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San Diego student's near-death in DEA custody avoidable: report

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Simple measures, such as a white board listing names of prisoners, might have prevented the near-death of a San Diego college student inadvertently left in a holding cell for nearly five days without food or water, a federal report showed on Wednesday.

The student, Daniel Chong, says he survived the 2012 incident by drinking his urine while in the custody of the Drug Enforcement Administration. His lawyers said he reached a $4.1 million settlement with the DEA last year.

The Department of Justice report slams the DEA for not keeping track of prisoners and for assigning the same federal agents who left Chong in the cell to conduct the investigation, violating policy.

"This policy is particularly important when an incident involves conduct that could be subject to criminal prosecution, as this incident was, because an investigation by management could be construed as compelling employees' cooperation ...," the report said.

Chong, then a University of California San Diego student who is now 26, was arrested in April 2012 during a raid on a home where DEA agents suspected an ecstasy drug ring was operating.

Agents quickly determined Chong was not part of a trafficking gang and placed him in a holding cell, saying he would be released soon. He spent five days handcuffed there before he was found and rushed to the hospital with kidney failure.

The report concluded that at least four agents saw or heard Chong in the cell, and said three members of a task force that arrested him as well as a supervisor bore responsibility for his welfare.

According to the report, none of the agents admitted handcuffing Chong or placing him in the cell, and none of 25 employees nearby could remember hearing him shout or pound on the cell walls, though investigators determined they should have.

The U.S. Attorney's office declined to file a criminal case because of insufficient evidence, the report said. The DEA said it remained troubled by the incident but could not comment on disciplinary action.

The report also says the Special Agent in Charge of the San Diego office had obtained price quotes for cameras with audio feed for the holding cell area, but had not ordered them. Cameras have since been installed, along with a whiteboard, the DEA has said.

Chong's attorney welcomed the report but expressed disappointment no action was taken against the agents.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)

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