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New information, recent history raise more questions about drug raid that burned Georgia toddler

There have been some new developments in last week’s story about a Georgia drug raid that resulted in a toddler getting badly burned.

  • First, a correction: I reported on Friday that the raid was conducted by the same narcotics task force that shot and killed innocent pastor Jonathan Ayers in 2009. According to CNN and local TV station WGCL, the same Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression Team 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.
  • However, both units are under the jurisdiction of Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell and District Attorney Brian Rickman. The task force serves Habersham, Rabun and Stephenson counties, so it’s also overseen by the sheriffs of Rabun and Stephenson counties. Funding for the task force comes from the three counties, asset forfeiture proceeds and the federal Byrne grant program. The Special Response Team is a separate unit consisting of officers from the Habersham County Sheriff’s Department and the Cornelia Police Department. There’s still a lot of overlap here.
  • One of the officers involved in the Ayers shooting was fired. The other, Chance Oxner, currently works for the Habersham County Sheriff’s Department.
  • Despite Sheriff Terrell’s assurances that suspect Wanis Thonetheva could be armed and dangerous — thus justifying the no-knock entry, flashbang grenade, and 3 a.m. execution — the raid turned up no weapons, and police claim to have found only drug “residue.”
  • The toddler and his family, the Phonesavanhs, were staying with their relatives after their house in Wisconsin burned down.
  • Thonetheva also wasn’t in the home at the time of the raid. According to ABC News, he is the nephew of the couple with whom the Phonesavanh and their son were staying, but had recently been kicked out of the home. He was arrested without incident at a separate location shortly after the raid.
  • One public official in the area, who asked to remain anonymous, tells me that the raid was conducted over a single meth sale of $50. The sheriff’s department did not return my call asking for confirmation of this. Terrell has told other media outlets that an undercover informant made the buy the day before and witnessed guards at the residence but wasn’t sure whether they were armed. According to Terrell, the informant saw no signs of children. The Phonesavanhs say the signs that a child was staying at the house should have been obvious.
  • Despite Terrell’s assurances last week to North Access Georgia that DA Rickman had already cleared the officers for last week’s raid, CNN reported yesterday that Rickman is still investigating.
  • An assistant district attorney told CNN that Thonetheva could actually be charged for the injuries the police inflicted on the toddler.

Assuming that all the above is true, we have police relying only on the word of a confidential informant to conduct a highly volatile predawn raid on a home. How well trained was this informant? How reliable was he or she? Does he or she have a criminal record?

Terrell told Access North Georgia last week, “It’s an accident that we would have avoided if we’d just had any inclination that there had been a child in that house. We had no idea.” But the raid was conducted at 3 a.m. after the morning of the drug buy. How much investigation could the police have done on the residence? Did they do any independent investigation to see whether there might be children and other innocent people in the home, or did they simply rely on the word of an informant?

I’ve written on numerous raids in the past in which police claimed to have made a drug buy at a house, terrified the residents of the building in a subsequent raid, then found no drugs or weapons to show for it. Afterward, police will often claim that drug dealers sometimes use the homes of innocent relatives, friends or even strangers as a front for sales. It seems plausible that the suspected drug dealer was doing that in this case. But if this is a known tactic, shouldn’t it be a possibility that the police eliminate through investigation before they storm the house with guns and flash grenades? Sure, eliminating that possibility might take a bit more time, during which the cops may lose their lead. But is preserving a low-level meth conviction really worth putting the lives of innocent people at risk?

Terrell also told ABC News that the incident is “going to make us double, triple, and quadruple check to know that there aren’t innocent parties in the house. It’s going to make us approach each situation differently.”

I suppose that’s great, for now. But why wouldn’t they have been doing those things all along? If nothing else, you would think the fact that drug cops killed an innocent man five years ago would have prodded the police in this community to be double, triple and quadruple checking before they start charging at people with guns.

I think a little recent Georgia history is also in order. The death of Jonathan Ayers came three years after the death of Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old woman shot and killed by an Atlanta narcotics unit after she confronted them with a pistol as they broke into her home. The officers had received a tip from an informant that there were drugs in the house. Rather than thoroughly investigate the tip, they lied on the search warrant affidavit in order to get inside the house as soon as possible, before the drug supply could be moved. As it turns out, Johnston was innocent. The informant had fabricated the tip to get the cops off of his back. A subsequent federal investigation found that the Atlanta Police Department imposed quotas on its drug cops, in part so that the department itself could pad its stats to qualify for federal grants — like the Byrne Grant.

The Johnston raid itself came after the death of Lynette Gale Jackson of Riverdale, Ga., in a drug raid in 2000, and the death of Macon Deputy Joseph Whitehead in a raid earlier the same year. Jackson had pointed a gun at police as the broke into her home. She had the gun because she’d previously been the victim of a home robbery. Whitehead was shot by while raiding an actual drug house, though the men who shot him claimed that they thought they were being robbed by rival drug dealers. A year before Johnston’s death, Stockbridge, Ga., residents Roy and Belinda Baker were startled from their sleep when a raiding police team destroyed the couple’s front door with a battering ram. The Bakers were handcuffed and made to stand on their porch at gunpoint. The cops had mistaken the Bakers’ home for the house next door.

Johnston’s death, however, received a lot of national attention and led to all sorts of promises for reform in Georgia. In the end, very little reform actually took place. And so it was three years later that the Byrne grant-funded Mountain Judicial Circuit Narcotics Criminal Investigation and Suppression Team saw Jonathan Ayers chatting with a woman they were investigating for drug crimes. It turns out that the pastor was ministering to her. Instead of taking the brief amount of  time they would have needed to investigate him to learn that fact, they instead followed him to a gas station, then stormed out of an SUV and charged at with their guns. Upon seeing men in street clothes running at him with guns, he understandably tried to flee. They shot and killed him. Ayers’s death wasn’t the result of a no-knock raid. But it was the result of gung-ho drug cops who are more interested in racking up arrests, convictions and seizures than in ensuring the safety and civil liberties of the people they serve.

And there were yet more incidents. Here’s one from the Cato Institute’s map of botched police raids:

On May 11th, 2010, a dozen-strong force of armed local and federal drug agents surrounded a Polk County home, expecting to find several suspected drug dealers. Rather than apprehend their targets, however, they misread the address, stormed the wrong home, and put an elderly woman with a history of heart attacks into intensive care . . . Suffering from severe chest pains, Ms. Pruett was transported to a local hospital where she was hospitalized in the intensive care unit for congestive heart failure. The department says the home had been under surveillance for two years; in light of the error leading to her mother’s heart failure, Ms. Pruett’s daughter wonders how that could possibly be true. The matter is under investigation.

Here’s one from Gwinnett County, Ga., in 2008, as reported by local TV station WSB:

Gwinnett County police said they accidentally broke down the door to the wrong house before going to the correct house and arresting a man on drug charges.
Gwinnett County police investigators intended to execute a no-knock search warrant at a home on Valley Spring Drive in Lawrenceville Wednesday morning. Police said the lead investigator mistakenly pointed out a home to the officers and once officers entered the home they realized they were in the wrong house.
The homeowner of the incorrectly targeted house told Channel 2 that having guns pointed at him was something he would never forget.
“(They) put my life, daughter’s life, my lady’s life in danger,” said homeowner John Lewis.
Lewis said Gwinnett County investigators burst through his front door and ordered him and his girlfriend to the floor at gunpoint.
“It’s an experience to have one gun draw on you. It’s something else to have 15, 16 of them,” said Lewis.
Lewis said his 3-month-old baby saw the whole thing. “She was the calmest one,” said Lewis.

Two months later, in January 2009, another wrong-door raid in Gwinnett County, as reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

[Georgia Bureau of Investigation] spokesman John Bankhead said state agents along with Gwinnett and Hall County police narcotics officers had been keeping watch over a drug suspect’s home at 4237 DeJohns Way for about three weeks. Officers thought they saw the suspect enter the duplex around 2 p.m. Tuesday and moved to arrest him, Bankhead said.
A no-knock search warrant had already been obtained from a judge — allowing law enforcement to enter the suspect’s home without knocking or announcing their presence — because the duplex was in a known gang area, Bankhead said. However, the agents and officers mistakenly forced entry into a duplex adjacent to the suspect’s home.
No one was home at that unit, Bankhead said. The agents also banged on the door of the other unit in the same duplex, startling residents inside. Within minutes, Bankhead said the officers figured out that they were at the wrong building.
Jainet Rios, 25, a Home Depot supervisor, said she was at work when the officers came to her parents’ home. She said her parents, her two sisters ages 18 and 19, and the 19-year-old’s infant baby were terrified when drug investigators began yelling at them with their guns drawn. She said the incident especially shook up her mother, who suffers from bipolar disorder and was recently released from a psychiatric treatment facility.

In November 2011, there was another fatality. A police team in East Point, Ga., just outside Atlanta, conducted a drug raid against Varick Vaughn and Juan Ballard. Dwight Person, 54, a friend of Vaughn’s and Ballard’s uncle, was visiting and had arrived at the home about 10 minutes before the raid. Shortly after police took down the door, one officer shot Person in the abdomen. She later claimed he had made a threatening gesture. Person died a short time later. Person, a father of two, was unarmed. The police found no drugs or weapons in the home. They did, however, arrest seven people for various code violations and misdemeanors. Media accounts of the shooting point to a subsequent investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, but I haven’t found any coverage of what became of that investigation.

Last year, Georgia state Rep. Sam Moore (R) introduced a bill to eliminate the use of no-knock raids in Georgia, along with a bill to reform the state’s much-abused loitering law, which critics say is used to harass minorities and the homeless. He was roundly ridiculed, smeared as “anti-cop” and a friend of sexual predators — and that was by his own party. Both bills were pretty much dead upon arrival. Since Johnston’s death, other Georgia legislators have introduced similar bills. They, too, have gone nowhere.

I’d like to think the that a drug raid that sent a toddler into intensive care and a medically induced coma would inspire some reform. But if the death of an innocent 92-year-old woman or an innocent pastor didn’t result in any change in Georgia, or in the Mountain Judicial District in particular, it’s difficult to see why this story will end differently.