The DEA and its parent agency, the Justice Department, have come under increasing criticism over the case of a University of California-San Diego student who was swept up in a drug raid, placed in a holding cell, and forgotten. When 23-year-old Daniel Chong was finally discovered five days later, his condition was so poor he was hospitalized for three days in intensive care.
Chong was one of nine people swept up in a raid targeting Ecstasy traffickers early in the morning of April 21. Chong said that he had gone to the residence the night before -- the marijuana holiday of 4/20 -- "to get high" and was arrested along with the others the next morning. DEA agents booked all nine, then transported seven to local jails, released one person, and apparently forgot all about Chong.
In an interview with the Associated Press last Wednesday, Chong said that after waiting hours in the cell, which had no toilet or running water, he screamed and kicked the door, to no avail. As the days dragged on, he said he realized he was trapped. On day three, he began to hallucinate. He urinated on a metal bench so he could drink his urine to quench his thirst. He eventually began to accept that he would die in the cell. He bit into his glasses to break them and used a shard of glass to carve "Sorry, Mom" on his arm as a farewell, but only got as far as the letter "S".
He said he was considering using the glass to kill himself and end his suffering. "I pretty much lost my mind," he said. He also admitted ingesting some methamphetamine that had been left hidden in a mattress in the cell by a previous occupant.
Then, on day five, a DEA agent opened the door to find the still handcuffed Chong covered in his own feces. "Where did you come from?" the agent asked.
The engineering student for taken to a local hospital, where he was treated for dehydration, kidney failure, cramps and a perforated esophagus. He had lost 15 pounds. He spent three days in intensive care and two more days at the hospital before being released.
San Diego DEA Special Agent in Charge William Sherman apologized to Chong, though not directly, and said in a statement he was "deeply troubled" by the incident. Sherman said he had ordered an extensive review of policies and procedures at the office.
That wasn't good enough several members of the state's congressional delegation, who have demanded answers from the DEA and the Justice Department.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) last Wednesday called on US Attorney General Eric Holder to begin an "immediate and thorough" Justice Department investigation into the matter. "After the investigation is completed, I ask that you 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," she wrote.
On Thursday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-San Diego), head of the House Government Oversight Committee, called for in investigation, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-San Diego County) sent a letter to DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart asking for a full accounting of Chong's detention, processes in place for accounting for detained individuals, and the steps the DEA is taking to ensure it doesn't happen again.
"The situation involving Chong may in fact be an isolated incident," Hunter wrote. "Regardless, my concern is that this situation could also be a symptom of a bigger problem, with errors in procedure and oversight possibly extending to the division's law enforcement function."
Chong is "still recovering" from his ordeal, San Diego attorney Gene Iredale, who is representing him, said at a press conference last Wednesday. "He thought he was going insane," Iredale added.
Iredeale filed preliminary papers for the $20 million law suit last Wednesday. The suit alleges Chong was treated in a way that constitutes torture under US and international law.
"He is glad to be alive," Iredale said of Chong. "He wants to make sure that what happened to him doesn't happen to anyone else."