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Sunday, January 14, 2024

Elisa Lam's Mysterious and Suspicious Death

     The Cecil Hotel, a downtown 600-room fourteen-story building at 7th and Main near Los Angeles' Skid Row district could be a setting in a southern California noir film. (I'm thinking of the hotel in the movie "Barton Fink.") In the 1920s and 30s several guests and visitors were murdered in the place. A woman jumped to her death from a hotel window in the 1960s. In 1985, Richard Ramirez, "The Night Stalker," occasionally roomed on the fourteenth floor. The hotel put the serial killer in proximity to prostitutes, fourteen of whom ended up dead by his hand. In 1991, during Jack Unterweger's stay at the hotel, the Austrian murdered several of the neighborhood's working girls. The Cecil Hotel's new owners made improvements to the 2-star budget hotel in 2007. Half of the hotel's inhabitants were permanent residents.

     On January 26, 2013, Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old University of British Columbia student from Vancouver, Canada checked into the Cecil Hotel. During the first five days of her Los Angeles vacation she called her parents regularly. She stopped phoning on January 31, and the next day her worried parents, the owners of a Vancouver restaurant, reported their daughter missing to the Los Angeles Police Department. 
     Police officers searched the hotel without result. In reviewing surveillance camera footage detectives came across a two-minute clip of the missing woman standing by herself in a hotel elevator. Lam was seen pushing all of the floor-buttons, obviously frustrated that the elevator door didn't close. For a minute or so she seemed to be hiding in the corner of the elevator before stepping out into the hallway. She was seen just outside the elevator gesturing as though she was talking to someone off-camera. 
     On Tuesday morning February 19, 2013, a maintenance worker on the hotel roof investigating complaints of low water pressure made a gruesome discovery. To his horror he found a young woman's body in one of the four cylindrical tanks that provided the hotel's water. The corpse had been floating in the cistern for two and a half weeks. As suspected, the maintenance man had found Elisa Lam.  
     Guests at the Cecil Hotel had been drinking, brushing their teeth and showering in water contaminated by a decomposing corpse. During the week before the maintenance man's roof-top discovery there had been customer complaints of funky drinking water and showers that started off with a black spray. 
     The Cecil Hotel remained open but was placed on "flush only" status by the Los Angeles County Health Department. (Following the discovery of the body the city added more chorine to the hotel's drinking water.) After the recovery of Lam's remains, guests checking into the $64 a night hotel were required to sign waivers warning them they were staying at the Cecil "at their own risk and peril." (People were still checking-in?) 
     Los Angeles detectives treated the case as a suspicious death but did not determined what happened to Lisa Lam or how her body ended up in the hotel water supply. (I presume there was no evidence of foul play in her room.) To get to the hotel roof one had to have access to a locked and alarmed door. The only other way to the top of the building involved climbing the fire escape. 
     According to her parents, Elisa's travel plans had included a trip to Santa Cruz in the central part of the state. No one knew why Santa Cruz was on her vacation itinerary. A few news sources indicated that the young woman might have been "mildly depressed".

     On February 29, 2013 a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner's office announced that the autopsy did not reveal Elisa Lam's specific cause of death. That meant she hadn't been shot, bludgeoned, stabbed or knifed to death. That left strangulation, smothering or drowning. Apparently the forensic pathologist was unable to determine if she had been dead or alive when she went into the water.

     Toxicological tests determined that Lam had not recently consumed alcohol or recreational drugs. In her system she did have antidepressant medication prescribed for depression and bipolar disorder.

     The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner's office announced, on June 20, 2013, that Elisa Lam's death was an accident. Really? How does one accidentally drown in a roof-top water tank? Did a witness see Lam on the hotel roof? Was she swimming in the tank?  


  1. A list of Elisa Lam's internet sites can be found here -

  2. Evidence could point to psychosis caused by the four prescription drugs she was taking, all of which carry suicide and akathisia warnings.