Daniel Chong, student left handcuffed in DEA cell for 4 days, files $20M claim against agency

Attorney Eugene Iredale, left, and client Daniel Chong, who says he was left behind in a holding cell for five days, appear at a news conference on May 1, 2012 in San Diego. K.C. Alfred,AP Photo/U-T San Diego

(CBS/AP) Attorneys for a 23-year-old student who spent four days handcuffed and forgotten in a tiny Drug Enforcement Administration holding cell have filed a $20 million claim against the agency, saying his treatment constitutes torture under U.S. and international law.

The five-page notice, a required precursor to a lawsuit, was sent to the DEA's chief counsel in Washington. The $20 million figure refers to the maximum Daniel Chong and his lawyers would seek.

Chong, a student at the University of California, San Diego, had been picked up in a drug sweep but was never arrested or charged.

He spent four days forgotten in the windowless cell before Drug Enforcement Administration agents opened the door.

Man forgotten in DEA cell drank urine to survive

"I just couldn't believe that this was legal," Chong said in an interview Wednesday with the Associated Press. "I'm thinking 'no way."'

After two days and desperate for food and water, Chong entered what he called "survival mode," drinking his own urine and futilely trying to trigger an overhead fire sprinkler for some water, stacking clothes and a blanket and swinging his cuffed arms in an attempt to set it off.

After his release, he spent five days in the hospital for dehydration, kidney failure, cramps and a perforated esophagus. He had lost 15 pounds.

The top DEA agent in San Diego, William R. Sherman, said in a news release that he was "deeply troubled" by what happened to Chong.

Sherman said he has personally ordered an extensive review of his office's policies and procedures. The agency declined to say what those were.

Chong said no one has contacted him personally to apologize.

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.

Federal lawmakers are demanding a thorough investigation. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer sent a letter Wednesday to Attorney General Eric Holder.

"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," the letter stated.

Chong told the AP that he went to his friend's house April 20 to get high, part of a national, annual countercultural ritual.

Chong slept there that night and, the next morning, agents stormed into the house. 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 questioned then agents told him 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.

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.

The next day, hallucinations started, he said. They included Japanese animation characters who told him to dig into the walls to search for water, which he tried, tearing apart the wall's plastic lining.

People can die from dehydration in as little as three to seven days, said Dr. Wally Ghurabi at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica.

Ghurabi said Chong was wise to drink his own urine to stay hydrated.

As the days dragged on, Chong said he accepted that he would die. He considered taking his own life rather than withering away by dehydration.

"I thought 'wow, this was a terrible way to go,'" Chong said. "I just wanted to have a little bit of dignity."

He sat in the dark, his hallucinations deepening, his breath getting shorter and shorter, even the urine running out, and he screamed for the agents to at least let him have a quick death.

"That's when the lights turned on and the agents opened the door with very confused looks on their faces," Chong said. "They said, 'Who are you? Where'd you come from?"'

Chong was not going to be charged with a crime and should have been released, said a law enforcement official who was briefed on the DEA case and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak about the ongoing investigation.

Chong said he has no criminal record.

U-T San Diego was the first to report the ordeal.

Doctors said Chong's wounds should heal, but he said he still breaks down in tears.

"I'm very glad they found me," he said.

Comments