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.
The family crowded into a former garage converted into a bedroom: parents Bounkham and Alecia, 7-year-old Emma, 5-year-old Mali, 3-year-old Charlie and 18-month-old Bounkham Jr., known as “Bou Bou.” It was a tight squeeze but only temporary. After two months the family had found a new house in Wisconsin and was planning to return home.
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.”