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The Cecil Hotel – Death of Elisa Lam

How can one building draw in so much trauma? Over a decade, The Cecil Hotel has seen it all: suicide, homicide, criminals, and serial killers you name it. The case of Elisa Lam is just another tick off an extensive list of unusual things that have happened at the infamous Cecil Hotel. The Cecil was built in 1924 costing around 1 million dollars. It stands at 15 stories high, with 700 rooms. When the hotel was built it was supposed to cater to an “expensive” clientele. However, The Cecil Hotel is also located a couple of blocks away from Skid Row. A place that is infamous for homelessness, drugs, criminal activity, and violence.

Only two years after the hotel was finished the first death was reported. In June 1926, William Mckay was found dead in his room and his autopsy stated that he died of natural causes. His death was the first out of a long line at the Cecil. 7 months later 52-year-old Percy Ormond Cook committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in his room after his wife and kids left him. April 1929, Dorothy Robinson attempted to commit suicide by overdosing on anti-depressants at the Cecil. November 1931, W.K. Norton age 46 found dead in his room after ingesting poison capsules. September 1932, Benjamin Dodich took his own life with a single gunshot wound to the head. July 1934, Louis Borden committed suicide by slicing his own throat with a razor blade.

Those are just a few out of a long line of suicides that have occurred at the Cecil. June 1964, a local woman nicknamed Pigeon Goldie was found dead in her room. In the police report, it had been proven that the room was ransacked and she had been raped, stabbed, and beaten. She had been well known in the area because she would feed the pigeons in the nearby square. Not only have countless deaths happened at the Cecil, but serial killers have also stayed at the hotel.

Between 1984-1985 the infamous Night Stalker (a.k.a Richard Ramirez) reportedly stayed at the hotel. He would come back to the hotel, throw his blood-stained clothes in the trash can behind the hotel, and walk into the hotel in underwear or completely naked. No one questioned this odd behavior because it was normalized within the Cecil Hotel. He stayed at the hotel during his “reign of terror” in LA. The Black Dahlia (a.k.a Elizabeth Short) was also reportedly seen at The Cecil’s bar a few days before her murder. So the real question is how did an innocent girl like Elisa Lam get swept up in the unsettling storm of the Cecil?

Elisa Lam was born on April 30, 1991. Her family immigrated to Canada. Lam attended the University of British Columbia. She was traveling through the Californian golden coast when she decided to stop in Los Angeles. She booked a hotel reservation at Stay on Main. Early in her stay, she was relocated from a shared room to a private room because her roommates reported “odd behavior.” a thing worth mentioning as well is that the hotel she was staying at (Stay on Main) was a “new” hotel. Management re-invented half of the Cecil hotel to attract millennials who were traveling and needed a place to stay. But what lay under the facade of a trendy hostile was the dark ominous past of The Cecil Hotel.

She was last seen on January 31, 2013. Her parents were called shortly after her disappearance and reported her a missing person instantly. During the investigation, the police tried to decipher where Lam spent her last couple of days, down to the night she disappeared. During the day detectives found that Lam had visited The Last Bookstore. Employees working the day Lam visited the store reported that her behavior was off. The most important bit of information they found out was that Lam had not left the hotel that night. Detectives figured this out because Lam’s belongings such as a wallet, ID, laptop, etc had been left in her room.

After a couple of days into the extensive search for Elisa Lam, a few detectives decided to look into security camera footage from where she went to the day and from all the cameras throughout the hotel. Detectives were searching for hours until they stumbled across a disturbing and unsettling video that captured Elisa Lam in one of the elevators at The Cecil Hotel. The video shows Lam wearing a red hoodie, in an elevator at the hotel. In the footage, she presses numerous buttons, looks out of the elevator, moves back into a corner, steps outside the elevator, and waves her hands about.

This video is what caused the case to gain traction. Police issued an appeal for assistance from the public and released the video. The video went viral and sparked widespread interest in and speculation about the case.

After Elisa Lam had been missing for nineteen days guests started to complain about the water pressure, the tinted brown of the water, and the odd aroma of it. One day a maintenance worker decided to go to the water tanks to finally comply with the complaints of the guests. That’s where he found the body of Elisa Lam, face up floating in the water tank. In a court statement, the maintenance man stated, “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.” The roof had previously been searched, with the assistance of a police dog. However, no one had checked inside the water tanks.”

During the following months, people across the world would try to answer the question what happened to Elisa Lam? Was it foul play, did someone in the hotel take her life, or did Elisa take her own life? After Elisa’s body was found it was sent to a coroner for an autopsy. They ruled that the cause of her death was an accidental drowning. There were no indications of physical trauma on her body. A toxicology report was also done and it concluded that no drugs that might have contributed to her death were found in her system.

Detectives finally concluded what was the cause of the mysterious death of Elisa Lam. Her odd behavior could be due to the fact that she suffered from bipolar disorder which was prominent in her life. Detectives also predicted that Lam was experiencing a psychotic episode at the time of her disappearance. Lam was bi-polar and in the autopsy there was no sign of her bi-polar medication in her system. This is seemingly the answer to why she was acting so strange in the elevator. Her sister commented that Lam would have episodes like this and during them, she thought someone was after her. This may explain why she went to the roof and why she hid in the water tank because she needed to hide from the person after her.

The lead investigator from the case gave a deposition. “My opinion is that she fell off her medication, and in her state, she happened to find her way onto the roof, got into the tank of water,” Detective Wallace Tennelle stated. In the deposition, the detective also noted, “My partner and I tried to figure out how somebody could have put her in there, and it’s difficult for someone to have been able to do that and not leave prints, not leave DNA or anything like that. So she climbed in on her own.”

There are a couple of discrepancies in the case that people involved with the case want answers to. For example, for Lam to have entered the water tank on her own, she would have needed to make her way to the hotel roof undetected, either through a locked and alarmed door or via a fire escape on the side of the building. Next, she would have clambered onto the water tank platform and climbed a 10-foot ladder on the side of the tank. She then would have had to open a heavy water tank lid before getting inside. And at some point Lam presumably undressed — when she was located, her body was naked, while her clothes were in the tank with her.

Currently, The Cecil Hotel is closed. Elisa Lam’s family has the closure that they need. The reason Elisa’s case hit so close to home for people is that she struggled with mental health right beside millions of others. If you enjoyed reading this article, I would recommend watching Netflix’s documentary about Elisa Lam and The Cecil Hotel. That’s what informed me and fueled me to write this article. The four-part series is called Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.

[Photo Credits:, Curbed]


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    Hi, my name is Emma King. I'm a freshman at SBHS. I love writing about issues that matter and I love journalism. I also love playing the guitar and ukulele.

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