Update – February 2021: Just over a year ago I was contacted by the production team of a then-upcoming Netflix documentary about Elisa Lam, entitled Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.
I spoke to them for a long time about various aspects of this case and the internet response to it, and I was genuinely impressed at the very detailed knowledge they had of the case.
Having now seen the completed documentary, I think they did a great job in portraying the mysterious and tragic circumstances of Elisa Lam’s death, as well as giving a very balanced, realistic view of what – as far as we know – actually happened.
As I said in my blog post below in September 2014, the coincidences and mysteries surrounding this case don’t mean much in terms of crime investigation, however they go a long way to explaining why the tragic case of Elisa Lam is so hauntingly unforgettable.
The tragic and unexplained case of Elisa Lam
I can’t actually remember when I first became interested in behavioural science and real-life crime cases, but I do know it’s been a long time.
I’ve never been particularly interested in the gory side of the crimes, more the psychology of the perpetrator/s. In other words, for me it’s always been about the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’ – which is probably why I write psychological thrillers rather than, say, detective novels.
Every so often I come across a case (such as the disappearance of Brandon Swanson) that I absolutely cannot get out of my head – sometimes because of the ‘how’, sometimes because of the ‘why’. And sometimes because of the unanswered questions surrounding the crime, occasionally bringing into question whether it was actually a crime at all.
Which brings us to the case of Elisa Lam.
Now, I’m not going to go into every minute detail of this case – there are plenty of other websites and articles that do that – but I do want to give a brief outline of it.
In early 2013, residents of the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles started complaining about the water, both that the pressure had dropped and that it had a strange colour and taste. On investigating these complaints, on 19th February 2013, the hotel staff looked inside the four water tanks on the roof, and in one of them they found the naked, drowned body of a 21 year old student, Elisa Lam.
This raised a lot of questions, not least of which was how she/anybody could successfully have gained access to the roof when it was both alarmed and securely locked?
Not to mention just how this petit girl could then climb up and into a massive water tank (8-foot tall, and 4-foot in diameter), and then somehow replace the heavy lid by herself? And, even if she was physically able to do this – which is generally considered impossible – why would she?
And why without her clothes?
At this point, the most logical assumption is that somebody else was involved, maybe a hotel employee who had access to the roof and alarm codes. But, according to investigators, Elisa Lam’s body showed no evidence of any kind of trauma. So if somebody did force her into the tank, they somehow did it without touching or injuring her at all.
So… maybe she was drugged? Nope, that’s been ruled out too. According to the authorities, there was no evidence of drugs in her system.
Some people have claimed she might have got into the tank voluntarily and alone in order to go for a swim. If this is true, then it does go some way to explaining the ‘why’ of getting into the tank, but it doesn’t even get remotely close to explaining the ‘how’.
Oh, and then there’s the video.
Like most hotels, the Cecil Hotel had a CCTV camera set up in the lift of the lobby. This video shows Elisa Lam in the minutes before her death going in and out of the lift, pushing buttons, gesticulating, looking like she’s talking to somebody standing outside, and essentially behaving in a pretty odd manner.
At this point, let me tell you that Elisa Lam had apparently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which some people have claimed may explain her behaviour in the video, as well as her decision to go swimming in the water tank on the roof. I’m not convinced of this, but ok, let’s say for argument’s sake that we can attribute those things to her bipolar disorder. But – and as far as buts go, this is a pretty big one – having bipolar disorder wouldn’t somehow allow you to access the locked and alarmed roof of a hotel. It also wouldn’t magically give a 21 year old student the strength she would need to climb into and then somehow seal herself inside a water tank.
Still not a mysterious enough case? Ok, let’s look at the hotel itself.
The Cecil Hotel has a pretty gruesome history, which has caused some people to explain the death of Elisa Lam by invoking some kind of supernatural cause. I personally don’t buy into the ‘a ghost must have done it’ argument, but some of the history of the hotel is admittedly pretty unnerving and does add to the overall creepiness of this case.
For instance, in 1991 a man named Johann Unteweger lived in the hotel for a while. And by ‘a man’, I mean ‘a serial killer who had been released from jail in 1990 and pretty much immediately started killing again, allegedly murdering 3 prostitutes while staying at this very hotel’. In 1985, the sadistic murderer Richard Ramirez (known as the ‘Night Stalker’) lived in the hotel for a number of months too. Going even further back, in 1964 a resident of the hotel was found dead in her room having been viciously attacked and murdered by a still-unknown perpetrator. And, lastly, there has also been some speculation that the hotel was one of the last places that Elizabeth Short, aka the ‘Black Dahlia’, was seen the night she was horrifically murdered in 1947.
Remember that name by the way, it comes up again later.
There have also been a number of suicides at the hotel, although personally I think it’s likely that all hotels would have had similar incidents over a long enough time period. (Although in saying that, one of the people who jumped from a window of the Cecil somehow managed to land on – and kill – a man walking in the street below too, which probably isn’t so common…)
Now, from a crime investigation standpoint, this information is pretty much meaningless, unless you’re going with the whole ‘supernatural causes’ explanation, but it does illustrate just how strange this whole incident is in light of the hotel’s history.
And, believe it or not, there are also a couple of other strange details here too.
Firstly, in 2005 a film called Dark Water was released, which featured a young woman who sadly drowned in the water tank of a hotel. One of the characters was called Cecilia (the ‘Cecil’ hotel), another character was called Dahlia (remember Elizabeth Short, above?), and there is also a scene in the film showing a lift not working properly.
Secondly, days after Elisa Lam’s death, there was a huge TB outbreak near the hotel, and the authorities had to use a specific test to diagnose which people had tuberculosis. The name of the test? The Lam-Elisa…
Again, from a crime investigation standpoint these aspects of the case mean nothing – they’re certainly not helping solve the mystery of what happened to poor Elisa Lam – but they do give the whole incident a more sinister feel, and may go some way to explaining why this case has captured the imaginations of so many people (including me). The footage from the lift is also incredibly unnerving, although I do wonder whether it would have the same effect if Elisa Lam hadn’t died so soon afterwards, and in such mysterious circumstances.
There is talk about a feature film being made about this case, which I have mixed feelings about. Yes, the case is interesting and – as overused as this word is – haunting. But we’re still talking about the mysterious death of an actual person here – a 21 year old student who still has surviving family members and friends who are probably still trying to come to terms with her demise and the various questions surrounding it.
Hopefully, at some point we – or at the very least poor Elisa Lam’s family – will have answers to all these questions. In the meantime, we’re left with the tragic, unexplained death of a young woman which is – in spite of narratives that could possibly ‘work’ in terms of explanations – still steeped in mystery and unanswered questions.
And which, sadly, is apparently no closer to being definitively solved now than it was in February 2013.
As a mark of respect, I intentionally haven’t included any photos of Elisa Lam or linked to the CCTV video. The photo at the top of this blogpost is not the Cecil Hotel either, but a stock image of another hotel.