College student held by DEA without food, water gets $4.1 million
SAN DIEGO — A college student mistakenly left in a Drug Enforcement Administration interrogation room for five days without food or water will receive $4.1 million from the federal government to settle his claim for maltreatment.
The settlement, approved by the Department of Justice, was announced Tuesday in San Diego by the student, Daniel Chong, 25, and his lawyer, Eugene Iredale.
“It was an accident, a really, really bad, horrible accident,” Chong said.
Iredale said Chong has undergone intensive psychotherapy and been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
What happened to Chong, Iredale said, “should never happen to any human being on the face of the planet.”
The bizarre event began the afternoon of April 20, 2012 — a traditional counterculture day of celebration for smoking pot. Chong, then an engineering student at UC San Diego, went to a house near campus to smoke marijuana with friends and found himself swept up in a DEA raid.
Officers from several police agencies raided the house and found large quantities of Ecstasy pills and hallucinogenic mushrooms, plus weapons and ammunition, according to court documents. Unknown to Chong, the house had been under surveillance for days.
Chong and eight others were taken into custody for interrogation. After being questioned briefly at the DEA facility in San Diego, he was told he would soon be released.
But, for reasons that remain unclear, Chong was left for five days in a 5-by-10-foot windowless room without food, water or toilet facilities. He quickly lost weight and was able to slip out of a pair of handcuffs.
He suffered hallucinations. He tried to break a fire sprinkler to get water but failed. Instead, he said, he had to drink his own urine to survive. He screamed for help but soon became too weak. For the final two days, Chong was in the dark, Iredale said.
Fearing that he would die, Chong broke his glasses and scrawled the message, “Sorry, mom,” on his arm.
When he was discovered by DEA employees, he was covered in his own feces and severely dehydrated. He was rushed to a hospital, close to kidney failure and breathing with difficulty. He spent five days in the hospital.
The Department of Justice’s office of inspector general is investigating the incident.
Several theories have been advanced on how Chong could have been forgotten. One is that the officer who questioned him that Friday afternoon was not from the DEA but another agency and that when that officer left at day’s end, he thought someone else would release Chong.
The next two days were Saturday and Sunday, when fewer employees are on duty. By Monday, Chong’s cries may have been too weak to be heard through the thick door of the interrogation cell, which is down a narrow hallway, isolated from the rest of the DEA facility.
Chong said he at first did not scream out, believing he would soon be released. “It seemed impossible for them to forget me,” he said.
He remembers the shocked look on the faces of employees who finally opened the door and saw him, exhausted, starving, possibly near death. His body, he said, was shutting down.
Days later, a top DEA official apologized to Chong and ordered an “extensive review” of DEA procedures.
“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,” said William R. Sherman, who was then acting special agent in charge of the DEA’s San Diego Division.
No charges were filed against Chong. Iredale filed a claim with the agency, usually the first step toward a lawsuit. But in this case, officials immediately began negotiating a settlement and listened to a local psychologist who said Chong was in worse shape than many combat veterans he has treated, Iredale said.
The DEA review of its procedures for interrogations is not yet complete, a spokesman for the agency said.
Iredale said he is confident the agency has taken steps to ensure that nothing similar happens at any of its 21 field stations. The government has “recognized the profound suffering that Daniel underwent and the damages they caused.”
Chong still receives therapy and has returned to finish a degree at UC San Diego. He has changed his major to economics.
He said he is glad to have his life “back to normal.”
Neither the DEA nor Department of Justice had a comment on the settlement.
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