In February 2013, guests at the Cecil Hotel—a near century-old business in downtown Los Angeles, with an infamous history—complained of weak water pressure and a strange odor coming from their taps. When maintenance workers inspected one of the four 1,000-gallon water tanks located on the roof, they discovered the decomposing body of 21-year-old Elisa Lam, a Canadian college student who had been missing for almost three weeks.
To this day, no one knows exactly how Lam died. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office originally ruled Lam’s cause of death as “undetermined,” but later changed their findings to “accidental due to drowning, with bipolar disorder listed as a significant condition.” Although the case is closed, given the dark reputation of the Cecil Hotel and Lam’s bizarre behavior before she went missing, more questions than answers remain.
Elisa Lam’s Strange Disappearance
On January 26, 2013, Lam, a student at the University of British Columbia, made online reservations for a three-night stay at the Cecil Hotel and checked in on January 28, 2013. Although the exact reasons for her trip are unknown, Lam arrived in Los Angeles alone and was apparently touring the region. She stopped by the San Diego Zoo on January 28, 2013 and posted pictures on social media. She also interacted with several local shop owners.
“It seemed like [Lam] had plans to return home, plans to give things to her family members and reconnect with them,” Katie Orphan, manager of The Last Bookstore and one of the last people to see Lam alive, told CBS LA in a 2016 interview.
But not everyone who came into contact with Lam had a positive experience. At the Cecil, Lam had originally booked a hostel-style shared room. Two days later, several of Lam’s roommates complained about her bizarre behavior, after which she was moved into a private room on the same floor. Lam had a history of mental illness, including bipolar disorder and depression. It’s unclear if her behavior around the roommates was related.
“If you have a predisposition to psychosis through a pre-existing condition like bipolar disorder, then a stressor or not taking your medications or even a lack of sleep can cause a manic or psychotic state,” Michael Drane, a forensic psychotherapist who has examined the Lam case, tells A&E True Crime.
Lam had been checking in daily with her family. They became concerned when she stopped calling and failed to check out of the hotel on January 31, 2013 as expected. They reported her missing soon after.
Bizarre Elevator Footage Moments Before Elisa Lam’s Disappearance
Before Lam’s body was found, investigators from the Los Angeles Police Department searched the facility with K-9 units, which yielded nothing. Soon after, they released eerie surveillance video from inside one of the hotel elevators, which captured the strange moments before Lam vanished. When Lam first steps inside the elevator, it doesn’t function as it should and she looks confused and curious.
“I’m convinced that Lam was not fleeing an attacker or under imminent threat,” says Drane. “She isn’t displaying typical fight-or-flight mechanisms, such as hands up in a defensive posture and being more guarded, and she does exhibit some vulnerable body language.”
When Lam briefly steps out of the elevator, however, Drane notes that her behavior does become somewhat erratic and seems more consistent with something like paranoid ideation, almost as if she is responding to internal stimuli.
“She was likely in a psychotic state of some kind, which is totally possible with bipolar disorder,” says Drane. “It’s a disconnect from reality, because the stimulus in your head is more powerful than the external reality around you.” It’s possible, in Drane’s opinion, that Lam was under the influence of a substance of some kind, which could have overridden her psych medications if she were taking them. Or she may have stopped taking her medications altogether.
After getting into the elevator, Lam was not seen again.
Cecil Hotel’s Chilling Backstory
The Cecil’s history is shrouded in scandal and tragedy. Built in 1924, the 600-room hotel was originally located in a vibrant part of Los Angeles and catered to a middle-class clientele.
“When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, this area of L.A. never really recovered. So, it became Skid Row,” Jeff Belanger, an author and folklore researcher who has studied the history of the Cecil Hotel, tells A&E True Crime. “Suddenly, the hotel had to take what it could get…people down on their luck, squatters, sex workers, drug dealers and other criminals, addicts and those contemplating suicide.”
There have been at least 18 deaths since the Cecil opened, and some notorious guests spent time at the hotel—including several serial killers. In the 1980s, Richard Ramirez, also known as the “Night Stalker,” reportedly lived at the Cecil when rooms were as low as $14 a night. Austrian serial murderer Jack Unterweger stayed at the Cecil in 1991 and killed at least three sex workers during his time in L.A.
Given its sordid past, some claim the Cecil is plagued by the paranormal, which Belanger puts into perspective.
“Haunted means reputation, so for a place like the Cecil, it’s just decades of a reputation that turns into something [we don’t forget],” he explains. “When you combine the deaths, the accidents, suicides and murders, of course you’ve got the recipe for a haunting … something that just keeps nagging at us.”
On February 19, 2013, Lam’s disappearance turned into another tragedy at the Cecil when her body was discovered in the rooftop water tank.
How Did Elisa Lam’s Body End Up in a Water Tank?
At the time, each of the hotel’s four rooftop water tanks were 10 feet high, difficult to access and covered with heavy metal lids. Also, accessing the roof would trigger an alarm. The Los Angeles Fire Department had to cut a hole in the side of the tank to remove Lam’s naked body and the clothes that were floating alongside. No one knows how Lam would have ended up in one of these receptacles.
What Did Elisa Lam’s Autopsy Say?
The Los Angeles County Coroner’s office could not perform a full autopsy, due to the deterioration of Lam’s body. They ruled her death an accidental drowning, and, with very few details given, listed her bipolar disorder as a significant contributing condition.
“The report speaks for itself and the department has no additional comment to provide,” the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office provided in an email statement to A&E True Crime when asked for clarification on how Lam’s disorder played a role in her death.
Although many questions remain, the LAPD confirmed that Lam’s case is closed.
Friends described Lam as caring, conscientious and level-headed and said she found comfort in blogging about her struggles. At the top of the last post she published, she featured a quote by novelist Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club. “You’re always haunted by the idea you’re wasting your life.”
The Next Chapter for the Cecil Hotel
The Cecil closed down In 2017, the same year the city landmarked the building. Now known as The Stay on Main and under renovation, the hotel could reopen in late 2021, according to a property developer involved in financing the project.
Belanger has seen many hotels market their properties as haunted to draw in guests, but notes that so-called ghosts of maids from 80 years ago and a building where numerous deaths have occurred are two different things.
“The hotel is infamous, and I don’t think they can ever undo that reputation. I don’t know how they’ll shed that veil of infamy,” Belanger says.