LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California university student left handcuffed in a federal holding cell for nearly five days without food or water has filed a claim for up to $20 million in compensation, saying he suffered kidney failure and nearly died as a result.
The five-page notice, a precursor to a lawsuit against the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, was sent Wednesday to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration by a lawyer for the student, Daniel Chong, who has said he was forced to drink his own urine to stay alive.
His attorney, Julia Yoo, has said Chong grew so desperately hungry he ingested a powdery substance from a bag he found in the cell that turned out to be a packet of methamphetamine.
On Thursday, she confirmed further details of the ordeal that Chong revealed to the New York Times, including a fit of suicidal despair near the end in which he broke his eyeglasses, tried to carve the words “Sorry Mom” on his arm and swallowed a shard of a shattered lens, cutting his esophagus.
For roughly the last two days of his detention in the 5-by-10-foot (1.5-by-3-meter) cell, Chong was in complete darkness, as the lights were inexplicably turned out, Yoo said.
Chong, 23, an engineering student at the University of California, San Diego, said he believed he was minutes away from death when a DEA employee finally found him in the cell.
“By that time, I’d accepted that I would probably die there,” the Times quoted him as saying. Yoo said her client was declining further media interviews.
The DEA has acknowledged that Chong was left in a holding cell by accident, and the head of the DEA office in San Diego issued a statement of apology, saying he was “deeply troubled” by the incident. He promised to investigate the matter.
Chong ended up in DEA custody when he was rounded up with eight other people in a drug raid on April 21 at someone else’s home where he had spent the night after smoking marijuana with friends, Yoo said.
The DEA said seven others arrested with Chong were booked into jail and an eighth was released. The agency said it also seized large quantities of various drugs, three firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
Yoo said her client was cleared of any wrongdoing and agents told him they were putting him in a holding cell for just a minute before driving him home. That was early on April 21, a Saturday. He remained locked up alone until Wednesday.
Afterward, he ended up hospitalized for five days, the first three of which he spent in intensive care, suffering from severe dehydration, muscle deterioration, hallucinations, kidney failure and extremely high levels of sodium, his lawyer said.
“He nearly died as a result,” the complaint stated, adding, “The deprivation of food and water for four and one half days while the person is handcuffed the entire time constitutes torture under both international and domestic law.”
Editing by Todd Eastham