On February 19, 2013, the body of Elisa Lam was found in the water tank atop the Cecil Hotel's roof in Downtown LA. She had been reported missing at the beginning of the month. Maintenance workers found her body when guests began complaining about the water supply.
Lam's disappearance was a big story after police released the last video of her alive, where she was acting very strange in the hotel's seemingly broken elevator. The video went viral, and people began to speculate on what may have happened to her.
The mystery surrounding her death has never really been solved, and it is all the weirder when noting that the Cecil Hotel is home of many notable deaths and murders.
Lam's body was found naked with her clothes floating in the water near her. The autopsy took over 4 months, citing various delays, and it reported that there was no physical trauma and that her death was an accident.
Elisa was the daughter of immigrant parents from Hong Kong who moved just outside Vancouver to open a restaurant. She was a student at the University of British Columbia.
She had traveled alone via the Amtrak and city busses to California, first visiting San Diego, posting many photos on social media from the zoo. She arrived in LA on January 26 and checked into the Cecil Hotel, near the infamous Skid Row.
Initially, she had been put in a shared room on the 5th floor but, per the hotel's lawyers after her death, her roommates complained of "certain odd behaviors" and she was moved to her own room.
Lam had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression and was on 4 different medications for her illnesses. She did not have a history of suicidal thoughts or attempts, though reports say that she had gone missing for a brief period before.
She started a blog in 2010 where she posted fashion images, spoke about her life and specifically touched on her struggles with mental health. In 2012, she posted about her relapse that forced her to drop several classes, leaving her feeling hopeless and lost. She stopped her blog and started a new one on Tumblr, where she shared fashion images and quotes.
The Cecil Hotel has been known for the death and destruction surrounding it for years. Goldie Osgood, AKA the Pigeon Lady of Perishing Square was raped and murdered in her room in a crime that was never solved. Serial killers Jack Unterweger and Richard Ramirez both stayed in the hotel during the murder sprees. Many suicides have taken place there, including one that killed a pedestrian on the street.
Elisa had been contacting her parents back in British Columbia every day while she was traveling, so when she didn't contact them on January 31st, when she was set to leave the Cecil and head to Santa Cruz, they became worried. Eventually, they called the LA Police Department and flew out to help in any way they could.
Hotel staff remembered seeing her alone. The only other person who saw her was the manager of a nearby bookstore who remembered her in the store purchasing gifts for her family, worried that some would be too heavy to take in her luggage.
The police searched only her room and not the entire hotel, because they only did that if a crime were committed, which they did not believe had happened. On February 6, a week after her disappearance, flyers and images were shared in the area and online, bringing national attention to the case.
On February 15, they released the video that has since gone viral and remains one of the most unsettling videos in true crime. Many people have analyzed and discussed the video at length.
At the beginning of the video, she gets into the elevator wearing a red zipped hooded sweatshirt over a gray shirt, black shorts and sandals. The camera is in the back of the elevator, so it shows both the interior of the elevator and some of the hallway.
In the video, she is seen pressing buttons, hiding against the wall, standing in the corner of the elevator, poking her head out. She regularly steps out and then quickly steps back in. She looks side to side. Despite pressing many buttons, some multiple times, the door remains open.
At one point, she begins rubbing her arms together and then waves her hands out to her sides with her palms flat, bowing slightly. After a few minutes total of the odd, frantic behavior, the door finally closes.
After being posted, the video was seen by millions of people within the first few days. Some believe that she was trying to get the elevator to move because someone was pursuing her, which would explain why she kept poking her head out and quickly getting back inside. Others believe she may have been on drugs or having a psychotic episode. Others believe the video was tampered with.
DISCOVERY OF THE BODY AND UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
Hotel guests began to complain about the water pressure, and were reporting that the water was oddly colored and tasted bad. So, on the morning of February 19, they investigated the water tanks on the roof, where they found Lam's body. The tank was one of four 1,000 gallon tanks that provided water to rooms, the kitchen and the coffee shop. The tank had to be drained and cut open to compensate for the equipment needed to extract her body.
Right away, the coroner's office issued a statement that her death was an accidental drowning and her bipolar disorder was a significant factor. The official report came out in June saying she was found naked with the clothes she had on in the elevator floating near her. Her watch and key card were with her, and she was coated with sand-like particles. Her body was partially decomposed and bloated, but there was no evidence of physical trauma or sexual assault. The toxicology report was consistent with the medications she was taking, with a small amount of alcohol and no recreational drugs.
It was officially determined that she died from drowning, but that does not explain a lot of outstanding questions.
The first major outstanding question is, how did she get into the tank? The doors and stairs that accessed the roof were locked, with only staff members able to access with pass codes. Trying to get on the roof would have triggered an alarm. The fire escape would have allowed her access to the roof, but one would think she would have had to know that before trying. A Chinese user created a video in the Cecil hotel showing how easy it was to access the roof via the fire escape - but through this investigation and extensive media coverage, he knew it was being discussed as a potential. It may not have been so easy if she didn't know that's where it would lead.
And besides that, how did she get into the tank by herself? The tanks are giant cylinders atop concrete blocks, requiring ladders to look into the water. The tanks are protected by heavy lids. How would she have gotten in by herself?
The video is such a strange, ominous layer as well. The most accepted theory is that she was hiding from someone who was pursuing her and when he caught her, he killed her. Though she didn't have drugs in her system, a lot of people still believe her behavior was that of somebody who was on drugs, and they could have left her system during decomposition.
Of course, some people think that the video was just a frustrated person trying to get a malfunctioning elevator to close. Her movements and actions are very strange, but anything would become more ominous when prefaced with "these were her last moments alive".
Lam's phone was never found, and it is assumed it was stolen sometime after her death. There were updates on her Tumblr after her death, but it is not known whether they were posted by a hacker, the thief of her phone, or Tumblr's Queue that sometimes posts automatically when the user isn't posting.
Her parents filed a wrongful death suit against the hotel, claiming it did not inspect for hazards that presented danger, but they argued that they could not have reasonably foreseen she would go into the water tank. And because, even though it seems like there could be more to the story, the official report is that for some reason, she went to the roof and got in a water tank and drowned, there really is not anyone else to blame. The case was dismissed in 2015.
This case is one of the strangest in the True Crime world, and people still love to present their theories to this day. A mysterious disappearance, a strange video and an implausible explanation all work together to make a story that is easy to get wrapped up in. But it is also important to remember that a young woman lost her life, and her family has never received the closure they deserve by knowing exactly what happened to her. Their daughter went to California, and the next thing they knew, her body was found, 7 years ago today.