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DEA apologizes to student left unattended in cell for 5 days

UC San Diego student Daniel Chong, swept up in a raid with eight others, says he went without food, water and access to a toilet while in the cell. He spent five days in the hospital recovering from his ordeal.

May 03, 2012|By Kate Mather, Los Angeles Times
  • Daniel Chong appears at a news conference where he discussed his detention by the DEA in San Diego.
Daniel Chong appears at a news conference where he discussed his detention… (K.C. Alfred, San Diego Union-Tribune )

Talk about a bad trip.

It started when Daniel Chong, a 23-year-old UC San Diego student, spent a night with friends to mark April 20, which some pot afficionados consider something of a holiday. It ended with an ordeal behind bars.

The Drug Enforcement Administration apologized Wednesday to Chong, who was "accidentally" left 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.

"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."

Late Wednesday, Chong's attorneys filed a $20-million claim against the DEA. A claim is a precursor to a lawsuit.

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 the 23-year-old and eight others were swept up during a raid of a suspected Ecstasy distribution operation where agents found guns, ammunition, 18,000 Esctasy 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 spent 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 afficionados "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.

Chong has not been charged.

Sherman said the agency planned to look at "both the events and the detention procedures on April 21 and after."

A statement from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she sent a letter to 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.

kate.mather@latimes.com

Times staff writers Kim Christensen and Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.

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