Four U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents saw or heard a handcuffed college student who was inadvertently left in a holding cell for five days without food or water, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report released Tuesday.
The report says the employees found nothing out of the ordinary when they saw Daniel Chong, then 23, locked in the cell. They believed whoever placed him there would soon return to process him for arrest or release.
Chong was picked up in an April 2012 drug sweep near the campus of the University of California, San Diego, where he was a student. After DEA agents interviewed him they told Chong he would not be charged, but returned him to a small holding cell with his hands cuffed behind his back. He was told someone would return shortly to release him, according to a story from Southern California’s City News Service.
He languished, alone, in the cell for five days. Federal officers, uninvolved in his case, eventually found him.
During his detention, Chong drank his own urine for hydration. He tried to carve a “Sorry Mom” farewell message on his arm with his broken eyeglasses and was forced to eat to some methamphetamine he found in the cell to stay awake. He said he screamed for help and tried to signal his presence in the windowless cell by sliding a shoelace under the door so it could be seen in the hallway.
Once he was discovered, he was rushed to a nearby hospital where he spent three days in the intensive care unit being treated for kidney failure, dehydration and a perforated esophagus.
Chong eventually sued the federal government for $20 million. He settled out of court last year for $4.1 million.
The investigation, conducted by the Justice Department’s inspector general, found the DEA had no adequate system in place to track detainees, that the holding cells were not equipped with cameras and the employee tasked with monitoring detainees had too many responsibilities to do the job properly.
The investigation found three case agents at fault for the incident. One agent is a DEA employee and two others were assigned to the DEA task force at the time.
A DEA supervisor was also faulted in the report for exercising poor judgement by allowing two of the agents to process the evidence from Chong’s cell after he was found.
The inspector general’s office also asserted that it should have been notified prior to the initial investigation into Chong’s detention being launched. Conducting the investigation without such notice is a violation of Justice Department policy. The DEA is part of the Justice Department.
The agency declined to say if any of the agents or employees identified in the report would face consequences. A statement from the DEA called the investigation an "ongoing internal disciplinary matter,” according to The Associated Press.
Chong’s attorney, Gene Iredale, said he was pleased with the thoroughness of the investigation but still wanted a chance to read the full report.
"We're only given a three-page summary and not given access to the entire report," Iredale said. "Transparency is the first rule of good government and that in order to know what happened and what should be done we need to know what this investigation reveals in its totality."