A University of California San Diego student left for days in a windowless Drug Enforcement Administration holding cell said he just wants to know what really happened to him and how exactly he slipped through the cracks.
On April 25, 2012, Daniel Chong was discovered incoherent, delirious and suffering from kidney failure after spending nearly five days handcuffed in a DEA holding cell in San Diego without food or water.
Agents had somehow forgotten Chong was in the cell.
He spent at least two of those days in total darkness.
“It was an accident, but I just want to know how it happened,” Chong said at a news briefing alongside his attorneys Thursday.
Chong recounted those days he spent in that dark holding cell, struggling to get his voice heard.
“I would bang on doors trying to get their attention. After a while, you just think they’re just ignoring you anyway. They’re not going to let you out, you just look like a fool, or they’re going to get angry at you for making so much noise,” he recalled.
Chong said that at times, he stayed quiet because he didn’t know what else to do. He said he tried to put out “visual cues,” like putting shoelaces on the cell door, but gave up after a while because he felt as though the agents were just laughing at him.
Chong said he remembers hearing the voice of at least one male agent outside the door of the holding cell. He said he heard the voice right before the light in his cell was turned off. From then on, his windowless cell was completely dark, until a few days later when agents finally opened the door.
Chong said the moment the door swung open was a mix of emotions.
“I was very confused. As soon as I saw that [the agents] were also confused, I knew right away that it was an accident,” he explained. “It was more of a feeling of relief. The door finally opened. There was no better feeling than that.”
Chong said the agents began asking him who put him in the holding cell. He couldn’t answer and they called an ambulance.
“I was screaming, ‘I need two ambulances!’ I was really crazy – delirious,” said Chong.
He said the agents then threw him a bottle of water – the first he’d had in five days.
“As soon as I drank it, I felt the pain running through my body. Any movement was excruciating,” he recalled.
Chong was rushed to a hospital where he spent three days in the Intensive Care Unit. He has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and consults with a doctor who normally treats veterans who have returned from battle.
Under a legal settlement, the U.S. government paid $4.1 million to Chong last year.
On Tuesday, officials investigating Chong’s case released a summarized report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that included some of the findings of the investigation.
Ultimately, the report said safety measures and procedures were either non-existent or ignored by federal agents.
The report found that four agents reported seeing or hearing Chong while he was in custody for several days but failed to act, telling investigators they didn’t think anything unusual.
"They assumed that whoever had placed Chong in the cell would return shortly to process him," the report stated.
Despite the release of the summarized information, Chong and his attorneys, Gene Iredale and Julia Yoo, are now calling for the release of the full report. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also supports them in their quest for the entire document.
“I completely understand and agree that it was a complete accident; there’s no malintent with it. But of course, I’m interested in what really happened – what exactly happened to me because of how inconceivable it is. I would like to know what happened,” said Chong.
Iredale said that by releasing the full report, officials can finally provide complete transparency and accountability for what happened to Chong.
“It appears to me that the fault lies primarily in the institutional lack of procedures that were designed to make sure somebody was responsible for that area,” said Iredale.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant. That’s all we’re really calling for now. Not a head, not for anybody to lose their job – just to know what happened,” he added. “Just to be told the complete truth so that Daniel will know, so the public will know.”
Yoo said Chong’s case should force every law enforcement agency across the country to take a long, hard look at their practices and how they treat those in custody.
“What happened to Daniel is a reflection of a fundamental systemic failure so what we call on is a systemic solution to something like this,” said Yoo.
Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, of the ACLU, said the organization has filed a request with the Department of Justice for all of the records and reports related to Chong’s detention.
“What happened to Daniel was unacceptable,” Dooley-Sammuli. “It shows a staggering failure at every step of the way, from his placement in a holding cell to at least four officers noting and subsequently ignoring his presence in that holding cell.”
Both Iredale and Chong said they’re pleased with the results of the investigation, mainly the procedural changes that have been made by the DEA based on recommendations issued by the OIG.
A DEA spokesperson confirmed to NBC 7 that immediately following Chong's case, the agency initiated new procedures including routinely inspecting holding cells, assigning someone to monitor the holding area and maintaining an occupancy ledger for detainees. Cameras were also installed at the facility and the footage is now monitored.
Chong called those “positive changes” and added, “I don’t think it’s going to happen again – at least not in that facility.”
More than two years after the incident, Chong continues to live a quiet, modest life in San Diego.
He purchased a small condominium in the UTC area and is in the process of finishing his degree at UC San Diego. He expects to graduate later this year.
“I’m just trying to finish up school so that I can get on with my life,” he said, pausing. “I’m alive. I’m alive and well.”