From the very early days of Elisa Lam’s disappearance, the Cecil Hotel was as much of a main character as the woman who’d gone missing. Once Lam was found dead, many stories hinted — if not outright suggested — that the building itself played a role.
“Hotel with corpse in water tank has notorious past,” was the headline on a CNN.com color piece published along with the news story about the discovery of Lam’s body. “Since its construction in 1927, it’s been the focus of suicides, murders, mystery disappearances, and serial killers,” an Australian news site said of the hotel. “Home to murderers, maniacs, and ghosts, some say the Cecil is anything but your average hotel, they say it’s cursed,” reported one blog. Another simply called it “Serial Killer Central.”
Richard Ramirez, more commonly known as the Night Stalker, was chief among them. Ramirez seems to have committed his first murder in San Francisco in April of 1984, at the age of 24, and he continued his rampage over the next year — mostly around LA, based out of the Cecil — until he was finally caught in August of 1985.
Ramirez was a Satanist and a particularly awful human, even for a serial killer: He seemed to have no M.O. except to be as sadistic as possible.
His victims — men, women, children — were chosen randomly and killed in a variety of ways, with whatever weapon was handy, often after a sexual assault. Most reports suggest that he influenced as a teenager by his cousin Mike, a Green Beret who bragged of committing horrific acts in Vietnam, and who later shot his wife to death in front of Ramirez.
The Night Stalker was ultimately caught after a rape victim who’d been left alive got a look at his getaway car, a stolen Toyota that was found abandoned and connected to Ramirez by a single fingerprint. Once they had a suspect, police broadcast his name and face widely and Ramirez was recognized and beaten by a mob in East Los Angeles.
He was convicted in 1989 of 13 counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder, 11 sexual assaults, and 14 burglaries, and sentenced to death. To which he said: “No big deal. Death always comes with the territory. I’ll see you in Disneyland.”
Ramirez spent the next 23 years on Death Row at San Quentin, but died of Lymphoma in 2013. He was 53.
Even during the golden age of downtown L.A., Skid Row was a down-at-heel district. It comprises roughly 54 blocks and has been the most concentrated area of poverty in Los Angeles since the late 19th Century, despite close proximity to many corporate and financial headquarters.
According to the Union Rescue Mission, one of the main relief groups working on Skid Row, the area arose because it was “the ideal congregating spot for hobos, aimless rail riders, transient workers, and people running away from past lives because it was the last stop on the train for the whole country.”
In 1975, L.A. adopted a “policy of containment,” to centralize food, housing, employment, and substance abuse services for the homeless, which only cemented the area’s status.
Things in downtown were declining once the huge Main Street hotels started seeing the business crowd drift away toward the airport. But they got worse in the 1970s and into the ’80s, when crack arrived and turned this part of the city into a place so dark and dangerous that no one of sane mind dared set foot there.
“The Cecil and the Alexandria and the Twin Rosslyn hotels just become these giant coral reefs of the worst people in the world,” says Richard Schave, who runs Esotouric bus tours with his partner Kim Cooper, and makes the Cecil a featured stop on the “Hotel Horrors and Main Street Vice” package. “By 1990, the LAPD won’t go into [these places]. It was like, ‘If we’re called we’ll go in. But we’re not patrolling.’”
That’s how a guy like the Night Stalker could operate there. Ramirez would return to the Cecil after a killing and ditch his blood-soaked clothes in the dumpsters out back, then walk into the hotel either naked or maybe in his underwear, none of which would have raised an eyebrow since the Cecil in the 1980s, as Schave put it to me, “was total, unmitigated chaos.”
After all, that dumpster probably contained far worse things, and it wouldn’t have been weird to see a half-naked man wandering around a hotel renowned for vice and where the police rarely ventured. Drug dealers worked openly inside. The bodies of overdosed residents could linger in the hall for days. “No one wanted to be the person who called the cops,” Schave says.
In 1991, six years after Ramirez was caught and sentenced to death, a 41-year-old Austrian journalist named Jack Unterweger checked into the Cecil while he worked on a story about crime in L.A. for an Austrian magazine. Unterweger used his reporting work to secure ride-alongs with LAPD vice cops and those trips were revealed as scouting missions when it was later discovered that Unterweger was also a serial killer with a penchant for strangling prostitutes. It is suspected (but was never proven) that he chose the Cecil because of its connection to Ramirez.
When Austrian police connected the strangulation deaths of three L.A. sex workers with a series of six unsolved murders back home — all of them prostitutes who’d been sexually assaulted and strangled with their own bras, using a distinct ligature — Unterweger fled and was arrested in Miami in February of 1992. Unterweger, it turns out, had started abusing prostitutes in his youth, and at age 24 he was convicted of strangling an 18-year-old German woman with her own bra, and sentenced to life in prison.
Behind bars, Unterweger had been a model inmate, publishing poems, plays, and an autobiography that became a movie and his popularity made him a cause célèbre in the European arts community, which began to lobby passionately for his release. In 1990, after serving 15 years, Unterweger was granted parole, and almost overnight became a popular TV host and journalist. Within a year, he was in California, killing women again.
In June 1994, an Austrian court convicted Unterweger of 11 murders and sentenced him to life with no chance of parole. That night, he killed himself in his cell — with a poetic twist. “He tied the ligature,” Richard Schave told me. “The signature ligature by which he killed all the prostitutes in Los Angeles and Vienna. That was his confession.”
In addition to these serial killer links, there have been numerous other violent deaths at the Cecil — including the 1964 rape and murder of a telephone operator, and at least three suicides, all of them jumpers, one of whom landed on a pedestrian, killing him too. Amortized over a century of residents, that actually doesn’t seem so unusual for a big city hotel of this size, particularly one located on Skid Row, but in combination with the serial killer connections, it all casts the Cecil in an especially macabre light.
Rumors that Elizabeth Short, the so-called Black Dahlia, stayed at the Cecil are likely false, says Kim Cooper, the tour guide who is also a writer, and has researched Short’s story extensively. Short did stay nearby, and perhaps visited a bar a few doors up Main Street from the Cecil the night of her notorious murder, but that’s the extent of her ties to the hotel.
Still, Elizabeth Short’s story has eerie parallels to Elisa Lam’s. As Cooper points out, each was a woman in her twenties, traveling alone to L.A. from San Diego, last seen in a downtown hotel, and went missing for several days before being found dead under shocking conditions. Finally, and most apt, Cooper says, “the deaths of both of these unfortunate young women inspired enormous media attention and speculation.”