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True Crime

The Mysterious Case of


THE HOTEL of horrors claimed another victim in January 2013 - Elisa Lam. She vanished on the day she was due to check out of Hotel Cecil. In a bizzare turn of events that bore similarities with plot elements from 2005's horror film Dark Water, she turned up dead in one of the hotel's water tanks. The big question is, was Elisa Lam murdered? If not, why did she climb into the tank?

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Death returned to the infamous Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles on February 1, 2013, when Elisa Lam vanished while staying at the Cecil Hotel, a budget hotel with just 600 guest rooms. The 21-year-old college student from Canada, daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong, was in the middle of her solo west coast tour at the time of her disappearance. She said on her Tumblr blog she planned to stop in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and San Francisco, and while she also hoped to visit San Luis Obispo she was not sure she could.


While travelling, Lam kept in touch with her parents back in Columbia daily without fail, but on January 31, the day she was scheduled to check out of the Cecil and leave for Santa Cruz, her family did not hear from her and they contacted the Los Angeles police. They later flew to Los Angeles to help with the search. In an attempt to locate her, the Los Angeles Police Department released the last known images they had of Lam and a deeply disturbing snippet of security footage taken in the hotel’s elevator on the day of her vanishing.


In the two-and-a-half minute video clip the camera at one of the elevator’s rear corners looks down from the ceiling, offering a view not just of its interior but the

hallway outside. Lam enters the elevator clad in a red zippered hooded sweater over a grey T-shirt, with black shorts and sandals. She presses nearly all the buttons, causing the elevator to stall. As the doors remain open, Lam peeks out into the hallway, exiting and re-entering several times, rocking in places and making strange gestures with her arms, as if communicating with someone off-camera. Her movement is unsteady. Lam finally disappears down the hall to her left, the elevator doors closing behind her what seems like minutes later. The somewhat grainy footage timestamp at the bottom of the screen is obscured and at points Lam’s mouth is pixelated.

A Hotel Cecil resident reported flooding on the fourth floor at around the same time that Lam disappeared. He said the night before she was due to check out he heard a loud thump so loud he “fell out of bed.”


The bizarre and chilling footage made its way online on February 14, where it quickly went viral. Some theorized that Lam was high on drugs, that she was mentally ill, or even both. Others claimed she was possessed by a demon or hiding from someone – or something – that can’t be seen on the video. Many even said the University of British Columbia student was playing the elevator game. The said game is an urban legend ritual from Korea portrayed to allow the player to access another world. It’s unclear whether the Otherworld to which the elevator delivers you is the Shadowside referred to by FableForge in his various games and rituals, or whether it’s something else entirely.


The Cecil Hotel, which has now been re-branded as Stay on Main, is better known for its dark history than its quality rooms and is blighted by tragedy and violence. Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, supposedly stayed at the Cecil before she was murdered in 1947. In 1964 Goldie Osgood, aka the Pigeon Lady of Pershing Square, was raped and murdered in her hotel room. Richard Ramirez, better known as the Night Stalker, and his copycat Jack Unterweger lived at the Cecil while they committed their brutal crimes.


The hotel has also played host to many suicides, including Julia Frances Moore, 50, who climbed out of her eighth floor room window and jumped to her death. Most recently, on 13 June, 2015, a body of a twenty-eight-year-old male was found outside the hotel. Many believed he had committed suicide by jumping from the hotel, though a spokesperson for the county coroner informed the newspaper that the cause of death had not been determined and that his name would not be released until his family could be notified. Whatever the case, The Cecil Hotel has been the scene of at least fifteen deaths resulting from non-natural causes – suicide, accident or murder.


Two weeks after Lam had been reported missing, guests at the Cecil began complaining of low water pressure in their rooms and brownish sludge-like water seeping out of their taps. On the morning of February 19, an employee named Santiago Lopez, who began working at the Hotel in 2010 as a maintenance employee, went to check on the hotel’s four rooftop water tanks to see what the problem was. He noticed the top hatch to one of the 1,000-gallon water tanks was open. Lopez climbed a set of ladders and peered inside and was horrified by what he saw. Floating face up in the water near the top of the tank was the naked body of a young woman. It was Elisa Lam. He said of his discovery, “I noticed the hatch to the main water tank was open and looked inside and saw an Asian woman lying face-up in the water approximately twelve inches from the top of the tank.”


Lopez told the police that no one could access the roof without tripping an alarm. In fact, he had to deactivate the alarm system himself before stepping out. Only hotel staff possessed the keys to the rooftop stairwell and door. According to the hotel’s engineer, even if you did reach the roof without setting off an alarm, you’d have to climb onto the water tank platform, scale a second ladder to the top of the tanks, lift the heavy metal hatch, and jump inside.


While hunting for Lam police had checked the roof during their initial investigation, but did not think to look in the tanks. Lopez said that he didn’t notice anything wrong with the alarm on the door to the roof the day he discovered her body, nor had he heard it go off at any point during Lam’s stay. To this day, no one knows how she reached the roof without setting off the alarm system, or how she gained entrance to the tank – and then, how or why she drowned.


There are, however, four ways to get onto the roof. Three fire escapes, which you can get to via interior doors, and one staircase from the 14th floor! An alarm will sound if someone attempts to open the door to the roof unless it is deactivated first. If the alarm does sound, it is audible to the front desk as well as the 14th and 15th floors.

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Assuming Lam could get onto the roof undetected, she would have first had to climb up to the platform the tanks sit on, then squeeze between them and other plumbing equipment. There you’d find another ladder, which you could use to climb onto one of the four cisterns. Each has a heavy, metal lid, which you’d need to be able to open before you could get inside, which in theory isn’t impossible, but is extremely unlikely.


The autopsy revealed that Lam’s body was moderately decomposed, as it had been approximately two weeks since she was last seen alive. There was no evidence of assault, sexual or otherwise. No drugs, other than ibuprofen, were found in her system. At the time of her death the water tank was about half to three-quarters full, leading some to question how an able-bodied woman could drown in a relatively small amount of standing water.


The Lam family later filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the cursed hotel, but their case was dismissed in late 2015. The judge said that there was nothing that the hotel did to allow Lam to enter the roof, or to suggest that the roof or its water tanks were safe. Though the Cecil Hotel had seen its fair share of deaths, the notoriety of the Lam case pushed its reputation over the edge. While her death was officially ruled an accident as a result of her bipolar disorder, which Lam was open about on various social media sites, a number of reasons it is believed to be other than suicide or accidental drowning was primarily the CCTV footage released to the public during the search. Popular opinion is that Lam is gesturing to someone outside the doors but the person cannot be seen, leading to speculation that it was some form of malevolent spirit linked to the elevator game. There is also a full minute of footage missing that no-one can explain, leading to the theory she was murdered by a hotel employee.

Lam’s bizarre death does appear to indicate murder by a hotel worker or another guest. Some people think she is playing hide-and-seek with her killer, which is plausible and it would make the most sense – how else did Lam get through the alarmed door, up the three-metre ladder and into the said water tank? All four tanks are 4ft by8ft (1.2m by 2.4m) cylinders propped up on concrete blocks; there is no fixed access to them and hotel workers, as noted above, have to use ladders to look at the water. They are protected by heavy lids that would be difficult to replace from within. Police dogs that searched the hotel shortly after Lam’s disappearance, even on the roof, did not find any trace of her. Cadaver dogs, which are used during such searches, are more likely to give accurate information when looking for a person than any machine and can identify the odour of decomposition within metres. Had she been on the roof during the first search the dogs would have picked up on the chemicals cadaverine and putrescine, which are the compounds produced by the breakdown of amino acids during decomposition.


Another red flag pointing to murder is Lam’s own Tumblr blog, where she mentions she was having trouble with ‘creepers’ at the hotel, suggesting someone may have been following her. Bizarrely, her blog was updated several times after her death. Most think this was because of the site’s queue option, which allows posts to automatically publish when the user is away, but since her mobile phone was never found, many suspect her killer was posting for her.


Whatever the case, Lam is just another new name that now lingers on in the halls of the hotel of horrors on skid row. The spine-chilling video footage also lingers on long after you’ve watched it!


Don’t have nightmares....


Take the Elisa Lam and other morbid tours. Buy your ebook copy of America’s Little Black Book tour guide today!

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Features / Published 05 June 2023 @ 19:00 PM