Thursday, July 25, 2024

The Dark Cases: The Death of Elisa Lam

By Matthew Wendler

It was the low water pressure that caused complaints to be made by guests of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles Feb. 19, 2013. Complaints were also made about the water’s unusual taste with some guests claiming the water had dark discoloration. Hotel maintenance worker Santiago Lopez was sent to investigate the matter.

Four large cisterns sit tall on the hotel rooftop, all eight feet in height and able to hold 1,000 gallons each. When Lopez reached the top of the tanks, he found the hatch of one of them open. There, he discovered a person, her decomposing figure void of all clothing. It was the body of a young woman, floating face-up, inside the water tank.

The victim was identified as Elisa Lam, a 21 year-old college student at the University of British Columbia from Vancouver, Canada. 

Before her death, Lam was touring numerous towns and cities along the western coast of the United States as part of a self-planned trip. After spending a night in San Diego, she made her way over to Los Angeles. She used public transportation to travel and checked into the Cecil Hotel Jan. 28, 2013. She was originally assigned a shared room; however, her roommates made complaints about odd and disruptive behavior exhibited by Lam, resulting in her getting moved to a private room.

On each day of her trip, Lam made a phone call to her parents. She was scheduled to check out of the hotel Feb. 1, 2013 with plans to head toward Santa Cruz. By that time, her parents hadn’t received any calls from her since Jan. 30. 

Her parents tried continuously calling her, but she did not answer. They contacted the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as a result and reported her as missing. The police searched her hotel room, as well as the area surrounding the hotel, but came upon no leads. 

Her belongings were bagged and placed in a storage room by staff after she failed to check out. Nearly everything was left behind. One of her last known sightings was at a shop called The Last Bookstore Jan. 31, 2013.

The last known footage taken of her was released by the LAPD Feb. 14, 2013. It was recorded by a Cecil Hotel elevator surveillance camera Feb. 1 and was taken while the elevator was on the 14th floor. In the video, Lam exhibited peculiar behavior. 

First, she walked into the elevator and pressed all the buttons in the center row. One of them was a door-hold button that prevented the elevator from moving for two minutes. Next, she looked out into the hall, turned her head both ways, then backed into the corner beside the buttons. 

Lam then cautiously jumped out of the elevator, side stepped to the left, stepped back inside, then walked out and stood to the left of the doorway. She went back inside a few seconds later and once again pressed all the center row buttons. Afterward, Lam stepped out, stood to the left of the doorway again, and started making odd gestures with her hands. 

Lam’s fingers were outstretched, with her hands waving up and down. She then walked off down the corridor. The elevator door closed seconds later. It is unknown whether there was another party present outside of the camera’s view. 

The same clothes Lam was wearing in the video, as well as her room key, were found at the bottom of the water tank.

After Lam was discovered, the tank was drained and cut open for the retrieval of her body. The autopsy report, released to the public five months after her death, found no signs of physical trauma or sexual assult. In the toxicology report, only small traces of prescription medication and 0.02 g% of alcohol were found. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office ruled the cause of death as an accidental drowning.

Lam was previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, which was why she was taking medication. The coroner theorized she experienced a manic episode due to undertaking her meds, which was said to have served as a contributing condition that led to her final moments. 

When a person suffers from a manic episode, they tend to have an extreme change in mood that alters their state of mind. They will have overly high energy and are more susceptible to engaging in risky behaviors. They may also suffer from hallucinations. 

While the roof access doors were locked with an alarm system in place, she could have easily climbed up the fire escape to get there. It is suspected she jumped into the tank herself. There are many people however, that are not satisfied with this conclusion and believe foul play was involved. The case has many unanswered questions. What was running through Lam’s head when she was in the elevator? What would have influenced her to climb to the roof and jump into the water tank, especially since she was scheduled to leave the day the footage was taken? The full truth may never be known. 

The Cecil Hotel is known for having a dark history. It was built in 1924, and its doors were opened in 1927. Over the years, the hotel became associated with numerous cases of violence, murder and suicide. With the number of deaths that occurred there, the hotel is widely believed to be haunted. A portion of the hotel was re-branded with the name “Stay on Main,’’ by new management in 2011. It closed down for renovations in 2017 and re-opened as an affordable housing complex in 2021.

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