Student left in cell 4 days recalls hallucinations
SAN DIEGO (AP) — A college student picked up in a drug sweep in California was never arrested, never charged and should have been released. Instead he was forgotten in a holding cell for four days and says he had to drink his own urine to stay alive.
Without food, water or access to a toilet, Daniel Chong began hallucinating on the third day.
He told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday that he saw little Japanese-style cartoon characters that told him to dig into the walls to find water. Chong tore apart the plastic lining on the walls.
"I ripped the walls and waited for the room to flood for some reason," said the 23-year-old University of California, San Diego, student, three days after he left the hospital where he was treated for dehydration and kidney failure. "I can't explain my hallucinations too well because none of them make sense."
Later he added, "I felt like I was completely losing my mind."
Four days later, agents opened the door on a fluke and found him covered in his own feces, Chong said.
Chong's attorneys filed a $20 million claim Wednesday against the Drug Enforcement Administration, saying his treatment constitutes torture under U.S. and international law.
"He nearly died," said Chong's lawyer, Eugene Iredale. "If he had been there another 12 to 24 hours, he probably would have died."
The five-page notice, a required precursor to a lawsuit, was sent to the DEA's chief counsel in Washington and cites damages for pain and suffering, future medical and psychiatric treatment, and loss of future earnings.
The $20 million figure refers to the maximum Chong and his lawyers would seek.
The top DEA agent in San Diego apologized Wednesday for Chong's treatment and promised an investigation into how his agents could have forgotten about him.
The incident stands out as one of the worst cases of its kind, said Thomas Beauclair, deputy director of the National Corrections Institute, a federal agency that provides training and technical assistance to corrections agencies.
"That is pretty much unheard of," he said, noting that, in his 40-year career, he has heard of instances where people were forgotten overnight but not for days.
A federal law enforcement official familiar with DEA operations said the agency's protocols require that cells be checked each night. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, said the cell where Chong was held is not intended for overnight stays because it does not have a toilet.
U-T San Diego was the first to report Chong's ordeal.
Chong told the AP that he went to his friend's house April 20 to get high. Every April 20, pot smokers light up in a counterculture ritual held around the country at 4:20 p.m.
Chong slept there that night and, around 10:50 a.m. the next day, agents stormed into the house as Chong said he was rolling a joint at the kitchen table. The raid netted 18,000 ecstasy pills, other drugs and weapons. Nine people, including Chong, were taken into custody, according to the DEA.
Chong was moved from cell to cell for several hours and then questioned. He said agents then told him that he was not a suspect and would be released shortly. He signed some paperwork, was put in handcuffs and sent back to the holding cell, a 5-by-10-foot windowless room. The room is one of five cells at the facility.
The only view in was through a tiny peephole in the door. He said he could hear the muffled voices of agents and a toilet flushing. As the hours dragged into days, he said he kicked and screamed as loud as he could. At one point, he ripped a piece of his jacket off with his teeth and shoved it under the door, hoping someone would spot it and free him.
Chong said he ingested a white powder that he found in the cell. Agents later identified it as methamphetamine. Chong said he ingested it to survive.
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