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UCSD student's 5-day ordeal in DEA jail sparks outrage, anger

May 3, 2012 |  1:45 pm

Daniel Chong

Elected officials are demanding answers after Daniel Chong, a 23-year-old UC San Diego student, was left unattended for five days in a Drug Enforcement Administration detention cell.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called on U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. asking for an "immediate and thorough" Department of Justice investigation into the matter.

"After the investigation is completed, I ask that you please provide me with the results and the actions the department will take to make sure those responsible are held accountable and that no one in DEA custody will ever again be forced to endure such treatment," she wrote.

The DEA apologized Wednesday to Chong, who was accidentally left unattended in a holding cell for five days and reportedly drank his own urine to survive.

San Diego attorney Gene Iredale said his client was "still recovering" from the ordeal. The attorney submitted the initial paperwork needed for a lawsuit Wednesday. The claim seeks $20 million in compensation for the incident.

"He is glad to be alive," Iredale said of Chong. "He wants to make sure that what happened to him doesn't happen to anyone else."

News of the incident came to light when Chong told a San Diego television station he spent nearly a week in the cell without food, water or access to a toilet after an April 21 raid on a house in San Diego.

The DEA, which identified Chong only as "the individual in question," said he and eight others were swept up during a raid of a suspected Ecstasy distribution operation, where agents found guns, ammunition, 18,000 Ecstasy pills and other drugs.

The nine suspects were taken to a DEA area headquarters, where they were fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed, the agency said. After processing, seven were taken to a county detention facility and one was released.

Chong, the agency said, was "accidentally left in one of the cells." He told NBC San Diego he kicked the door "many, many times" in a futile attempt to get agents' attention.

When they finally found Chong, he was taken to Sharp Memorial Hospital, where he stayed for five days. Iredale said Chong, who was close to kidney failure and had trouble breathing, spent three of those days in the intensive care unit.

Chong also suffered hallucinations and "thought he was going insane," Iredale said. Chong told NBC San Diego he tried to kill himself by breaking his glasses and cutting his wrists.

"I didn't care if I died," he told the station. "I was completely insane."

William R. Sherman, acting special agent in charge of the DEA's San Diego Division, apologized in a statement Wednesday and said he had ordered "an extensive review" of DEA policies and procedures.

"I am deeply troubled by the incident that occurred here last week," Sherman said. "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."

The DEA said Chong told agents he had been at the house that was raided "to get high with his friends" and later admitted that he used a white powdery substance found in his cell that tested positive for methamphetamine. 

Iredale confirmed Chong had stayed with friends the night of April 20 to "celebrate" the day heralded by many marijuana aficionados "in the typical way -- by smoking some pot."

But the attorney said the meth found in the cell was not his client's and was there before his arrival.

"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," Iredale said.

The San Diego Union Tribune reported that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wants a congressional investigation.

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-- Kate Mather

Photo: Daniel Chong. Credit: K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune

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