Drug task force that killed an innocent pastor in 2009 also involved in burned toddler story*

Alecia Phonesavanh covers her face on Thursday, May 30, 2014 in Atlanta as she talks about an incident in which Phonesavanh's 19-month-old son was critically injured when a police device was tossed into his bed Wednesday morning in Habersham County by a SWAT team in search of a drug suspect. Phonesavanh said there is no way officers should not have known they were children in the house. Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell said the officers were looking for a suspect who may have been armed and followed proper procedure by using the device. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, John Spink)
Alecia Phonesavanh covers her face as she talks about an incident in which her son was critically injured when a police device was tossed into his bed in Habersham County by a SWAT team. (John Spink/Associated Press)

(CORRECTION: The copy below is slightly incorrect. The same Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression Team involved in the death of Jonathan Ayers  did conduct the alleged drug buy and investigation before last week’s raid. But the raid itself was conducted by the Habersham County Special Response Team. Both units serve Habersham County and are under the jurisdiction of Sheriff Joey Terrel and DA Brian Rickman. But the task force also serves two other counties, and so is also overseen by the sheriffs of those counties. The headline of this post has been changed to reflect the distinction.)

After Georgia’s Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression Team burned a toddler with a flashbang grenade during a drug raid on Wednesday, Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell told Access North Georgia:

“The person I blame in this whole thing is the person selling the drugs,” Terrell said. “Wanis Thonetheva, that’s the person I blame in all this. They are no better than a domestic terrorist, because they don’t care about families – they didn’t care about the family, the children living in that household – to be selling dope out of it, to be selling methamphetamine out of it. All they care about is making money.

Of course, Terrell’s task force didn’t even know there was a child in the home. So it’s hard to argue they “cared” much either, at least not enough to let the kid’s safety trump the safety of the officers, or the need to get into the home quickly to prevent any evidence from being destroyed so they can preserve their conviction. It’s also a bit much to call Thonetheva a “terrorist” shortly after his own officers have just burned a baby.

But this same task force has a history. In February, I posted about a settlement in the death of Jonathan Ayers, an innocent pastor that this same drug task force killed in a drug operation in 2009.

In September 2009, the young pastor Ayers was ministering to a young woman whom a Georgia drug task force was investigating on drug charges. (She had allegedly sold an undercover officer $50 worth of cocaine.) When task force members saw Ayers alone in the car with the woman, they switched their focus to him. According to Ayers’s lawsuit, the woman was about to be evicted from the motel at which she was staying. Ayers gave her the $23 in his pocket to help cover her rent.

The task force followed Ayers to a convenience store, where he went in to get money from an ATM. When he returned and got into his car they pounced. They pulled up behind him in an unmarked black SUV. Armed agents dressed in street clothes then rushed Ayers’s car. He put his car in reverse and attempted to escape. In the process, he nicked one agent. Another then opened fire, killing him. Ayers told hospital staff was that he thought he was being robbed. His reported last words were, “Who shot me?”

Ayers had no drugs in his car or in his system, and there was no evidence he was using or distributing anything illegal. Still, local law enforcement officials tried to smear him. They first said he was part of their drug investigation all along, then retracted. The woman the police were following initially said in an interview that Ayers was counseling her and helping her kick her drug habit. Later, while facing criminal charges for a separate incident, she changed her story and claimed that Ayers had been paying her for sex.

In the end, Ayers was innocent, and a federal jury awarded his widow a $2 million settlement.

In the burned toddler raid, Terrell told the paper that District Attorney Brian Rickman had already cleared the task force of any wrongdoing. That’s a remarkably fast investigation given that the raid happened less than two days ago. Rickman also cleared the cops in the Ayers case. So did the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Rickman would tell a local paper that the investigations went “to extraordinary lengths,” and, “I do not see how anybody could say the process was unfair based on the lengths that they went to.”

Here’s what happened next:

Ayers left behind a wife, Abigail, who at the time of his death was pregnant with her first child. She filed a lawsuit and hired her own investigator to look into the shooting. What he found is astonishing. As it turns out, Officer Billy Shane Harrison, the cop who shot Ayers, hadn’t taken the series of firearms training classes required for his certification as a police officer. It gets worse. It turns out that Harrison also had received zero training in the use of lethal force.

He wasn’t authorized to make arrests or to carry a gun. Yet somehow he had been given a position on a narcotics task force, a position that not only gave him a gun but put him in volatile, high-stakes situations where he might be tempted to use it. Abigail Ayers’s lawsuit also alleged that Harrison and Officer Chance Oxner, who initially bought the drugs from the woman Ayers was counseling, had a history of disciplinary problems, including use of illicit drugs.

So those “fair” investigations that went to “extraordinary lengths” failed to discover that the cop who shot Ayers not only had prior disciplinary problems, but also he wasn’t even legally authorized to be a cop, much less carry a gun. It was later revealed that Rickman had appointed the head of the task force at the time of the Ayers shooting, and was a close personal friend with the officer (who is now deceased).

So maybe we should take Rickman’s quick assessment of this week’s raid with a grain of salt.

In my post on Ayers, I noted how little professional accountability there had been for the death of Jonathan Ayers. The cop who killed him was fired, but only after it was revealed that he lacked the training. One other law enforcement official was fired for lying about the training. No one was disciplined for the actual killing of Ayers. Rickman, Terrell, and the other sheriff who oversees the task force were all reelected.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised that a sheriff who sees drug suspects as “terrorists” also oversees a drug task force that has now killed an innocent pastor and burned a two-year-old child.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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