Last year the DEA busted a 4/20 party near San Diego, confiscated 18,000 hits of MDMA, and questioned 9 people. They arrested 7, and let one go. They told the last person, Daniel Chong, that they would release him too, in fact give him a ride home, and said, “Hang tight, we’ll come get you in a minute.” Then they left him handcuffed in a cell for the next four days, without water or food.
Chong called, yelled, screamed for help – he could hear other cells open and close, and voices – but got no response. Intensely dehydrated, starving, and hallucinating, by the fourth day he realized that he was dying.
His roommate reported him missing. Midterms came and went without him.
Suddenly the door opened, and half a dozen DEA agents looked in. One said, “Here’s the water you’ve been asking for.” One said, “Where’d you come from?” But even though he’d had days to think of snappy remarks, Chong was too near death to banter.
He was rushed to the hospital for 5 days, where they said he’d been near kidney failure from dehydration. He’d lost 15 pounds. At some point in his captivity Chong’s thirst and dehydration got so agonizing that he drank his urine. Not easy when you’re handcuffed. But Chong was a) desperate and b) an engineering student. There was a table in the room and he peed on that to collect the urine. If he hadn’t done that, he might have been dead when they opened the cell door. (This is something that every single interviewer has asked Chong about. Gingerly. But they all ask.)
This was ugly even for the DEA, and their San Diego Special Agent in Charge William R. Sherman issued an apology, a rare event.
I am deeply troubled by the incident that occurred here. I extend my deepest apologies to the young man and want to express that this event is not indicative of the high standards that I hold my employees to. I have personally ordered an extensive review of our policies and procedures.
The DEA said it happened “accidentally.” Somehow Chong got lost in the shuffle. No one thought it was done on purpose. Still!
I’m horrified by the thought of his voice being ignored for four days. The cell is one of several cells off a central room for staff. Perhaps they are used to hearing and ignoring screams for help from those cells. (Remember “Here’s the water you’ve been asking for”?) “Yeah yeah, you’re innocent, you’re dying, there’s been a mistake, you’re thirsty, whatever.” “Oh, someone is missing his midterms. Cry me a river.”
If the people who heard him weren’t the one who put him in there, they probably figured it wasn’t their responsibility. For all I know, in DEA culture giving water to somebody else’s prisoner is a huge faux pas.
By now, I’m sure the DEA knows how this happened. I doubt they’ll ever tell us. Chong recently received a $4.1 million settlement. The Justice Department is still investigating. No one has been disciplined.
However, as a result of this incident the DEA now requires daily inspections and cameras in cells.
What about Sherman’s apology? Everyone said it’s rare for the DEA to make a public apology. MAYBE THEY NEED MORE PRACTICE. Because it’s not a good one. “[T]he incident that occurred” is a classic piece of distancing. “[T]his event is not indicative of [our] high standards”? That’s the old “that’s not who I really am” argument, aka “I feel like an innocent bunny, therefore I am innocent,” aka “in my mind I’m so nice!”
There was another expression of remorse in this story, stranger and more touching. When he faced the fact that he might soon be dead, Chong wanted to leave a message for his mother. With no pen or paper, he took off his glasses and bit into them to get shards of broken glass. With one shard he began to cut a message into his arm, intending to write, “Sorry Mom.” He got as far as the S. You try it. Handcuffed.
I think that sorry is not in the sense of apology, but in the sense of regret. Sorrow. Sorry to die on you. Sorry I won’t see you again.
It breaks my heart.
I’m glad they found him. I’m glad someone finally had the courage it takes to say, “who’s in that cell anyway? I’ll look if you’ll look….”