On February 1, 2013, Elisa Lam vanished while staying at the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The 21-year-old Canadian college student was in the middle of a solo west coast tour at the time of the disappearance. In an attempt to locate her, the Los Angeles Police Department released the last known images they had of Lam—a snippet of security footage taken in the hotel’s elevator on the day of her vanishing.
But the clip was far from ordinary.
In the video, Lam enters the elevator and presses nearly all the buttons, causing the car to stall. As the doors remain open, Lam peeks out into the hallway, exiting and re-entering several times. She rocks in place and gestures with her arms, as if communicating with someone off-camera. Her movement is unsteady. Finally, Lam disappears down the hall to her left, the elevator doors closing behind her.
The chilling clip made its way online, where it quickly went viral. Some theorized that Lam was on drugs, that she was mentally ill, or both. Others claimed she was possessed, or hiding from someone—or something—that can’t be seen on the video.
The Cecil Hotel is known for its dark history. Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. the Black Dahlia, supposedly stayed at the Cecil before she was murdered in 1947. Goldie Osgood, known as the “Pigeon Lady of Pershing Square”, was raped and murdered in her hotel room in 1964. Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, and his copycat Jack Unterweger lived at the Cecil while they committed their crimes. The hotel has also played host to many a suicide, including one woman who killed a passing pedestrian after jumping from above.
Two weeks passed, and Elisa Lam remained missing. At the same time, guests at the Cecil began complaining of low water pressure in their rooms and brownish water seeping out of the tap. On the morning of February 19, a hotel employee named Santiago Lopez went to check on the hotel’s four rooftop water tanks. He noticed the top hatch to one tank was open. Lopez climbed a set of ladders and peered inside; he was horrified by what he saw. Floating face up in the water near the top of the tank was the body of a young woman. It was Elisa Lam.
Lopez told the police that no one could access the roof without tripping an alarm. In fact, he had to deactivate the alarm system before stepping out himself. 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.
To this day, no one knows how Lam reached the roof without setting off the alarm system, or how she gained entrance to the tank—and then, how or why she drowned.
The autopsy revealed that Lam’s body was found naked in the water, with her clothing—the same clothes she had been wearing in the elevator video—strewn around her. Her 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, besides 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.
In preparation for her ill-fated tour of the West Coast Lam had started a Tumblr, Nouvelle/Nouveau, a landing place for quotations and fashion photography. There was nothing unusual about the site itself—though eerily it continued to update even after Lam’s death. While clearly Lam had scheduled her Tumblr to post automatically, it left many to wonder if the dispatches might be messages from beyond the grave.
The Lam family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Cecil 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 the water tanks were safe. Though the Cecil Hotel had seen its fair share of deaths, the notoriety of by Lam case pushed its reputation over the edge—the hotel rebranded as the Stay on Main.
New name or old, the bizarre death of Elisa Lam lingers on in the halls of this Los Angeles hotel. The chilling security footage lingers on as well … haunting you long after you’ve watched it.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons