The family of a toddler who was injured during a botched drug raid, after a Georgia SWAT team member threw a flash-bang grenade into his playpen, say they are facing close to $1 million in hospital bills, according to WSB-TV.
As the holidays approach, the parents of Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh are swamped with debt from medical bills they have no hope of ever paying after county officials refused to accept responsibility, citing a state “gratuity” law.
On May 28, the 19-month-old Bou Bou was sleeping in his playpen when the Habersham County Special Response Team launched a no-knock raid on a relative’s home where his family was staying after their own home in Janesville, Wisconsin burned down. According to police reports, Habersham Deputy Charles Long threw a ‘flash-bang’ grenade – a diversionary device used by police and military – into the room where it landed next to Bou Bou.
Following the explosion, police rushed the injured child 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.”
According to the child’s mother, officers told her a different story.
“I asked if he got hurt. And they said, ‘No, your son is fine. He has not sustained any serious injury,” Alecia Phonesavanh recalled. “They ended up telling us that he had lost a tooth.”
An investigation into the drug raid revealed that drug agent Nikki Autry had secured a ‘no-knock’ search warrant that allowed the police to search the home for Phonesavanh’s nephew, 30-year-old Wanis Thonetheva, who police suspected was selling methamphetamine. Thonetheva did not live at the home and was arrested later without incident.
Days after the raid, Autry resigned from the Mountain Judicial Circuit’s drug unit and the chief magistrate of Habersham who signed the warrant, County Judge James Butterworth, announced his retirement. The drug task force that gathered that intelligence for the raid disbanded four months later.
In October a grand jury deliberated for six days before refusing to indict any members of the drug team.
Bou Bou spent more than 5 weeks in a coma in the hospital and has since undergone multiple surgeries to repair his face and torso.
According to Phonesavanh family, they are facing close to $1 million in debt from hospital costs because Habersham County officials will not pay the medical bills, citing a “gratuity” law in Georgia that prohibits them from compensating the family.
Under the state’s law, the county government is granted sovereign immunity from negligence claims against it, making a payment to the family an illegal “gratuity.”
“Before this we didn’t owe anybody anything,” says Alecia Phonesavanh. “And now after all this, they have completely financially crippled us.”
The question of who is to pay for Bou Bou Phonesavanh’s medical treatment may lay with courts to decide, while the Phonesavanh family ponders filing a civil lawsuit.
A federal investigation is currently 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. “Now that the state grand jury has declined to return an indictment, we are reviewing the matter and conducting our own investigation.”
Watch video below from WSB: