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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Student left in DEA cell to get $4.1 million from feds

SAN DIEGO—A 25-year-old college student reached a $4.1 million settlement with the U.S. government after he was abandoned in a windowless cell for more than four days without food or water, his attorneys said Tuesday.

Daniel Chong said he drank his own urine to stay alive, hallucinated that agents were trying to poison him with gases through the vents, and tried to carve a farewell message to his mother in his arm.

It remained unclear how the situation occurred, and no one has been disciplined, said Eugene Iredale, an attorney for Mr. Chong. The Justice Department's inspector general is investigating.

"It sounded like it was an accident—a really, really bad, horrible accident," Mr. Chong said.

Mr. Chong was taken into custody during a drug raid and placed in the cell in April 2012 by a police officer authorized to perform Drug Enforcement Administration work. 

The officer told Mr. Chong he wouldn't be charged and said, "'Hang tight, we'll come get you in a minute,' " Mr. Iredale said.

Justice Department spokeswoman Allison Price confirmed the settlement was reached for $4.1 million but declined to answer other questions. The DEA didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Chong said he planned to save and buy his parents a house.

Mr. Chong was a 23-year-old engineering student when he was at a friend's house where the DEA found 18,000 ecstasy pills, other drugs and weapons. Mr. Iredale acknowledged Mr. Chong was there to consume marijuana.

Mr. Chong and eight other people were taken into custody, but authorities decided against pursuing charges against him after questioning.

Mr. Chong said he began to hallucinate on the third day in the cell. He urinated on a metal bench so he could have something to drink. He stacked a blanket, his pants and shoes on a bench and tried to reach an overhead fire sprinkler, trying with his cuffed hands to set it off.

Accepting the possibility of death, he said he bit into his eyeglasses to break them and used a shard of glass to try to carve "Sorry Mom" onto his arm so he could leave something for her. He only managed to finish an "S."

Mr. Chong said he slid a shoelace under the door and screamed to get attention before five or six people found him covered in his feces in the cell.

"All I wanted was my sanity," Mr. Chong said. "I wasn't making any sense."

Mr. Chong was hospitalized for five days for dehydration, kidney failure, cramps and a perforated esophagus. He lost 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms).

The DEA issued a rare public apology at the time. The agency introduced national detention standards as a result of the ordeal involving Mr. Chong, including daily inspections and a requirement for cameras in cells, said Julia Yoo, one of his lawyers.

Sen. Charles Grassley, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, on Tuesday renewed his call for the DEA to explain the incident.

"How did this incident happen? Has there been any disciplinary action against the responsible employees? And has the agency taken major steps to prevent an incident like this from happening again?" he said.

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