(nineteen a day), and I had to dig deep to find out this information. These were not simple stuff like aspirin or tums, they were all potent body-changing and mind-altering drugs. They were giving her incredibly expensive pills for conditions she DID NOT have. As an example, they were giving her a pill that cost $3,300 a month, a pill designed for AIDs victims who have just had an organ transplant. My wife did not, and does not, have AIDs or HIV, and has not had any sort of an organ transplant,,, ever.

    Reasons? I suspect the free trips and seminars – all expenses paid – in places like Hawaii, Las Vegas, and the Bahamas given as reward to doctors who prescribe massive amounts of expensive medicines paid for by Medicare and Medicaid. The more they peddle, the better the rewards. This practice has got to stop.

    So… It's not just some of the the damned cops who need to be drummed out of their professions forever.

    I would donate to the fund, but every penny I get goes towards my wife's care because:

    The reality is that the nursing home is also only interested in making money, so the "residents" suffer from poorly trained and paid staff, resulting in insufficient care, cruddy food, you name it. The majority of the aides and nurses don't give a tinkers damn about the people in their care. its just a job until they can find something better, something that does not involve messy diaper changes on often cranky and abusive old people.

    Sorry to vent on you, but there is more than enough reasons for outrage nowadays.

    This is no longer the country I was born in. More and more I feel the only recourse is massive revolt modeled after the French Revolution… Hunt them all down and hang them.

    But who am I to say. I'm just an old man whose wife has been snared in a vicious system of fraud and abuse, and has neither the money nor the power to change anything.

    At any rate, both of us will be gone soon and all this will be a problem that this generation – and the boomers – refuse to face.

    Good luck with that.

  3. Instinctively I know that prison chaplains, as employees in an FCI, are (as are all staff) responsible for the security of the institution and indeed receive some training to that effect. What I don't understand is how that makes one a Federal law enforcement officer, as alluded to multiple times here?

    As a current 1811, I find that an unfair comparison. If I'm acting in an official capacity, and I tell someone post-sneeze "God Bless you", does that make me qualified to minister?

    /picking nits

  4. @B5K: First, the definition of LEO depends on whether or not one has statutory powers of arrest. In the BOP, everyone does, because everyone's trained to the same standard at FLETC. Therefore, according to the Justice Department, we were all LEO's.

    Second, that wasn't my only LEO experience. I've never gone into detail about it, but I 'held a badge' elsewhere once upon a time.

    Third, I've never understood why many cops or sheriff's deputies regard corrections staff as somehow 'second class citizens' in the LEO world. Corrections has to take the scumbags handed to them by street cops and keep them safe for years, even decades. That's often a tougher and more dangerous job than arresting them in the first place. Ask Lawdog, who's done both.

  5. @Bob: You have my deepest sympathy, Sir – and you're not alone in your feelings about the way things have gone in this benighted country. We need to restore the Land of the Free to what it once was. How to do that is a very good question . . . one to which there are many possible answers.

  6. I would've thought, had they any honour at all, they'd've found a way to pay anyway.

    I mean, corrupt cops manage to steal millions every year, so how hard can it be to divert cash? Just get the MRAP NEXT year instead of this one.

    Got to say, I definitely think collective responsibility/punishment has a place. It got a bad rap from bunches like the Soviets, but the way I see it, a whole lot of people in that department and area needs to be punished.

    Not just the people who did the thing – the people who trained them, the people who decided they were good candidates for the goon squad, the people who let them rush the investigation to play Door Kickers IRL Edition.

    Not just the above, either: everyone who decided those people were qualified for their positions is clearly a terrible judge of character and needs to be retired ASAP.

    Sometimes a purge IS the right idea.

  7. "I've never understood why many cops or sheriff's deputies regard corrections staff as somehow 'second class citizens' in the LEO world."

    Unsure whether or not this was directed at me or venting?

    I've done both too. Pre-Fedworld days, for a County S/O that saw me work in the jails for a while before the Academy. CO's have my respect…I could not imagine doing that ever again.

  8. Kinda late to the party on this, Peter:

    Kathryn Johnston, Atlanta; Jose Guerna, Tucson; Cory Maye, Prentiss, MS; Sal Culosi, Fairfax, VA; the list goes on, but you get the idea.

    Now it's Bounkham Phonesavanh, Cornelia, GA.

    I'm glad to see you share the outrage, but from here it looks like you're a bit selective about it. There's no question the police, and associated government officials, in the Phonesavanh case should all be fired, then held fully accountable, morally, socially and financially. They won't be, however, because of "qualified immunity" and state statutes.

    Bounkham Phonesavanh will fade from the headlines, and at some point a new name will take prominence, as the cycle continues.

    Until We The People hold government – every bit of it, at all levels – fully accountable, you'd better start buying your outrage in bulk.

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