American Horror Story: The Cecil Hotel
It started out as a routine missing persons case. But by the time the internet was done with her, Elisa Lam had become a macabre celebrity, a conspiracy magnet—and the inspiration for a TV series.
Look for the highlights and *footnotes
On January 27, 2013, 21-year-old Elisa Lam stepped off a train from San Diego in downtown Los Angeles, gathered her belongings, and walked to a hostel on Main Street. It was, like most every mid-winter day in LA, sunny and in the mid-60s, the kind of weather that makes people never want to leave. Under such conditions — when a warm, low-angle winter sun softens the entire landscape — it’s possible to not fully absorb the reality that this 54-block section of LA is one of the city’s most troubled districts.
Even so, Lam would have passed by evidence: A few old tents pitched under awnings, shelters made from tarps tied up to light poles, and men slumped asleep on flattened boxes. This stretch of downtown is notoriously seedy, home to many of the city’s worst addicts and most destitute citizens. The police consider it a “containment zone” for the homeless. On maps, the area is actually labeled Skid Row. And Main Street, in particular, is its heart.
Things are changing, a little, as developers bring condos, high-end cocktail bars, and three-digit tasting menus to the neighborhood. But these magnets for gentrifiers stand side-by-side with the tent camps and soup kitchens, and the old art deco apartment towers and high-rise hotels along Main are still largely single-room-occupancy establishments where the local authorities stash down-and-out residents.
Lam’s hostel —although the owners call it a “boutique hotel” — is known as the Stay on Main, and it occupies several floors of just such a building: The Cecil Hotel, a once-grand place with 700 rooms over 14 floors that has slid gradually into decay. But Lam probably didn’t know any of this. Like many other travelers to downtown LA, she probably picked the place from its innocuous online photos: the rooms look decent enough, and the lobby, adorned with brass and marble, is actually impressive-looking.
She planned to stay four nights, checking out on January 31 to head to the next stop on what she’d been calling her “west coast tour.” Neither the size nor the shabbiness of the Cecil seemed to bother her much.
This is what she wrote on Tumblr:
It was built in 1928 hence the Art Deco theme. So yes it IS classy but then since it’s LA it went on crack. Fairly certain this is where Baz Luhrman needs to film the Great Gatsby.
She tagged the post “#wheeee it’s sunny.”
Lam was Canadian, and had spent parts of the previous three years studying at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, but struggles with depression caused her to miss more classes than she’d attended. The California trip was meant as a break from that life, a long-planned journey that she’d been calling “my whirlwind adventure.” Her parents — immigrants from Hong Kong — didn’t like the idea, but Elisa was comfortable traveling alone. She used trains and buses to get around, checked in every day from the road and sporadically posted pictures to Facebook. In San Diego, she’d gone to the zoo, and to a speakeasy, where she lost a Blackberry she’d borrowed from a friend. In L.A., she went to a taping of Conan O’Brien’s TV show, and explored downtown by foot.
On the afternoon of January 31, Elisa Lam walked a few blocks to the Last Bookstore, where she bought books and records to take home as presents. “She was very outgoing, very lively, very friendly,” the bookstore’s manager Katie Orphan said a few days later. Lam was worried that her purchases would be too heavy to carry around on the rest of her trip.
That evening, she was spotted in the lobby of the Cecil.
Then Elisa Lam vanished.
One week later, on February 6, detectives from the LAPD’s Robbery Homicide Division held a press conference. They were appealing for the public’s help in the mysterious disappearance of a 21-year-old Canadian tourist who was last seen at the Cecil Hotel on the night of January 31.
Police described the tourist, Elisa Lam, as “an Asian woman of Chinese descent” with black hair and brown eyes, who stood 5-foot-4 and weighed 115 pounds. In a press release which included a recent photograph of Lam — smiling, in glasses, with her hands tucked into the pockets of a pink-and-blue plaid hoodie — the LAPD said Lam’s disappearance was “suspicious and may suggest foul play.” The department asked for anyone with tips to call.
Lam’s parents had become worried about their daughter when she didn’t call home on February 1, breaking her pattern of daily contact. By the time LAPD announced Elisa’s disappearance, her family had already been in town for a few days to help with the search. “The unusual part is she was in contact with her parents every day,” a police spokesperson said. “The contact just stopped.”
The Lams were at the press conference, standing behind Lieutenant Walter Teague as he briefed reporters. “There’s been no communication at all,” Teague said. “That’s worried us and the family, so we’re proceeding with the investigation.”
Despite the press conference, the case was fairly low profile. It received more attention back in Canada than it did in Los Angeles, where the suspicious disappearance of a young woman — though not exactly common — wasn’t a rarity either. And with no news to report as the days went on, coverage of her disappearance basically ceased.
That was, until February 13, when the LAPD summoned the public’s help again. This time, the department released a video. They wouldn’t confirm it at the time, but the video was taken by the Cecil Hotel’s elevator security camera in the early hours of February 1. It was, it turns out, the last known footage of Lam. And it was so strange, so creepy, so inexplicable that the release turned the case inside out.
The video is 3 minutes and 59 seconds long. It features Elisa Lam — and only Elisa Lam — getting into one of the Cecil’s elevators sometime after midnight on January 31.
It begins with Lam — casually dressed in a red hoodie, black shorts, and sandals — walking in to the elevator car. She crouches down inside to look at the numbers on the buttons, presses one at bottom left, and steps back into the back right corner of the car, presumably waiting for it to move. There’s nothing unusual about this. It’s what people do when they step into elevators. What’s more, Lam wasn’t wearing her glasses, so it makes sense that she’d have to get up close to see the numbers.
A few seconds pass, though, and the door doesn’t close. This is when Lam steps forward — at the 19 second mark — and very cautiously leans toward the open door. She looks out into the hall, first to the right, then to the left in a manner that seems wildly exaggerated, like someone overacting in a student film. Then she jumps back into the elevator.
Whatever she saw, or heard, seems to have spooked her, and Lam subsequently hides in the front right corner, where it would be harder for anyone walking by to see her. She doesn’t hide there for long. At 40 seconds, she looks out again, this time staring down the hall to the right for 10 seconds, at which point her behavior really gets strange.
Lam steps out of the car, then in, then back out, makes a series of slide steps, and disappears from the frame, to the left of the open door. Her right arm dangles into view a few times, so it’s clear she’s standing just to the left of the open door, and she stands there until 1:30, at which point she reenters the elevator with her hands raised and pushes numerous buttons — seemingly most of them, with many punches at the lower left, where “door close” is located. When the door doesn’t close, Lam steps into the hall again, and just about the two-minute mark, begins to do the thing that freaked viewers out the most.
Lam stares intently to the right of the frame, up the hall, and begins to wave her hands around, like she’s conducting an orchestra or trying to wipe away a cloud of smoke in the air. She waves her arms, wrists limp, then wrings her hands. Anyone watching for the first time, seeing this behavior with no sound, would assume she’s talking to someone. But no one appears.
At 2:28, she exits the frame for the last time, taking several short, almost stutter-steps, and then is gone, down the hall.
The elevator finally closes and leaves without her. The video then continues — just a shot of an empty elevator car — for another minute and a half.
So much about this footage is strange and off-putting that it’s hard to know where to begin. It would have been eerie to watch if you stumbled upon it randomly and devoid of any context. It’s downright creepy when you know the person acting so oddly, in an elevator that never moves, has been missing for more than a week from a hotel on Skid Row.
On closer inspection of the video, though, other peculiarities emerge. For one thing, the timestamp has been redacted. The clip also seems to be sped up, at least a little — although without the timestamp, it’s impossible to tell by how much. Finally, there appears to be least one jump in the tape, suggesting some footage was missing. But again, that’s impossible to prove. The LAPD released it without comment or explanation.
The result was that the video blew up. It went viral in the US and in China, where it received 3 million views and more than 40,000 comments in the first 10 days. There are now dozens of versions of the video on YouTube, some with voiceovers and theories added. The most popular version has nearly 12 million views.
Within hours, 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.
In Elisa’s case, the early comments circled around two conclusions. Either this missing Canadian girl was under the influence of some illicit substance, or she was flirting with someone who’s not seen. Perhaps it was even both. These are not outlandish theories, having watched that footage with no sound. But the way in which theories spiral out of control was evident within the first 10 comments on Reddit, where one user suggests that Lam seems to be on “heavy psychedelics” and points out that the papers had reported the next stop on her tour was Santa Cruz — a city which, he notes, “is renowned for heavy drug use.” From here, the conversation rapidly spirals into the possibility (and feasibility) of covertly dosing someone with LSD via skin contact.
People imagined all kind of things in that footage: that Elisa Lam was hallucinating, that she was having a psychotic break, that she was playing hide and seek, that she was taken at gunpoint by someone who never appears in the frame. Follow the wrong thread and you can wind up through the looking glass, where theories get truly outrageous: Malicious poltergeists, demonic possession, an assailant using “cloaking technology,” even government mind control experiments.
Many users seized on what appears to be a third foot, connected to a body otherwise out of frame, at 2:27. This foot is often cited in arguments for a mystery murderer. If you look closely, it is probably a shadow of Lam’s foot. But many, many viewers are sure it’s proof of another person who was there, in the hall, calling for Lam, drawing her out. This is who Lam’s talking to when she’s waving her arms around. It’s the only possible conclusion. And the owner of this mysterious foot, they were sure, took Elisa, and had either killed her, or was still holding her, somewhere out there — possibly even inside one of the Cecil’s hundreds of rooms.
Five days after the video’s release, guests at the Cecil complained to hotel management that the water pressure was unusually low, and what little liquid was actually flowing from the taps seemed peculiar. One guest reported “a funny taste.” Another said that when she turned on the shower it was “coming out black for the first few seconds” before clearing up.
Like many older high-rise buildings, the Cecil uses a gravity-fed water system: in this case a set of four 1,000-gallon holding tanks on the roof. And that’s the first place a maintenance worker checked when he was sent to investigate the cause of the water trouble on the morning of February 19.
By the next day, word leaked that the worker had found a female corpse in one of those tanks. News reports immediately suggested that the body was Lam’s, but the LAPD refused to speculate, pending identification by the coroner.
Two days later, on February 21, police confirmed that the body was Lam’s. She had been found near the bottom of a tank that was three-quarter filled with water— nude, with her clothes nearby. Those clothes — a pair of shorts (size men’s medium), a T-shirt, black underwear, sandals, and a red American Apparel hoodie — were a precise match for what Elisa Lam had been wearing in the video.
Because the hatch on top of the tank was too small for rescue workers to enter, they used power tools to cut into the bottom and retrieve the body. The process took several hours.
“It is her,” Officer Diana Figueroa told reporters. “They’ve confirmed it with the body markings.” Police told news outlets it was being considered a possible homicide. Lam’s body showed no obvious signs of external trauma, said another spokesperson, who added that detectives suspected the body had been in the tank all along and wasn’t recently dumped there.
Finding Lam in the water tank was a grim resolution to the three-week-old mystery. But rather than ending speculation, the circumstances only added to it. There were no security cameras on the roof, and while the door to the roof was not locked, hotel management said it was alarmed. So, if this were a murder, someone would have had to circumvent that alarm, climb a ladder 10 feet up the side of the water tank while carrying a body, open a hatch, and drop it in without anyone seeing anything. And if it wasn’t a murder, then Lam did all of that herself — going to the roof in the middle of the night to scale a tank that she was in all likelihood seeing for the first time, then opening the hatch, and either jumping or falling in.
Neither solution made much sense.
Where the story goes from here depends a lot on how you look at the world. If you’re a logical person, an adherent to fact and reason, you follow a pretty straight path, which seems to be more or less the one taken by the LAPD. If you’re a freer spirit — the kind of person with a wild imagination, open to alternate realities and conspiracy theories — well, you probably see this all very differently. You’re in for a crazy ride.
What’s obvious is that context and coincidence dictated every element of how people thought about Elisa Lam’s case. Had a young Canadian woman vanished and turned up dead at a Courtyard Marriott, say, the story would have been important, but ephemeral. The inexplicably creepy elevator video lit the match that sparked global interest — but the fact that her death occurred at the Cecil Hotel was the accelerant.
From the very early days of Lam’s disappearance, the Cecil was as much of a main character as the woman who’d gone missing, and once she 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.”
It’s true that the hotel has been a hiding place for some famous killers. The Cecil was the base for Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker” who murdered at least 14 people during a spree that terrorized L.A. over the spring and summer of 1985.
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 local tour guide and amateur historian Richard Schave put it to me, “was total, unmitigated chaos.”
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. Kim Cooper, who is Schave’s partner at Esotouric bus tours, suspects that he chose the Cecil because of its connection to Ramirez.
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. And amortized over a century of residents, that doesn’t seem so unusual for a big city hotel of this size, particularly one located in a marginal area.
Rumors that Elizabeth Short, the so-called Black Dahlia, stayed at the Cecil are likely false, says Kim Cooper, 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 it.
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.”
The prevailing online opinion was that Elisa Lam had been murdered. That was my first instinct too: A young woman traveling alone vanishes from a seedy hotel with a notorious past on LA’s Skid Row, then is found two weeks later floating inside a water tank on the roof. It’s a logical assumption.
But as weeks passed, and no suspects emerged, the story grew murkier. Lam’s parents never said a word to the press, and quietly returned to Vancouver to bury their daughter. (They later filed a wrongful death suit against the Cecil Hotel. It’s still pending.) The LAPD went quiet too, and with nothing to report, the local news basically dropped the story.
This left a vacuum of factual information that would soon be filled with all kinds of static: To the Internet, Elisa Lam’s death was an unsolved mystery with an incredibly compelling piece of evidence — the video — and forums continued to light up as users traded ideas, shared theories, introduced twists, and identified coincidences.
First there was tuberculosis. Around the time of Lam’s disappearance, the Centers for Disease Control dispatched a team to stem a TB outbreak on Skid Row. “This is the largest outbreak in a decade,” the director of the LA County Department of Public Health said. Other than its size, though, the outbreak was unremarkable. At least until the Internet discovered a jarring fact: The name of the specific test being used to identify potential victims around L.A. was known as LAM-ELISA.
Any epidemiologist will tell you that LAM-ELISA is the standard test for TB in humans, in use all over the world. Its name comes from a combination of Lipoarabinomannan, a cellular marker present in TB, and Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay, a form of test where the sample changes color if a particular substance is present.
Still, the coincidence was too much for many interested observers. “What on Earth accounts for the absolutely insane connection between her name and the TB test?” asked one user in Reddit’s “conspiracy” forum, where discussion of Lam’s case spilled over and attracted a new audience. “That’s way too identical to be a mere ‘coincidence’,” wrote another. “What the fuck is going on?”
Then, there were the uncanny similarities between Lam’s death and the movie Dark Water, a Japanese horror film remade by Hollywood in 2005. The movie’s plot centers on Dahlia, a woman who moves into an old apartment building with her young daughter, Cecilia, only to discover that the building is haunted. The ghost manifests itself in a malfunctioning elevator, and in dark water that drips from the faucets, bath, and ceiling. When the building’s inept handyman is unable to stop the leak, Dahlia tries to fix it herself, and ends up on the building’s roof, where she sees the same dark liquid leaking from a water tank. When she opens it up, the body of a missing girl is floating inside.
The overlaps with Elisa Lam’s story — the plot, the character names, the details — are so strange. Every time I recount them, the parallels creep me out. Taken together with the TB test, the similarities seem almost impossible. You can see how this story metastasized so rapidly online.
For months, the case was “huge” at Websleuths, says Tricia Griffith, who runs the site from her Utah home. It was also among the most discussed at Reddit’s Unsolved Mysteries forum.
A redditor with the handle “maroonwave,” whose real name is Elliot, told me that, like so many people, he was pulled into the case by the video. At that point, he says, he was “writing [Elisa] off as some ghost story.” When he came across discussion of the TB test coincidence, his interest deepened, and pretty soon he was fully hooked by the story. “It was so perplexing to figure out how she got into the water tank, and piecing the case together just didn’t make sense,” he said. “There was just so much misinformation given by everyone.”
As weeks and months passed, the conversation spread out of the comment threads on crime boards and began to sprout up elsewhere. The story’s curious nature, magnified by the web, was featured by numerous websites that focus on the paranormal: Punchnel’s, Conspiracy Club, The Ghost Diaries and more. Most chose to focus on the most salacious and tenuous aspects of the case, but there was thoughtful analysis too — often written by people who had conflicting emotions.
“This case haunts me,” Lucas Klaukien, a 33-year-old Canadian blogger who wrote extensively about the mystery, told me. “Elisa Lam is like the little sister of a close friend. She’s from my town and from a culture I recognize and am closely familiar with… this death hits close to home. I want to know what happened. I want to solve it.”
That is a natural human urge. It’s the reason, Tricia Griffith says, that Websleuths is so popular — why people from every possible place and career drop by to discuss mysteries that have nothing to do with their lives.
I could devote thousands of words to cranks and crackpots who add nothing to the conversation but whose suggestions, tethered to some partial fact by the most gossamer filament, somehow persuade others. The sub-Reddit “conspiro” is one magnet for such people. There, you’ll find threads devoted to the “Elisa Lam/Raytheon connection,” as well as government mind control experiments — the idea that someone or something (possibly relating to the Masons) took over Lam’s mind, compelling her to climb to the roof and get into the tank.
For many months, there was only this: Speculation, mostly garbage.
At one point, an actual resident of the Cecil, alleged to be a registered sex offender, was named as a person of interest in a popular forum, complete with links to his identity. He was never an actual suspect. But the lowest point came when a brief witch-hunt broke out over a death metal singer who calls himself Morbid. Morbid’s real name is Pablo Camilo, and while he often comes across as a terrible human being, his only crime seems to be a taste for violent imagery in his music. Nonetheless, accusations against him spread, causing news stations in China to report it, and forcing Camilo to issue a heated (and tone deaf) denial.
That is not to say that amateur sleuths can’t contribute positive information. Considering what information the LAPD released — which is to say, virtually nothing — 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; how the coroner determined when she died; whether police dogs could have missed the body, and much more.
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.
And then, again, always, there’s the video. I asked a film editor friend of mine, Gabe Rhodes, to take a look. His reaction was that the footage is a little fishy. “I can see why people are suspicious,” he told me. There are several spots where edits could be seamlessly hidden, he says, and compression which could indicate editing. Same with the time codes, which were redacted. “The most egregious is when the elevator doors close at 2:58,” he wrote to me in a summary of his analysis. “There are DEFINITELY some frames missing from this action.”
On YouTube, others raised these same questions, sharing versions of the video with narration pointing out the moments where things seemed suspicious. Several posts pointed out that the version released by the LAPD looked so strange because it had been slowed down, and then shared the video sped-up, to real speed — 20.25 frames-per-second as opposed to 15 — at which point Lam’s movements, while still unusual, suddenly looked a little less creepy.
There are thousands of Elisa Lam videos on YouTube, just like there are thousands of conversations about her on other sites. What all these videos have in common is the central component: the elevator footage. The video release is the single biggest reason that the Lam case became such an Internet phenomenon — one with a reach that would boggle the mind of the millions of people who only consume news fed to them by the media.
The disparity between the reach of the Elisa Lam case online and its presence in the mainstream media is vast. That’s the difference between this story and, say, the stories of Casey Anthony and Natalee Holloway. Those two involve young women caught up in macabre mysteries that were huge news offline as well as on the web. Elisa Lam is almost entirely a fixation of the digital hordes.
In May, I flew out to Los Angeles to check into the Cecil myself. I’m still not sure exactly what I was after. I’d just read so much about the place that I felt the need to stay there and see it in three dimensions. Elisa’s death was the last straw for management and the Cecil’s famous sign, which had hung out over the sidewalk facing Main Street for decades, was removed sometime in 2014. It’s been replaced with one that simply reads “Stay on Main.”
The lobby I recognized as basically unchanged from the days of the disappearance — unchanged in fact, from the heyday of the Cecil. Art deco chandeliers dangle 10 feet above the polished marble floors while brass fixtures and faux Roman statuary decorate the walls.
I expected to be creeped out, having read too many stories of the hotel’s twisted history. But even after dark, the lobby vibe was more Belgian backpacker than serial killer. Young people who care about ping-pong and don’t look closely into bathroom corners seem to be the target audience — at least until you get into the higher floors.
My room was on the fourth floor, which had both shared bathrooms and en suite rooms, available for an extra $20-per-night. In the days leading up to my visit, I’d been corresponding with a woman named Natalie Davis, who I’d contacted after reading a comment thread under a YouTube video. Davis had spent a night at the Cecil early in the year and was horrified to learn — weeks later, when her mom forwarded a news clip about the case — that she’d checked into the hotel the day after Lam went missing. Davis didn’t like the Cecil, and not just because it’s cheap. “The energy inside the place was so darn heavy and uncomfortable that I just couldn’t stand it,” she told me.
Her experience was in my head as I walked around the Cecil, but I didn’t have similar feelings. Mostly I just found the place shabby.
Despite having 700 rooms, the hotel felt strangely empty. On its higher floors, the Cecil is especially strange and quiet. On the 14th floor, where the elevator footage of Lam was taken, the sound of a man preaching on a religious radio station came loudly through tinny speakers in a hall with maroon walls and white ceilings. I stood still, listening for any sounds of residents — a vacuum maybe, or a sink, or a TV. There was only preaching.
Guests of the Stay on Main are now limited to a maximum of 21 days, but many floors in the hotel still house full-time residents. There were at least 100 of them in the last reference I could find, and this mixed use for the building apparently complicated the LAPD’s investigation.
In the case of a hotel, management can give permission to police to search every room in the building. But because the Cecil still contains so many private residences, detectives require probable cause to enter any one of them. There is no public record that any of them were searched, and detectives declined to address any specifics of the investigation.
I know the police searched the hotel, at least to the extent that they were legally able. I know they canvassed the neighborhood, hung flyers, and scoured hundreds of hours of video. But walking the floors, past silent door after silent door, it struck me as a nearly impossible task to definitively eliminate the possibility that the woman you’re looking for could be hidden on the other side of any one of them.
I walked up the stairs from 14 to 15. At the south end of the floor, a short stairway led to up to the door that opened onto the roof, now clearly marked as locked and alarmed. A sign warned that the area was under surveillance, that trespassers “were subject to arrest,” and that there was “the risk of serious injury or death.”
But there was no such sign around the corner, where an open window led to the fire escape. I stepped out onto it and turned around to face the building. There, riveted into the exterior wall, was the short ladder that still offers an easy climb to the roof. A brave or intoxicated person could easily make that climb, but a man carrying a woman? That would be tough.
Following Elisa’s footsteps took me back to the one place we know she had been: the elevator.
I found its optics immediately familiar. In three-dimensions, and full color, the Cecil’s elevator is silver — for some reason, I’d pictured gold — and the numbers on the buttons are mostly worn away. I’d been there, in that space, probably 50 times trying to get inside Elisa’s head, but in person, with normal light, at normal speed, it wasn’t at all creepy. The whole hotel is like that, honestly. It’s not nice, but it’s not terrible either. It’s just a little ragged and filled with people not unlike Elisa Lam — young and on the move, having recently arrived from other places.
Inside the elevator, I stood by the panel and pushed the “door hold” button. Nearly two minutes elapsed — 1:54 to be exact — before the heavy doors finally slid closed.
On June 21, 2013 — five months after Elisa Lam’s disappearance — the Los Angeles County coroner’s office finally released its report on her death. The official cause of death was drowning, with bipolar disorder listed as a contributing condition. Two different medical examiners signed the report’s findings, dated June 19.
“A complete autopsy examination showed no evidence of trauma,” it said. “Toxicology studies did not show acute drug or alcohol intoxication.”
The report went on to mention Lam’s bipolar disorder, and the fact that she took medications for this condition. Those medications were listed, as well as the dosages prescribed, but “limited sample availability” prevented the examiner from determining which drugs and what quantities were in her system at time of death.
“Police investigation did not show evidence of foul play,” the report stated. “A full review of the circumstances of the case and appropriate consultation do not support intent to harm oneself. The manner of death is classified as an accident.”
And that was it.
After nearly half a year of mystery and intrigue, Lam’s death was ruled an accident, and the LAPD closed the case.
Essentially, their combined conclusion was that a young woman struggling with a diagnosed psychiatric condition experienced some kind of psychotic episode at the hotel. That episode explains the behavior in the video, and the actions she ultimately took — going to the roof, climbing up a ladder onto a water tank, opening its hatch, and getting inside. Once there, bobbing or swimming or maybe even panicking in 8 feet of water, she was trapped, and ultimately drowned.
In the pantheon of accidental deaths it is unquestionably bizarre. Every time I tell the story, I have my doubts. But lacking even a shred of alternative proof, it’s the best possible answer. Honestly, it’s the only one that makes sense, even if it doesn’t make much sense at all.
But many of the questions I still have are probably answerable. And what’s most frustrating is that I’m certain those answers would crush much of the speculation about Lam’s death that continued even after the case was closed, and to some extent lingers to this day. Those questions remain unaddressed, however, because the detectives refuse to comment.
Over the course of reporting this story, I tried repeatedly to interview the case’s two primary detectives, Greg Stearns and Wallace Tennelle, but calls and emails went unreturned. Detective Tim Marcia, who also worked on the case, replied to an email. He told me, however, that because he wasn’t one of the two primaries, it wasn’t really his place to comment. He did confirm that there was no security camera in the 14th floor hallway, and that the lead detectives worked very hard on the case, especially when Elisa was missing and there was a possibility that she was still alive.
What Detective Marcia didn’t point out, but what I subsequently realized thanks to numerous references by forum users, is that Lam’s disappearance coincided almost exactly with another incident.
On February 3, Christopher Dorner, a disgruntled former LAPD cop, went on a shooting rampage that became, for a few days, one of the biggest stories in America. Dorner posted a manifesto on Facebook declaring “war” on the LAPD, then went on a spree that resulted in the largest manhunt in the department’s history, culminating in a violent standoff in the San Bernadino Mountains on February 12, and Dorner’s death.
Knowing this, it made some sense why the Lam case didn’t get more play in the media, and why it may have seemed — or even been true — that the department spent less effort working on it than it may have otherwise.
Regardless, Detective Marcia was confident that the official conclusion was correct. “Without going into her diagnosed psychological problems, we (law enforcement and medical consultants) can conclusively say that her behavior was consistent with her diagnosis,” he wrote in an email.
When I told him that the other detectives weren’t getting back to me and that the department’s silence was enabling amateur sleuths who are probably doing more harm than good, he replied with this:
“The problem with amateur sleuths is they make their assessment(s) based on the limited amount of information law enforcement provides…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.”
A few minutes later, another message arrived.
“Josh, good detectives operate under this principle: Occam’s Razor — ‘Other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better then a more complex one.’ In other words, when you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras. Once the horses are eliminated, then move on to the zebras…”
Still, I kept after Greg Stearns for weeks, getting only silence. Finally, in late June — once I’d sent a handful of messages to his LinkedIn mail, a last resort — I got a reply. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t satisfying.
“I have received your emails and understand your article and what you are trying to accomplish,” Stearns wrote. “Unfortunately, Detective Tennelle and I are not in a position to assist you. We are not able to provide any additional information as it would violate the privacy of Elisa and her family.”
And that was that. Further pleas were ignored.
What happens when police departments stonewall you is that you start to get frustrated, and that frustration very easily leads to suspicion, especially when the department has a checkered history, like the LAPD. That’s exactly how this case spun out of control: Information pushed into the public domain by the police — the video — sparked interest, but then disengagement from the people in charge created room for wild theorizing.
But, really, when I sat and stared at my list of questions, none seemed likely to break the case open and suggest a more plausible alternative to the conclusion reached by the coroner — and by proxy, the detectives who wouldn’t talk.
One was Dr. Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist at Columbia University who also happens to be a friend. Ramsey has extensive experience seeing and treating patients with psychosis and manic depression. Based on the video alone, his instinct had been that Elisa Lam probably had a psychotic episode that led to her death. He based this opinion on the behavior he observed in the video, the same behavior that launched a thousand crackpot theories.
“Watching the video, this is classic internal preoccupation and psychosis,” he wrote to me in an email. “She is paranoid and looking for someone. She presses all the buttons, takes those measured steps, and has the stereotyped hand gestures — all classic psychosis.”
When I sent him the autopsy report, it confirmed his suspicions. And the medications Lam was taking clarified the picture even further: “We have a clearly psychiatric patient, with depression and mood instability at a minimum, treated with multiple meds, at the age when things like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia tend to blossom.”
I heard nearly the same thing from Samantha Oliver, a 29-year-old from the Boston area who recruits engineers for a tech start-up but who might be familiar to users of Reddit’s Unresolved Mysteries as the moderator “hammmy_sammmy.”
Oliver had been actively moderating the Lam threads from the onset, and after reading and approving months of mostly ridiculous theorizing, she felt like she had to say something. In June of this year, she wrote a post titled “Resolved” with the goal of silencing any remaining skeptics.
Oliver, I learned, was uniquely poised to have a grounded position. As a moderator for a forum that trades in information about suspicious cases, she knows a true mystery from one that’s built on agendas, half-truths and misunderstandings. But Oliver took an added interest in Elisa’s case because she had a deeper understanding of the issues at hand. In 2010, she spent 8 weeks in the psychiatric ward at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore after a series of partial psychotic breaks sparked, she thinks, by use of Adderall.
“This ‘mystery’ is resolved,” Oliver wrote at the top of her post. “The official conclusion that she had a manic episode and accidentally drowned is supported by a breadth of physical evidence as well as established medical opinion, which I have outlined in excruciating detail for your reading pleasure.”
That detail follows, and it is indeed thorough. Oliver then concluded:
“Though this case is resolved, I will admit that it’s very interesting and unusual — to be fair, according to the wiki, the medical examiners had classified her cause of death as “undetermined” up until three days before the autopsy report was published, when they changed it to “accidental.” While I had a lot of fun researching the whole thing, the case of Elisa Lam is not a mystery — it’s a tragedy.”
A tragedy, Ramsey said, that isn’t even that mysterious. The evidence is right there in the video. “What does make sense is a woman who is very paranoid, who clearly wants to hide. We already see that her preference is to hide in a container, like an elevator. What’s another great place to hide? A water tank. The way she behaves in the elevator fits with me, purely as a psychiatric diagnosis, and fits with the circumstances of her hiding in a container. What’s the safest place you can hide? She kind of found it. Nobody found her for two weeks.”
By the time I’d finished dissecting the case I mostly felt sad. I felt complicit, too, for indulging the cranks, and for whatever role this story plays in the perpetration of the legend her death has become and will forever be, whether that’s a collection of forums filled with wild speculation, or season five of American Horror Story, subtitled Hotel, and inspired, according to creator Ryan Murphy, by the elevator video.
What I really want, more than anything, is to be able to add something of value beyond the debunking of half-truths and outright myths. What I’d like to do is to be able to tell Elisa Lam’s story before she got on a plane for California.
Unfortunately, that’s much harder than I’d like it to be. Her parents have not spoken publicly since their daughter went missing. Her sister Sarah, a make-up artist, didn’t respond to messages I sent, and considering what the Internet has done to her sister’s image, I completely understand why she’d choose to ignore a journalist writing about it.
The things that I know about Elisa Lam, then, are sadly few.
She was a 21-year-old first generation Canadian who attended the University of British Columbia but was not enrolled at the time she set out to travel around California by herself, by train and bus. Her parents, both from Hong Kong, own a Chinese restaurant in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, which closed for weeks after Elisa’s death. During that time, people placed flowers outside the doors.
Those are the facts. Beyond that is only a fragmented portrait assembled of pieces pulled from her own online persona, the one she created herself, before the rest of us took over.
The reality about the things we write online is that they live on in abstract, well after us. That means anything you read after the fact, particularly in a case as fraught and mysterious as this one, takes on the color of its context.
Judging by her blog, her Tumblrs, and her Instagram, Elisa Lam was smart and funny, often sarcastic, and interested in many of the things that attract other intelligent, curious women her age — literature, architecture, photography, and especially fashion. Like so many of us, Elisa’s problems seemed to mostly lie within, and she wasn’t afraid to say as much online, for whoever happened to find her there. Her Tumblr, which she called Nouvelle/Nouveau, alternates between light and dark, between anger and optimism, between heavy quotes about loneliness and identity and things chosen (I assume) because she found them funny.
It is pointless to draw any assumptions about a person from the images she grabbed from other websites and collaged on a page, but it felt good to be laughing at things that Elisa selected precisely because they were funny.
This person, viewed through a very tiny virtual window that features only a few lines of her own writing, and no pictures of her own, was somehow more alive and three-dimensional than any version of Elisa Lam I’d found so far.
Until the fall of 2012, when she noted that she was “much more active on tumblr,” Elisa kept another blog which, though infrequently updated, seems like an honest and raw account of her feelings: Frustration, disappointment, confusion, and a fair amount of self-loathing. Elisa felt that she ate poorly and didn’t exercise enough. She considered herself lazy and was worried about what she’d do with her life. In other words, she felt the kinds of things we all feel at 21. But Elisa had bigger, realer issues, too.
Depression haunted her, and it seemed to flare up in 2012, causing her to miss classes again. In three years, Elisa writes, she completed only three courses and was officially still a first-year student. Meanwhile, her peers were moving on, and that reality cast her further adrift. She slept during the day and was up at night, online, reading about fashion and posting to social media, where there’s always someone to talk to.
Her penultimate post, written on April 4, 2012, is titled “Worries of a twenty something” and is particularly painful to read in retrospect.
I spent about two days in bed hating myself. Why don’t I simply do the things that I know will make me feel better? It isn’t rocket science. It isn’t that difficult. Get out of bed. Eat. See people. Talk to people. Exercise. Write. Read.
The post from there is no less self-excoriating, a public airing of the qualities Elisa most hates in herself that finishes with these lines: “The only thing that does make you different is that you’re a complete utter failure and have depression so la dee da that makes you special. Why aren’t so proud of that? Oh it’s special because people can pity you and you can manipulate them with their pity and use them to just weedle (sic) out more time. But you don’t do anything. God I hate you so much.”
That last line stopped me.
It was the point at which my exploration into Elisa’s online persona in search of her actual person ceased to feel like journalism and started to feel like voyeurism. Without access to any humans who’d known her, I was fishing around in collections of her thoughts, many of them dashed off in her most vulnerable moments. I felt a little sick.
That was when I noticed that the post had 48 comments. It seemed like a lot for a student’s blog. I clicked.
The first was left by a concerned reader, offering help, written 10 weeks after the post itself. But the next 47 were all written after her death, and the first one — posted March 1, 2013 at 2:52am—restored my belief that chasing Elisa’s Internet ghost was a worthy exercise, after all.
Here’s that post, in full:
This will seem stupid to many people, because I am writing to a dead person.
I don’t know you and we have never met or even knew of each other’s existence until your tragic fate. When I first heard of the news and saw your picture. I don’t know why, but I felt torn and drawn to you. I became obsessed in finding news articles about the case. I tried but could not let it go. I became obsessed in finding more about you.
Now, after reading your tumblrs, tweets, and this blog. I am at a loss for words because I feel like I am literally staring at a mirror of myself. Your words are the very words I’ve spoken (and typed) in my life. Your questions are ones I’ve asked myself so many times. Your fears, regrets, and even the joys and cheers. I understand the cause of your depression, as it is for me… the unfulfillment of two greatest desires: to be loved, to be understood.
You are a perfectionist, and you are looking for perfect love. And so much that to the world you seem odd and out of place, this leaves you feeling like nobody understands you. At times you want to be like everyone else, but inside you know you cannot be contrary to yourself. You wonder often, why is it so easy for everyone else, why is it so hard for you.
I hope in death you will still be able to read this letter. Because at the very least, you would know… someone does understand. But even in death, you have helped others. Because knowing you, now I know… someone understands me. My whole life, I’ve asked that question too… if only… if only someone understands me. Understands what I am going through. The irony of life that I finally found someone who does, and she is gone.
My only regret is… not finding you sooner.
God bless you. Good journey…
It’s easy to grow exhausted and be demoralized by the internet, which seems to enliven all of world’s worst humans, providing a bullhorn for hatred and anger to be spewed with no repercussions, thanks to anonymity and the ease and safety of yelling at a screen by typing capital letters on a keyboard. Online it often seems as if everyone is a bully.
Or if they’re not bullies, they’re cranks who do wrong even when they’re trying to do good — as is especially true of people who contribute to messages boards about unsolved crimes. Too much zeal is a dangerous thing — as when Redditors fingered the wrong backpack wearer in the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombing, or when they accuse a death metal singer of involvement in the death of a young woman no one knows.
But reading the comments on Lam’s blog, under a passage that was so raw and honest that I’d felt bad reading it, was an important reminder of another thing the Internet offers: Community.
These comments were left by passersby who came because they were curious and stayed because they found company. One anonymous writer shared a story about how the death of a friend brought together many people who had drifted apart, which is a specific way of conveying the message that even the absolute worst things can bring some good.
Up until the end, I was still hearing from Elliot, the 16-year-old high school Reddit user who couldn’t shake the particulars of the case. Like me, he was trying to create a picture of who Elisa Lam the person was. And, like me, Elliot’s interest shifted after reading her blog.
Instead of looking at the story as entertainment, he started thinking about “who Elisa Lam was when she was alive,” he said. That’s what kept bringing him back. Elliot was still obsessed with the case, but now “felt a deep connection [to her] and thus I wanted to know how she died and why she was acting the way she was acting in the video.”
More than two years later, he’s a little embarrassed to recall the time when his interest was more impetuous. In retrospect, that seems wrong. “Too many approached her case like some horror or Paranormal Activity movie,” he told me. “Everyone thinks that just because she stayed in a hotel that past serial killers have stayed in means that she was murdered when the facts do not point to that.”
Like me, he was trying to redeem the story, in some small way.
“I want her legacy not to be remembered as the girl who was decomposing in a hotel’s drinking and showering water. I want Elisa to be remembered… as a girl who was incredibly honest with herself and the world. I want her to be remembered as the girl who loved reading Gatsby in French, loved learning new things, and had an exquisite taste in fashion.”
“But I also want to her death to be remembered as a tragedy because we lost someone who would have made a difference in the world. Essentially, Elisa’s is a tragic legacy because it wasn’t until she was found dead that she finally became alive to the world.”
This story was written by Josh Dean, edited by Bobbie Johnson, and fact-checked by Sarah Sloat. Photographs by Daniel Shea for Matter.