One of the most gut-wrenching stories of 2014 is arguably that of Bounkham "Baby Bou Bou" Phonesavanh. He and his family were staying in Cornelia, Georgia--an hour north of Atlanta-- after their house in Wisconsin burned down. Just days before they were due to go back to Wisconsin, Bou Bou was nearly killed when a stun grenade thrown by a Georgia SWAT team landed in his playpen and exploded in his face. The SWAT team was there on a no-knock warrant for his meth-dealer cousin--who, as it turned out, didn't even live there. Despite overwhelming evidence that the SWAT team ignored what amounted to announcements in capital letters that there were kids at that house, no indictments were issued at the state level (though a federal investigation is underway) and Habersham County refuses to pay medical bills that now stand at over a million dollars. When ABC's 20/20 profiled Bou Bou on Friday night, it briefly touched on an equally ghastly story of a drug raid gone horribly wrong.
Back in 2009, Jonathan Ayers, a young pastor in Toccoa, was counseling Kayla Barrett, a young woman trying to kick a cocaine habit. That September, the woman was on the verge of being thrown out of the hotel where she was living. While Ayers was going to an ATM to get some money for her hotel rent, several members of a multi-county drug task force rolled in behind him on in an unmarked SUV. They had put the woman under a microscope after she sold cocaine from an undercover officer, Habersham County Deputy Chance Oxner, and had turned their attention to Ayers after they saw him alone in the car with her. Apparently thinking they were robbers, Ayers threw his car into reverse, nicking Oxner. Another member, Stephens County Deputy Billy Shane Harrison, shot Ayers in the abdomen. Although Ayers was mortally wounded, he was somehow able to drive several yards before the pain became unbearable, causing him to wreck his car. He died at the hospital hours later.
Although Ayers had no drugs in his system and there was no evidence he was even remotely involved in drug activity, law enforcement basically blamed him for his own death, saying he should have known that he was dealing with cops. However, while they were wearing badges around their necks, a picture of what Harrison was wearing that day shows the badge could have easily been mistaken for a necklace when put against the background of his shirt. They also claimed that he was paying the woman for sex. Later that year, the Georgia Board of Investigation cleared the officers of wrongdoing, and a grand jury agreed.
That wasn't enough for Ayers' widow, Abigail. In 2010, she sued Harrison, Oxner, the sheriffs of Habersham and Stephens Counties, and the drug task force for wrongful death and civil rights violations. She made this move after a private investigator made several alarming discoveries. Most notably, Harrison had lost his legal authority to serve as a law enforcement officer in Georgia as early as 2008, when he failed to complete the basic firearms training required to keep his certification. He also had no training on the use of lethal force. It also emerged that Harrison was known to be a frequent marijuana user and had been suspected of stealing from a previous employer. Oxner had a checkered history as well. Abigail's private investigator discovered that he had a history of alcohol abuse and was suspected of illegal drug activities, and had been convicted of theft. It simply defies belief that none of these details were found by the GBI during its investigation.
There are a couple of grisly twists in this. The sheriff of Habersham County at the time was Joey Terrell--who is still the sheriff today. It was Terrell who gave the green light for the raid in which Bou Bou was injured. The district attorney for the three counties that formed the task force is Brian Rickman--who still holds his post today.
Soon after Bou Bou's injuries, the task force was disbanded. But from the looks of it, this task force should have been shut down as early as 2010. Had that happened, it's a pretty safe bet Bou Bou would not have been hurt that night. Now, because of the failure to realize the task force was a serious liability, as well as Habersham County's bullheadedness, taxpayers could potentially be on the hook for another million-plus in damages.