The Amateurs Who Stepped in to The Elisa Lam Investigation, For Better or Worse
Within hours of Elisa Lam’s disappearance, forums were open and buzzing at Reddit and Websleuths, two popular hangouts for the discussion of unsolved crimes, where amateur detectives congregate to pore over clues and trade sometimes reasonable but often ridiculous speculation.
Three-quarters of Websleuths’ more than 90,000 registered users just lurk and never comment, says Tricia Griffith, who runs the site from her Utah home. But within that number are many avid participants, “from every possible person and job,” who actually do advance the conversation.
Users go by nicknames, so there’s no credit — or, to look at it another way, accountability. “Truly, most people just want to help,” Griffith told me. “And, let’s face it: Who doesn’t like to play armchair detective?”
Clearly, there is some power in a crowd. Earlier this year, a detective from a small Nevada town reached out to Griffith to ask if he could try something. He was working on a 20-year-old cold case in which human remains were found on a hiking trail. The only identifying evidence was a portion of a t-shirt with an eagle logo on it. The cop wanted Griffith to post the image in hopes that someone might recognize it. “In 36 hours, we knew where that shirt came from,” Griffith said. While the case wasn’t exactly cracked, it did at least move forward, a little.
Considering what little information the LAPD released in the Elisa Lam investigation, and the mainstream media speculation, some of the most illuminating facts have come from regular people who decided to seek answers on their own.
Frustrated with the LAPD myself, I spent countless hours hunting for these kinds of leads in forums and under posts about Lam: It was by reading threads that I learned why Lam might have removed her clothes once inside the tank.
“I remember once back in primary school we had a police officer come to our class to discuss water safety,” a Reddit user noted. “He said that if you’re ever suddenly in water and help isn’t close by, (i.e. you expect you’ll be treading water or swimming for a while) the first thing you should do is try to remove extra clothing because it will weigh you down and tire you out more quickly.”
Elsewhere, I was reminded that it’s quite simple for a coroner to distinguish between a person who dies in water due to drowning and a person who was dead first and then dumped in water; people who are dead first don’t have water in their lungs, because they can’t inhale. If Lam had been killed, then put into the tank, her body would have told the coroner as much.
At Websleuths, I learned that there was no measurable precipitation during the period Lam was missing, as well as the minimum (50, on February 1) and maximum (77 on Feb 3) temperatures during the same time, factors that could affect the degradation of scent for dogs. A certified scent dog handler was unable to offer any definitive analysis — barring key details from the LAPD about the search, being definitive was impossible — but suggested that a metal water tank that is lined in epoxy or some other impermeable coating would likely hinder if not prevent a dog from hitting on the scent of a body inside.
On Reddit, an engineer debunked the widely dispersed theory that Lam couldn’t have put herself in the tank because the hatch was too heavy. The hatch is hinged, he noted, and provided a photo as evidence.
“The heaviest gauge steel I could find employed in the construction of these kind of tanks was 10 gauge,” the user wrote, and then did the math to show that it would weigh — at most — a little over 62 pounds. “However, since the lid is hinged, the force required to lift it at the opposite end is half of its weight. So, even with some very generous assumptions about the lid’s weight, nothing strange or superhuman needs to have happened here.”
I found reasonable assumptions inside even the most outlandish discussions. It seemed a certain subset of people who followed the case were actually taking the time to seek out the crazies and stuff corks into their rifles.
One of the single best contributions anyone has made to the Lam case is a video posted by a group called Film Transformer.
In the film, two young Chinese men visit the Cecil and film their investigation, which includes the elevator, the various floors that were relevant to the case, and the roof, where they proved that — even a year after Lam’s death — an open window leads to a ladder that anyone could climb up to access the roof. It’s a short climb, just a single story, and so long as you don’t look down and ponder the consequences of falling nearly 200 feet should you slip, an easy one. Either Lam or a killer could have used this ladder to get to the roof without activating an alarm, if there really was one.
That said, the overall balance of information sharing by the general public in unsolved mystery forums probably does more harm than good. That’s how the LAPD sees it, anyway.
“The problem with amateur sleuths is they make their assessment(s) based on the limited amount of information law enforcement provides,” Detective Tim Marcia told me, during the only substantive exchange I had with any cops who worked on Elisa Lam’s case. “The media outlets then manipulate the materials to accommodate their needs leaving the sleuths with only partial truths. When viewed by someone that WANTS to support their agenda or conspiracy theory, they will overlook the reasonable/probable and jump to the possible.”
But such a statement ignores that it was the department’s decisions — first by releasing the controversy-sparking video and then remaining totally silent — that created this vacuum for amateur investigation. Without greater involvement from the police, what more could people do?