UCSD student left in DEA cell for 5 days demands $20 million

Courtesy of LA Times
UC San Diego student Daniel Chong, who nearly died after being left in a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) holding cell for almost five days without food and water, has filed a $20 million claim against the agency, CBS News reported. The incident has sparked nationwide media attention due to the event’s extreme circumstances, which involved Chong drinking his own urine, contemplating suicide and consuming methamphetamine that he reportedly found in the cell.

The $20 million lawsuit against the DEA has cited his treatment as constituting torture under U.S. and international law. Chong, who spent five days (three in the intensive care unit) under hospital care, was treated for kidney failure, dehydration, cramps and a perforated esophagus.

Acting Special Agent William R. Sherman, who is in charge of the DEA’s San Diego Division, issued a statement of apology on Wednesday and noted that an extensive review of DEA procedures is underway. “I am deeply troubled by the incident that occurred here last week. I extend my deepest apologies [to] the young man and want to express that this event is not indicative of the high standards that I hold my employees to.”

Chong, a fifth-year engineering student, told the Associated Press that his ordeal started on April 20 when he left for a friend’s house to smoke marijuana. The next morning, DEA agents raided the house, which they suspected was the location of an Ecstasy distribution operation. According to a DEA statement, agents found about 18,000 pills of Ecstasy, marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms and prescription medicines as well as firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

Chong, who was never formally charged by officers, was detained along with eight others and taken to DEA headquarters in Kearny Mesa, a community in eastern San Diego. In an interview with NBC San Diego, Chong said that after being questioned by agents, and told he would be released, he was then placed in a 5-by-10 foot windowless cell.

During this time, seven of the other detainees were transferred to another facility while another individual was released from custody, according to the DEA statement.

Chong told the New York Times he could hear footsteps outside the door, the opening of other cell doors and flushing toilets.

“They never came back, ignored all my cries and I still don’t know what happened,” Chong told NBC San Diego. “I’m not sure how they could forget me.”

For nearly five days, Chong sat alone in a room with no food, no water and no toilet. Chong told CBS News that he kicked the door many times and screamed for help, but his cries were ignored. “I just couldn’t believe that this was legal,” Chong told the Associated Press. “I’m thinking ‘no way.’”

He drank his urine three times due to dehydration and unknowingly consumed methamphetamine after finding the drugs in the cell; the DEA has yet to explain why the methamphetamine was found in the holding cell.

“The DEA’s protocol was so sloppy that somebody who was a previous prisoner secreted a small amount of meth in a plastic bag inside a blanket,” stated Chong’s attorney, Gene Iredale, in an article by the Los Angeles Times. It is unclear whether the hallucinations that Chong experienced were caused by the drugs or other severe ailments such as starvation.

Chong told the New York Times that on the fourth day, the lights shut off in his holding cell. Chong, contemplating suicide, chewed into his glasses and attempted to carve the words “Sorry mom” into his arm using a glass shard. “I pretty much lost my mind,” he told the Associated Press.

Agents found Chong on the afternoon of April 25, covered in his own feces but still conscious, and paramedics took him to the hospital, the New York Times reported. “He is glad to be alive,” Iredale said of Chong, as reported by the Los Angeles Times “He wants to make sure that what happened to him doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Several UC Riverside students weighed in on the incident and expressed their disbelief with the DEA’s actions. “The way Daniel Chong was treated was an outright injustice,” said Alexander Gonzalez, a third-year sociology student, in an interview with the Highlander. “The San Diego Drug Enforcement Administration’s statement of apology wasn’t enough to make amends considering that Chong was seriously contemplating…suicide because of their failure to remember that he was there.”

Others, such as fourth-year anthropology student Alex Walton, have cited the incident as grounds for the immediate firing of the DEA agents involved. “This incident should at the very least mean the jobs of every agent who works at that facility. Their gross incompetency is obvious from their failing to keep track of a single person. This incident is a strong indication they cannot be trusted to continue being law enforcement officers.”

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