Family of child hurt by 'flash bang' returns to Janesville
MADISON—The Phonesavanh family is back in Janesville after a headline-grabbing tragedy that changed their lives.
The family of six was asleep in the home of a relative in Cornelia, Georgia, when police raided in the early mornings hours of May 28 and tossed a stun grenade.
The grenade exploded in the face of the youngest Phonesavanh, whom everyone calls Boubou.
The blast cut into the 1-year-old's face and chest. He was kept in a medically induced coma for days as his parents were told his chances of survival were 50 percent.
The attack has turned Boubou's mother and father, Alecia and Bounkham, into opponents of the no-knock warrant that police used and of what some are calling the militarization of police forces nationwide.
“My husband and I are doing this because we don't want this to happen to any other family,” Alecia said.
At the same time, the parents are dealing with four children who still wake up screaming.
“I think he's reliving it all the time,” his mother said of Boubou. “He'll scream bloody murder, the same as he did the night it happened.”
The four Phonesavanh children amused themselves in a hotel conference room in Madison for several hours Wednesday as their parents patiently answered questions from reporters. They seemed in good spirits, but they still have nightmares, their parents said.
“They don't feel safe,” Alecia said, noting that when she took Boubou down the hall to change his diaper Wednesday, all the children insisted on going along.
Boubou sleeps no more than 90 minutes at a time—and only that long if he's sleeping on the chest Marlene Haygood, his grandmother, of Janesville.
Haygood watched the kids as their parents were interviewed.
“I don't know if life is ever going to be normal for them again,” Haygood said. “Boubou's got a long road ahead of him.”
Boubou's sisters are Emma, 7; Malee, 5; and Charlie, 3.
The kids were busy with big sheets of paper and crayons. Emma created a poster that said “We want justice for Baby Boubou.”
Boubou faces multiple surgeries, including plastic surgery for his face, his mother said, and doctors believe he has brain damage, but it's too soon to tell how much.
“Emotionally, I don't think we can ever fix it. I don't think he'll ever be 100 percent,” his father said.
The whole family suffers from emotional stress and needs therapy, said their attorney, Mawuli Mel Davis.
Alecia had fire in her eyes when she talked about the county where the raid happened.
“We want Habersham County to know this is a fight we will not back down from. We will keep fighting till our son gets justice,” she said.
Davis' law firm organized material and emotional support for them in Atlanta.
“They were willing to listen, and to give us our voice,” Alecia said.
More than $8,000 was raised in Atlanta, Davis said, and $3,000 of that paid their hotel bill. The family is of “very modest means,” he said.
Churches and community groups rallied to support the family.
“I want to thank them. They were very kind to support us and pray for our children,” Bounkham said.
None of the medical bills have been paid yet, Davis said.
Habersham County officials told reporters they would pay the bills, but Davis said he has yet to receive a formal offer from the county.
Wednesday's meeting in Madison with community leaders and reporters was to let people know that the family still needs support, Davis said.
The family plans to sue the sheriff's office and police department that participated in the raid, Davis said, but they are just as keen to see the officers punished.
Davis said he believes there's a strong case to be made that the officers and their departments acted recklessly.
A report from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and FBI is expected next week, Davis said, and the hope is that the district attorney will charge the officers involved in the raid.
According to news reports, Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell has maintained it was an honest mistake and that officers had seen no signs that children were in the house.
But the van in the driveway had child seats, there were toys on the lawn, and a neighbor even warned officers as they approached, Alecia said.
Alecia and Bounkham both are graduates of Janesville Craig High School, she in 2005 and he in 1987, they said.
The family lost their Janesville apartment to a fire March 18 and stayed in motels on vouchers from churches and charities. On April 9, their vouchers gone, they decided to drive to Georgia to be with Bounkham's sister.
The sister doesn't know English well, so Alecia had volunteered to help her re-finance her house. Police burst into their room the night before they intended to return to Janesville.
Police were looking for Bounkham's nephew when they raided the house. They suspected him of drug dealing and possessing an assault rifle, they have said. But the nephew didn't live in the house, no drugs or weapons were found.
The Phonesavanhs said they had no knowledge of any drug dealing.
They returned to Janesville on Independence Day and are in temporary lodgings until they can find a house big enough for them.
Boubou bounded around the conference room Wednesday like any healthy 20-month old.
“He's a miracle,” his mother said.
“He knows we all love him, so he fought that hard to be here,” said his father.
Boubou's father said the experience has reminded him of what happened to members of his family in Laos.
He and his parents came to the United States when he was 8 to escape a Communist regime whose soldiers would kick down people's doors, tie them up and take them away, he said.
Some never came back, including Bounkham's uncle, a teacher the government wanted to silence, he said.
Bounkham is a heavy-metal guitarist and songwriter. His songs are all about peace, he said, because of what happened to his native land.
Alecia has worked as a home care aide for many years, and her mother hopes to set up a care facility where she and her husband will likely work, she said.