College student left in DEA cell for 4 days with no food or water to get $4 million from US

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An attorney for the man who was abandoned in a Drug Enforcement Administration holding cell for four days without food or water says his client has agreed to settle claims for $4.1 million.

Daniel Chong’s attorney, Eugene Iredale, said Tuesday that no one has yet been disciplined for the April 2012 incident and no criminal charges will be filed.

Iredale told KPCC the federal government admitted responsibility "within a week" of the incident. 

"They said it was a mistake. It was an accident. We messed up," said Iredale. "And with respect to the particulars, that's essentially all they gave us." 

Iredale says the Justice Department’s inspector general is investigating what caused Chong’s near-death experience, but that he still has no answers. He said he will seek to make the inspector general's findings public for several reasons. 

"It is our request that they make that public and that we be given a more precise account of exactly what happened," he said. 

First, Iredale said, Daniel would like to know what happened, so that he can have closure to the traumatic event. He added that he felt it important that there be some accountability for what happened to his client, and some assurance that it would never happen again.

Iredale added that his client recalls the person who locked him in the room was a San Diego police officer who was part of the area's multi-agency narcotics task force.  

"So, in a certain sense," Iredale said. "The federal government is paying for the sins of a San Diego police officer."

Chong’s attorneys say the DEA had no policy on the treatment of detainees at the time. It does now, and that policy includes cameras in cells and daily inspections.

Chong says he drank his own urine to stay alive and tried to write a farewell message to his mother with his own blood.

Chong, 23, was detained in an April 2012 drug raid in San Diego and left in the 5-by–10-foot windowless holding cell.

Chong, who was an engineering student at the University of California, San Diego, was at a friend’s house in April 2012 when a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raid netted 18,000 ecstasy pills, other drugs and weapons. Chong and eight others were taken into custody.

Agents told Chong he would not be charged and had him wait in the cell at DEA offices in San Diego. The door did not reopen for four days, when agents found him severely dehydrated and covered in his own feces.

Chong said he began to hallucinate on the third day. He urinated on a metal bench to drink his urine. He stacked a blanket, his pants and shoes on the bench and tried to reach an overhead fire sprinkler, futilely swatting at it with his cuffed hands to set it off.

"He was literally looking at his own death and then hallucinating for hour after hour and day after day," said Iredale. "He heard noises outside and no one let him out. No one came to give him food or give him water. And he was handcuffed until about 2 hours before the door was finally opened, when he was able — probably because he lost 15 pounds during the ordeal — to slip one of his hands out of the handcuff. 

Chong said last year that he gave up and accepted death. He bit into his eyeglasses to break them. He said he used a shard of glass to carve “Sorry Mom” onto his arm so he could leave something for her. He managed to finish an “S.”

Chong was hospitalized for five days for dehydration, kidney failure, cramps and a perforated esophagus. 

Iredale said he was treated with intensive therapy for severe post traumatic stress disorder after the ordeal. 

"Physically he has recovered," said Iredale. "Psychologically, I think he's well on his way. He's back in school and is a person who I think will be able to take the one lesson that he derived from this and put it to good use. And that is that all of us have a limited life span and everyday, every minute is precious, and so you should live it to its utmost."

The DEA issued a rare public apology at the time.

A DEA spokesman, Rusty Payne, referred questions Monday to the Justice Department, which handled settlement negotiations.

The Justice Department, when contacted by KPCC, declined to comment.

With contributions by KPCC staff

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