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True crime. Casually done.

The Disappearance of Elisa Lam

The internet is arguably both the worst and the best thing to ever happen for humanity. It’s pretty outstanding that we have access to almost the entire collective sum of human knowledge in our pockets, but at the same time, we also have access to every bizarre idea ever dreamed up by someone’s mad uncle (or head of state). 

For every piece of information, there’s another of misinformation. For every fact, there’s a falsehood. It’s hard to overstate the effect this has had on crime investigation culture in recent decades. Now we don’t just passively receive news stories in our living rooms — we can participate directly in them as they unfold, for better or worse. 

The world of online true crime culture is filled with stories of amateur detectives trying their best to crack the case, while madcap conspiracy addicts spin wild yarns from even the thinnest thread of detail. Today’s case is one of modern history’s very best examples of this kind of postmodern crime phenomenon. 

And as far as unsolved cases go, this has to be one of the most mysterious out there. So much so that it’s spawned theories of haunted hotels, shady conspiracies, and satanic cults. But is this just the tragic tale of a young life cut short, or is there some truth buried amongst all of this weird and wild speculation?

One thing’s for sure, the start of the story will ensure that you never drink anything but bottled water again — environment be damned…

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The Water Tank 

Water tank where Elisa lam body's found
Water tank where Elisa lam body’s found

It’s mid February 2013, and we’re at The Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. It’s not the cleanest or fanciest place —  in fact, it’s just plain dirty compared to your average Holiday Inn. But even though the rough old establishment has seen better days, the guests still hold it to some standards.

Pubic hairs on the toilet seat are par for the course, but dirty tap water is a step too far. The front desk had received dozens of complaints about this within just a couple of days, all of them reporting that the water smelled and tasted awful, and had a strange blackish tint for the first few seconds each time the tap was turned on. That’s when it even came out at all; others complained about the low water pressure making it impossible to shower. 

Santiago Lopez was the maintenance man on duty on the 19th of February that year, and he was assigned to fix the issues. He walked up to the top floor of the hotel, disarmed the alarm on the rooftop door, and stepped outside. Along one edge of the rooftop were four huge water tanks, each of which held about a thousand gallons. These provided water to all of the guest rooms, as well as the kitchen and a cafe downstairs. 

Lopez set up his ladder and climbed up to the top of the tanks. When he craned over to look inside, he got the shock of his life. Staring back at him was the corpse of a woman, floating face up, quite badly decomposed. He later recounted: 

“I noticed the hatch to the main water tank was open and looked inside and saw an Asian woman lying face-up in the water approximately twelve inches from the top of the tank”. 

I’m assuming he excluded a few holy fucks from that calm and collected retelling.

Lopez informed his manager, who called the police to the hotel. There was little doubt about who the woman was, even before she was officially identified. This was Elisa Lam, a young woman who had gone missing from the hotel over two weeks prior. When she was found in the tank, she was completely naked, with her clothing floating alongside her. The coroner’s report later reported a “sand-like” substance on the fabric.

Of course, the police quickly issued an order informing the patrons that the tap water was strictly off-limits for drinking, bathing, and everything else. When they found out why, it probably resulted in the fastest TripAdvisor rating plummet in history:

“Decent-sized room, friendly staff. Oh, and the water was contaminated with human remains. 3/5 stars.”

The task of getting said remains out of the water tank was more difficult than you might imagine. The whole tank had to be drained, and a hole cut in the side so the technicians could bring in their equipment.

Now, I’ll lay down a ground rule for myself right now. I’m not going to go into graphic detail about the state of the body when it was found, apart from when the detail is explicitly pertinent to a theory. You don’t need me to tell you what happens to a human body when it’s left in water for almost three weeks.

I say all this, because the obvious shock factor of hotel guests having drank the water was what drew in the TV media frenzy at first, and somehow the basic tragedy of the situation largely fell by the wayside. I mean, the victim was a struggling young woman at the beginning of her life. It’s pretty demeaning to reduce her down to some gory, garish details for the sake of entertainment.

Instead, let’s rewind a bit to talk about who she was in life, and discover how she found herself staying at The Cecil in the first place.

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The Victim

Elisa Lam was a 21-year-old Canadian student with a love of literature and art. Her parents were immigrants from Hong Kong, who owned a successful restaurant in a town to the east of Vancouver. Elisa — or Lam Ho Yi, to use her Cantonese name — had been studying at the University of British Columbia, but it wasn’t going quite as well as she had hoped (a nightmare for someone with an academic aptitude as good as hers).

Elisa Lam portrait
Elisa Lam portrait

A diagnosis for bipolar disorder and depression had thrown her studies into something of a crisis, causing her to drop some classes back in 2012. She wrote online that she had essentially been trapped in her first year of university for three years in a row, on account of all these speed-bumps. 

At the start of 2013, she was on an extended hiatus from her studies, and feeling the pressure of the future looming over her. To escape from the stress for a while, she dreamed up a plan: she would go on a solo trip down the west coast of America, enjoying the kind of free and easy existence that her favorite writers had lived and written about, if only for a short while. 

Her parents were understandably hesitant to agree. Every parent in the world is anxious about the idea of their kids flying the nest, especially for a solo trip to another country. Elisa was able to convince them by offering to call every day to check in, and with their hesitant consent, she set off on her adventure.

By late January, she had made it down to San Diego. Despite a missed flight and a night spent sleeping in an airport, things were going great. We know that because Elisa was a keen blogger. In 2010 she started a public diary on Blogspot, then switched over to Tumblr with a page she called Nouvelle-Nouveau. 

Her posts mostly focussed on art, mental health experiences, and her huge love of books. Although, during her trip she also wrote some updates on what she was getting up to day to day. In San Diego on January 25th, she wrote:

“Today I slept, took a long hot shower, stuffed myself silly with a $3 dinner. It has been most productive and enjoyable. I seriously have done nothing in San Diego that is out of my normal routine at home. I DO WHAT I WANT”

At this point there was apparently no cause for concern; Elisa was feeling happy and free. After a great time in San Diego, it was onwards to Santa Cruz. Or that was the original plan anyway. On the way there, she decided to stop over for a few days in LA, likely just since she was so nearby already. Arriving by AMTRAK train on the 26th, she later checked into The Cecil Hotel on the 28th for a three-night stay, probably attracted by its budget hostel rooms and central location. 

On the 27th, the night before she went to The Cecil, she had decided to hit the town and soak up the LA atmosphere. As detailed in a couple of brief blog posts from that day, she went to a local speakeasy style bar, a little worried about the, and I quote, “creepers” who might try to talk to her.

She probably never mentioned those kinds of half-joking worries to her parents, but she did honor her promise to keep them updated each and every day. Then, on the morning of January 31st, the call never came in…

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The Video

Her parents were worried sick, so they called the Los Angeles police later that day, who discovered Elisa hadn’t shown up for checkout at the hotel. They began to investigate the case as a disappearance, and brought in dogs to search the premises, even heading up to the rooftop without any luck. Detective Wallace Tennelle later said they searched “every nook and cranny of that building where we thought was a room, locked or unlocked, it was to be opened. It was to be searched.” 

This stands in slight contrast to the statement of one Sergeant Rudy Lopez, who mentioned that they first searched all the areas they could legally access without probable cause. This means that the long-term, privately rented rooms would have likely required consent from the occupier to access. In any case, nothing turned up. Elisa’s family flew down to aid in the search, unsatisfied with the fact that the police hadn’t instantly labelled the circumstances suspicious. 

In the eyes of the LAPD, there was a solid chance in those early stages that Elisa would turn up after a day of sightseeing, or a crazy few nights on the town. But the days rolled on and there was still no trace. To everyone involved, it seemed she had simply disappeared entirely, leaving her belongings laid out in her hotel room as if she planned to return. Her phone however, was missing. 

As the chances of finding Elisa by conventional means dwindled, the police turned to more controversial methods: they released footage of Elisa’s last known sighting to the press. Why was this controversial? Well, this was no ordinary CCTV footage of someone strolling past a cafe or buying cigarettes at 7/11. The last recorded footage of Elisa Lam was profoundly strange, and profoundly disturbing.

The elevator video, to the point where Lam leaves without returning

It was captured by the cameras installed in the hotel elevator, said to be at around 2AM on the day of her disappearance, although the timestamp is blurred out. In the grainy video, Elisa enters the lift and presses a bunch of buttons on the panel. The doors don’t close, and she then leans out of the doorway, looking from left to right before quickly retreating back inside. She stands calmly in the middle of the elevator for a second before skirting around to hide next to the control panel. This whole time, the doors remain open, suggesting a malfunction which might have been caused by the button-mashing. 

At around two minutes in, Elisa hops out and seems to be communicating with an unseen person, while moving her hands in erratic, strange gestures. After that, she walks off down the corridor, out of frame, as the elevator doors start opening and closing over and over again. Admittedly, the whole thing is a bit distressing to watch.

This video hit the internet on the 14th of February, and it instantly went viral. With millions of views and tens of thousands of comments, the story spread not only in America, but also overseas. On Chinese web media platforms like Baidu and Youku, it garnered 3 million views in just 10 days. Those users had the same conversations about evil spirits and malicious cover-ups which predictably plagued the Youtube comments sections. [Have a scroll down now, you’ll probably see what I mean].

The fact that automatically scheduled posts continued to be released on Elisa’s blog for several months after her death didn’t help matters. Neither did the eerie similarities to the 2005 horror movie Dark Water, which follows pretty much the exact same plot line as this real-life case. These two factors fueled the conspiracy theories and supernatural theories respectively.

Add to that the theorizing of amateur analysts, who insisted that the blurred timestamp on the video seems to skip forward at one point, revealing it was edited before release. Likewise, Elisa’s mouth seems pixelated at times, as though we’re not permitted to know what she is saying. It’s unclear if these are technical flaws in the poor-quality footage, or if it really was edited, perhaps to protect the privacy of some innocent passerby unconnected to the case.

As for the ghost theories, on the other hand, I’m sure some of you happily tossed them aside outright. I mean, the idea that this old hotel was haunted by some malicious spirit which killed poor Elisa does not belong in a police report, so I don’t think it belongs in any responsible exploration of the facts either.

And what do the facts tell us? Well, we know from the toxicology report that Elisa had been prescribed at least 5 different kinds of drug for her mental health conditions. With this cocktail of drugs potentially reacting badly in her system, it’s very possible that what we’re witnessing on the tape is just a serious mental episode. Or more compellingly, it might have been caused by the absence of the drugs in her system. 

The same report seemed to suggest that Elisa had been off some of her medications for at least several days, and on the day of her death she had not taken some key mood stabilizers and antipsychotics. These kinds of drugs are often prescribed in tandem to combat their individual side effects, meaning a lapse like that could have major consequences.

The strange hand movements — not unlike those which someone on class A drugs might perform outside any British nightclub on a Saturday night, while telling the bouncers how much he loves them — are known in medical circles as psychomotor agitation: a fairly reliable indicator of a manic episode. And if a severe manic episode were taking hold of the victim, there’s every chance it could be accompanied by hallucinations and delusions.

But the meme-iverse doesn’t care about tragic tales of mental health problems. The masses demanded ghost stories, dammit! And unfortunately, The Cecil Hotel was all too happy to oblige…

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History of the Hotel

The Cecil, where Lam spent her last week by Jim Winstead is licensed under CC-BY

See, this was no ordinary run down budget inn. The Cecil has a long and troubled past which gained it a reputation for being cursed long before Elisa stepped through the doors. You might not guess to look at it from the outside; it looks like any other early 20th-century hotel, built in a style called Beaux-Arts which you’ll see a lot in the older parts of LA.

It opened its doors in 1927, marketed as a fairly glitzy, marble-floored hotel for businessmen visiting the city. For the first couple of years, its 600 rooms did a roaring trade. But if you know your US history, however, you’ll understand why business wasn’t exactly booming after that. Just a couple of years after the grand opening, the Great Depression hit. 

The neighborhood which it stands right on the western corner of, colorfully nicknamed Skid Row, was already the epicenter of drug abuse and homelessness in central LA, and things only got worse as the country plunged into recession. With Los Angeles the final stop on the cross-country railways, the area became a magnet for drifters and runaways. 

After about 90 years of that kind of decline, you can imagine that The Cecil wasn’t the nicest place to lay your head. By this point, the place was split between a slightly revamped youth hostel, and rooms which had long been inhabited by the down-and-outs of LA, often for long-term stays. I’ll leave it to Elisa herself to describe the neighborhood as she saw it in 2013, when she wrote on January 29th:

“I have arrived in Laland…and there is a monstrosity of a building next to the place I’m staying. When I say monstrosity mind you I’m saying as in gaudy but then again 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.”

She’s not wrong: the area really was plagued by crack when the drug hit the streets in the 70s, accelerating the decline of the local area, and dragging The Cecil down further with it. As local guide Richard Schave explained, “By 1990 the LAPD won’t go into [there]. It was like, ‘If we’re called we’ll go in, but we’re not patrolling.’”

As you can imagine, that kind of lawless reputation has made Skid Row a magnet for some unsavory characters throughout the years. The most high-profile of them all was the Night Stalker. No, that’s not an ill-advised superhero character concept — it was the nickname given to serial killer Richard Ramirez. He was a proud satanist and sadist whose year-long murder spree left 25 people dead. 

About six years after his capture, another serial killer laid his hat at The Cecil. This was Austrian Jack Unterweger, a journalist who used police ride-alongs to scope out areas where he could strangle prostitutes to death. 

His bizarre story warrants an episode in itself, but for now I’ll just tell you that this awful human became popular in the European arts scene for his poetry and autobiography, got released from prison after 15 years, became a TV celebrity, then returned to California for more killing… Christ.

Anyway, the point of all this was to show you that The Cecil was fertile ground for all sorts of theories to spring up online. Alongside all the dust and dirt of decline, the rooms of this ill-fortuned hotel had accumulated no end of rumors and myths for the masses to feed on, including a dubious connection to the Black Dahlia murder, an unsolved rape-murder, and a string of suicides — one in which a jumper landed on a passerby, killing both them. 

When you actually look at the stats, however, there were likely no more or less unnatural deaths than any other hotel with a high percentage of down-and-outs. I mean, if your life was going how you always dreamed it would go, chances are you weren’t checked in at The Cecil. [And it’s LA, for Christ’s sake —  half the sociopaths in the world live there!]

Regardless, you can be damn sure that every one of these macabre connections was labored to death when the case of Elisa Lam broke online…

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The Paranormal vs Psychological Explanation 

Elisa’s demise was just the latest chapter in a long and troubled history, which eventually caused the hotel to change its name and branding entirely. It’s now just called the Stay on Main Hotel. If you’re at all superstitious be sure to check their reviews for any recent paranormal activity before booking.

Because if the internet is to be taken at its word, then the place is potentially a hotbed for all kinds of bizarre phenomena. The theories surrounding Elisa’s death are too many to count, but a few stand out for their extravagance and prolificness. I’ll run through them here, in no particular order:

[rattle through these at a faster speaking pace to emphasize their quantity and factual frivolity]

1. A supernatural entity which preys on residents of the hotel possessed the victim and forced her to enter the tank.

2. The victim was playing the Korean ‘elevator game’ which allows you to access an alternate dimension by pressing elevator buttons in a certain sequence.

3. Satanists who meet at The Cecil ritually sacrificed the victim to the devil. 

4. A Mexican death metal musician sacrificed the victim to the devil.

5. A firm called the Invisible Light Agency which makes invisibility cloaks killed Elisa for trying to reveal their secrets…

[pause and frown for a second to let the absurdity sink in]

Okay, now that’s out of the way, can we move onto more serious considerations? See, I think the mental health angle to this is the most reasonable. The mind is a powerful thing, and the materialistic approach tells us that natural malfunctions in the ultra-complex lump of grey matter in our skulls, are responsible for every spook and specter we’ve ever dreamed into existence.

You don’t have to look far to find stories of people who were prescribed drugs for conditions, whether mental or physical, only to experience strange apparitions and dissociative experiences. In essence, our understanding of the mind is still pretty rudimentary — miles behind our understanding of the body — so psychoactive drugs are still an imprecise science.

If we’re to ask if it’s possible that a psychotic episode alone would be enough to cause Elisa to strip down, climb into a water tank, and drown herself, the answer would hypothetically be of course yes. People have done stranger things on account of cognitive misfirings — a reality which is probably more frightening than any ghost story. 

Don’t just take my word for it though — there’s evidence that Elisa’s mental state may have been slipping in the days leading up to the event. We know that the manager moved Elisa from the hotel dormitory she had originally booked into a private room after just two nights. The other guests in the room had reported her acting strangely, which made them uneasy about sharing a space with her. 

What’s more, Elisa’s family actually failed to mention her mental health issues when she first went missing, perhaps trying  to ‘keep it in the family’, which is common in cultures which view mental health problems as taboo. Their own explanation, however, was that they thought that to suggest their daughter was deranged might have caused the police to jump to conclusions, and dial down their search — a misguided attempt to aid the efforts to find their daughter.  

Before we go any further, let’s take a quick look at exactly what kind of drugs and conditions I’m talking about. The toxicology report is one of our best pieces of objective evidence, and it checked for 5 drugs which should have been in Elisa’s system, according to her medical records. 

— Bupropion, an uncommon antidepressant, was missing; only its metabolites remained, which in plain English means she had taken it recently but not the day of her death. 

— The same was true of the mood stabilizer Lamotrigine, which was found in trace amounts in her liver. 

— She had however, taken an antidepressant called Venlafaxine that day.

— But most importantly there was zero trace of her antipsychotic, Quetiapine, meaning she had likely been off this for days. It only takes around a day and a half for this to break down in the body completely. 

Now, if you’re sitting there confused without a medical degree, don’t worry — I don’t have one either. But according to people who do, the most important thing to take away from that data is this: the antipsychotic drug was likely prescribed to reduce the risk of ‘manic switches’, which can be triggered by strong anti-depressants like Bupropion when given to people with bipolar disorder. Once the anti-psychotic left her body, Elisa was potentially left vulnerable to these unhappy side effects.

So there’s a strong chance that what triggered this whole thing was a simple matter of brain chemistry — either complications from a lapse in medication, or an unforeseen exacerbation of existing mental health problems; Elisa was at the age when more serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia can start to manifest. In all likelihood though, we have to assume the drugs hold the key. I doubt the manufacturers have since amended the labels though: “possible side effects may include drowsiness, itchy skin, or suicide by drowning” — that’s not great for sales.

‘Suicide by drowning’ wasn’t quite the wording used by the authorities; her death was listed as an accident, with bipolar as a contributing factor. The distinction makes sense — if Elisa genuinely believed she was being chased or threatened, then her logic in entering the tank would have been to hide rather than to end her life. Her death was just the unforeseen result of panicked delusions. 

That’s the official verdict, anyway, but is this perhaps too simple an explanation? Maybe in trying to cut through all the noise and mad theories, I’ve gone too far in the other direction, and rushed right past the possibility of mundane foul play. Before we can say for sure, we need to understand why some people cast doubt on the idea that Elisa would even have been capable of ending her own life in that way at all…

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The Complications

These are the reasons why this case just refuses to be laid to rest in the unsolved crime community — the gaps which overactive imaginations have filled with all kinds of ideas, some of which may possibly have some truth to them. The first concerns the basic practicalities of accessing the roof at all. 

As I mentioned before, when the custodian Santiago Lopez went up to the roof, he had to turn off the alarms before opening the door. How could Elisa have opened it without triggering those alarms? This fueled speculation that perhaps someone with the access card or codes for the rooftop had taken Elisa up there.

However, this story was big news from the get-go, and some of the more enterprising amateur sleuths weren’t content to just sit and discuss ideas online. One Chinese true crime fan decided to visit the hotel in person to check for any access points to the roof, finding that it was actually possible to bypass all the security by using the hotel fire escape instead. Of course, he posted a video of the whole thing online.

The next question, then, surrounds the tank itself. Lopez and the other maintenance men usually used ladders to access the 8-foot tall tanks, yet 5 foot 4 Elisa had seemingly clambered up there unassisted. What’s more, the covers themselves weighed around 35kg, which Elisa would have had to lift first, and close as she entered. 

Well, first off, the same Chinese netizen was able to demonstrate that one part of the roof actually stood at a higher height than the tanks, and had a bright red ladder fixed onto its side. This means it would be easy enough to climb up there and then jump down onto the tanks. What’s more, in the video, we can clearly see that two of the tanks are still sitting open. 

This was one year after the incident, and the hotel clearly hadn’t learned its lesson. It’s reasonable to surmise then, that all this talk of unbeatable alarm systems and completely secure tanks may have just been part of the hotel management’s attempt to avoid a financially crippling ruling in the wrongful death lawsuit launched by Elisa’s family. If we imagine that a confused Elisa went up to the roof out of either fear or curiosity, getting into the tank would have theoretically been no problem at all.

So it’s the closing of the hatch which is the real crux here, because according to the proponents of this theory, to do this from the inside, or while entering, would have been nigh on impossible. The height of the tank and weight of the cover would have prevented it. This is a popular and compelling argument among those who argue foul play was involved, but actually I don’t think it warrants any consideration at all.

Why? Because in 2013, six months after her death, Elisa’s parents launched that wrongful death lawsuit I mentioned a moment ago, arguing that the hotel didn’t do enough to ensure the safety of their daughter. The case itself would eventually be thrown out two years later, but the documents from it include an important rundown of events from Satiago Lopez himself. We heard the crucial part of it earlier, describing when he found the body, in which he clearly states: “I noticed the hatch to the main water tank was open…”

Apparently nobody had noticed this during the first search of the rooftop, because nobody had thought to climb up onto the water tanks. So based on the testimony of the person who actually found her body, there’s no reason to believe Elisa did actually close the cover. This just seems like a textbook case of misinformation muddying the waters. 

Now, there are conflicting reports floating around about whether the hatch really was closed or not, but in the absence of any definitive version of events, I’ll defer to the legal testimony —  shoot me if I’m wrong  (go on, I’ll write an episode about it).

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So far there’s nothing which can’t be reasonably explained. But how about the toxicology report: can we fully trust it? Since there wasn’t enough blood to run as thorough a screening as some would have liked, they believe that the coroner might have missed some illicit drugs in Elisa’s system. As you’re probably already aware California is not short on psychedelics, and a drug such as LSD could certainly have caused all of the strange behavior in the elevator. 

Was Elisa spiked with acid, or perhaps some other drug? Well, she had been alone the whole evening as far as any witnesses had seen, and there was only a trace amount of alcohol detected in her bile — pretty much negligible, as we know she had been drinking on some of the evenings prior — and none in her blood. This makes the spiking theory unlikely.

Other aspects of the autopsy have been called into question online. For example, the absence of rape kit findings in the final report, when one had apparently been ordered in the beginning. Also, the fact that there was apparent pooling of blood in the anal cavity of the body. The latter can be taken as evidence of a potential sexual assault, but several forensic pathologists have explained that it was more likely due to the natural process of decomposition in water. 

Likewise, the inherent problems caused by this kind of strange death can account for the apparent indecision surrounding the cause of death pronouncement. Some online sleuths have pointed out that, on the paperwork, it seems the coroner first checked one box ruling the death unexplained, then changed their answer to accidental death. A simple clerical error, or a revision in their conclusion midway? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s not proof of anything strange.

The last pieces of evidence which might give us reason to suspect something shady are circumstantial. The first is that Elisa visited a nearby bookshop the day before her death. The owner, Katie Orphan, said she had been buying gifts for her family, and was “outgoing, very lively, very friendly”. She hardly came across as someone on the edge of a mental break, and had no wild plans for the day.

And then, as I mentioned before, her phone was missing. If you dig around online, you’ll also find people mentioning her missing laptop too. Had someone stolen them after killing her? That’s what some internet theorists would have you believe, but again we have to go back to the lawsuit statements which came to light towards the end of the case in 2015 — those are far more reliable than anything a quick Google search might throw up. 

Detective Tennelle stated that in fact the laptop was among the objects which the staff stored in the luggage room in the basement while the search was underway, along with Elisa’s backpack and other personal effects. Case closed. The phone, however: that really was missing. But through a little light detective work of my own, I might have found an explanation straight from Elisa Lam herself. Remember her Tumblr post about getting ready to head out to a bar? Well, later that night she followed up with this:

“The Speakeasy WAS AWESOME. Except I lost a cellphone. SIGH“

It’s there for anyone to read. I’ll admit the phrasing makes it slightly inconclusive: “a cellphone” and not “my cellphone. But, the explanation lies in the hashtags — which sounds like a line from a hammy police procedural aimed at tweens. Attached to the post, Elisa wrote:

#and it’s not even mine #it’s my friends old blackberry #that he’s lending to me #and ughhh #well not lend #he doesn’t want it anymore #but UGHHH #STUPID 

[actually saying “hashtag” each time would work best here for a lighthearted tone]

Why would she need to borrow someone’s old phone? Well, jump back to December 29th 2012, and you’ll find that Elisa wrote a Tumblr post which said:

Unfortunately my cellphone is ‘misplaced’

Life tip #1820

Never EVER work in a shoe store and especially if it’s ladies shoes […]

[be sure to mention “misplaced” is in inverted commas]

Her surrounding posts suggest she was stressed working a shoe store job during the post-Christmas rush, and she seems to be suggesting here that she lost her phone sometime during that busy period. We can reasonably assume then, that she got the replacement Blackberry from her friend before the trip, perhaps not telling her parents what had happened. Then, after losing that Blackberry at the bar on the 27th, she was left without a phone, and had to find another way to call home.

Somehow this seems to have slipped the attention of a lot of the people who have looked into the case, attaching so much significance to the missing phone. Really, it seems likely, given these little details lifted from the blogosphere, that it’s a complete non-issue — explainable without resorting to any wild conjecture.

There’s nothing in particular about any of these objections which discredits the idea of a tragic accident. Simple misinformation has sent some well-meaning people barking up the wrong tree. But if you find my skepticism frustrating, and want to let your mind run a little wild with the possibilities, let me introduce someone with a very different opinion…

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The Media Fallout

Perhaps the most dedicated proponent of the foul play angle is a writer named Jake Anderson, who published an entire book on the case in 2020, called Gone at Midnight. Depending on which side you’re already on, you might find it an incisive piece of investigative journalism, or just another piece of sensationalist exploitation. Whatever the case, the amount of time and energy Anderson expended on the research means we’ll give his theory a fairer crack of the whip than the others.

The main crux of the theory, developed through in-person interviews and visits to the locations involved, is that one of the employees at the hotel (which has a track record of hiring people with patchy pasts) may have exploited Elisa’s mental health issues to draw her up to the rooftop and murder her. Anderson speculates that’s maybe why she was mashing elevator buttons: she was stopping someone else from using it, or vice versa. 

Let’s lay out a timeline of events if that were the case. First, Elisa checks into the hotel, staying in a dorm room for a couple of nights. After that, she’s moved to the private room. Someone at the hotel senses an opportunity — now they have access to a young woman staying by herself all evening. Meanwhile, Elisa heads out to the bookshop, buying gifts for her family and chatting to the cashier.

When evening comes, she returns to the hotel. Perhaps she goes to her room, perhaps she has a walk around the place. Whatever the case, someone — be it a fellow guest, or more likely a staff member from the hotel — takes their chance. They attack Elisa or otherwise make her feel threatened, and she flees down the stairs and into the elevator. She presses the buttons to prevent her assailant from using the lift themselves, while trying to hide. 

Her attacker catches up with her, leading to the conversation by the elevator entrance. Eventually, Elisa heads off down the corridor, either fleeing or convinced to go willingly. Whichever way, her life ends that night, on the roof or in another part of the hotel, after which she is hidden in the water tank. Perhaps this happens right away, or perhaps she is hidden in another part of the hotel until after the sniffer dogs have done their sweep of the roof.

After that, the perpetrator manages, with the help of an employer who would rather sweep the whole thing under the rug, to edit the CCTV tape, removing their face by chopping out almost a minute of footage. They realize that Elisa’s existing mental health conditions — revealed by the drugs in her luggage — will mean that the resulting footage can stand as evidence that she took her own life. 

On top of all that, some of the sources Anderson interviews imply that a corrupt LAPD may have been complicit in a cover-up, either to wrap things up neatly for the cameras and the city, or to protect corporate interests with links to the hotel, and plans for an impending renovation…

_________________________________

So, do we find the idea credible? I mean, I can’t stop you buying into it, but if we take some quick swipes with Ockham’s Razor we already know we can trim this case down to a tragic set of accidental circumstances. 

Why, for example, would anyone in the police risk so much for the sake of some beat-up old hotel, especially when the victim was a well-off foreign citizen? And why, if the hotel or police were covering something up, would they release their edited footage online for millions of viewers to see? And why, tell me why please, would their method of covering up the truth involve such bizarre circumstances, which would inevitably draw the largest amount of media attention possible?

I just think there are too many wild stretches in this kind of version of events. But at the end of the day, if someone is desperate to write a noir story, they’ll find a noir story to write. Essentially, Anderson’s book just gives a further platform to the cast of oddball conspiracy theorists who have latched onto this case tight for the past 7 years or so.

The most compelling question he poses relates to something that was corroborated in the wrongful death lawsuit testimony: there was additional footage from the hotel which the police never released. Why? Apparently it featured two men entering the hotel lobby with Elisa, and handing her a small box. Surely those two people must have been of interest to the investigation. As I mentioned, this isn’t just some nonsense invented on internet forums; Detective Tennelle said in his deposition: 

“We did see her come in with two gentlemen. She had — they had a box, gave it to her. She went up into her — to the elevator. We never saw them again on video.”

Could these two men have been in some way involved? Or was the contents of that box perhaps what triggered Elisa’s condition that evening, making them potentially culpable for the whole thing?

I’ll admit that this is perhaps the one thing that doesn’t quite sit right with the neat and tidy explanations, but it doesn’t exactly derail them either. With no footage of these men ever entering the hotel again, and no reason to believe that any illicit drugs were in Elisa’s system, there’s every chance that the meeting and box were totally innocent. 

Perhaps the men were interviewed, and their faces weren’t revealed to the public for fear of inciting the wrath of the internet mobs who were so invested in the story. It’s worth noting here that there is information in this case which hasn’t been made public, likely to avoid a fresh wave of sensationalism.

Another worrying sign is that Anderson heavily leans into the possibility of paranormal activity in the hotel, giving a description of its magnetic pull which seems more fit for a Stephen King novel than a rational investigation. All of this in a book ostensibly about getting to the bottom of an unexplained death? That, for me, tips what is likely intended as a well-intended investigation into the realm of exploitation. And what a legacy of exploitation this case has. 

Besides true crime books, it has inspired all kinds of media throughout the past 7 years. The elevator footage itself has been replicated in a Hong Kong horror movie [Hungry Ghost Ritual]; a whole series of the TV show American Horror Story was inspired by the case [Hotel]; bands have named singles after the victim and produced music videos with her as a character [SKYND — Elisa Lam/The Zolas — Ancient Mars]; Elisa has even popped up in video games

Seriously, imagine tragically losing a troubled loved one only for some video game developer to throw a pixelated version of her into a demon-infested elevator to be dragged off to hell (I’m not exaggerating, that’s genuinely the plot of that part of the game). It’s name is YIIK: A Postmodern RPG, and the head of the studio that made it explained this questionable creative choice as follows:

“The death of Elisa Lam has bothered me since it happened. I feel like there still hasn’t been a great official story about her. I remember on local news they reported it from the gross out angle because people drank water that a corpse had been floating in. That’s unfortunate, but what about the poor girl who died? It’s easy to say she was off her meds, but why can’t people think a bit more about her as a person?”

Yeah, well done mate, what really needed to happen was a playable re-enactment of the whole affair with demons thrown in for good measure. I’m sure the parents are very thankful. If only it had been finished in time for the wake — I’m sure her extended family would’ve loved grinding away to save their loved one from the shadow dimension. 

With the sheer weight of media based upon this poor girl’s death, you really have to take a step back and say “guys, stop”. I mean, even if the creators’ aim is to explore Elisa’s case tastefully, you still have to question if a real human being should be so extensively fictionalized and remixed, especially less than ten years after her death. The first film script directly based on the events was cashed in on by scriptwriting siblings Philip and Brandon Murphy just one year after! [The Bringing]

That’s the age we live in, I’m afraid. Where basic decency ends, exploitation begins. And where conventional investigations fail or falter, madcap theories sprout up like weeds through the cracks in a pavement. 

It’s enough to make a good, honest, old-fashioned crime [show presenter/podcaster] weep…

_________________________________

Wrap-up

So, if you want to believe that Elisa was attacked by government spooks, or regular old serial killer spooks, I can’t stop you. Otherwise, I hope you’ll agree that we’ve had a good go at chopping through the jungle of weeds which have sprouted up around this tragic story. In the end, the overwhelmingly likely reality is that a young woman fell into some troubles due to long standing mental health issues, and didn’t get the help she needed in a time of crisis.

Likewise, despite its rough track record, there aren’t any ghosts at The Cecil Hotel — it’s just a place where the effects of drugs, despair, and deprivation have cropped up time and time again. That’s about as close a thing to a curse as reality ever offers up.

In closing for today folks, I’ll leave you with this: remember to be one of the good guys! Whenever the next true crime dumpster fire starts online, don’t start throwing gasoline onto the flames — grab an extinguisher instead. As an online community, we owe it to the victims to not interfere with cases in ways that sensationalize their deaths or impede the progress of proper investigations.

Even if you’re a total skeptic about the official interpretation of events, think of it this way.  If there really was some foul play involved in Elisa’s death, the flurry of madcap theories has only helped the perpetrator slip through the cracks. And even if there was a grand conspiracy to it all, the sheer saturation of these theories in the public consciousness has allowed the truth to disappear into all that noise. 

No matter what you believe, I think we can all agree that it’s in the best interests of everyone — victim, family, police, and all of us humble true crime fans — to not get carried away.

Dismembered Appendices

1. While much of the online attention heaped on this case was good-natured, some was markedly less so. Case in point: a second video was released online, purporting to show another angle from another elevator on Elisa’s last evening. In reality it was a shoddily-done hoax featuring a completely different Asian woman pretending to be choked by a ghost, and cowering in the corner. Online opportunists can really make you sick sometimes…

2. Even after all these years, Elisa’s blog Nouvelle Nouveau is still active. I hope you’ll agree that including little snippets of her writing added a bit of the human touch to this episode, rather than just portraying her as a troubled victim. If you want to get a sense of what kind of person she was in life, go seek it out. Although, please do so with simple good intentions — don’t go combing through for coded messages about the Canadian CIA or whatever.

3. This one proves that A: tinfoil hat wearers will go out of their way to dig out any so-called evidence to cling to, and B: sometimes sheer coincidence can throw them a big juicy bone. Around the time of this story, a tuberculosis outbreak in Skid Row meant the authorities were administering a common test for the disease which was conspiracy theory gold. Why? It’s acronymic name is LAM-ELISA. [read name letter by letter]

4. To finish off, let’s briefly return to that bizarre Mexican death metal artist theory I mentioned in passing. Going by the name of Morbid, he regularly stayed at The Cecil, and had recently shot a violent video there back in 2013. This was evidence enough for internet mobs in both China and America to label him a prime suspect, because of course it was…

Credits

https://www.latimes.com/

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