The K Files, Entry #4: The Strange Death of Elisa Lam

In late January of 2013, Canadian college student Elisa Lam arrived in Los Angeles on a solo tour of the West Coast, and checked into the notably haunted Cecil Hotel.  On January 31st, when her parents failed to hear from her, they contacted the Los Angeles Police Department and had the hotel searched for her whereabouts.  After checking with hotel security, a surveillance video was released on the Cecil Hotel’s website showing Lam behaving strangely, and sparking curiosity over the cause of her actions.  Just over two weeks later, her nude body was found inexplicably floating in one of the hotel’s rooftop water tanks with no signs of foul play and no indication as to how she accessed the area.  This is the story of the strange death of Elisa Lam.

21-year-old Elisa Lam was raised just outside of Vancouver by her parents who had migrated to Canada from Hong Kong.  A college student attending the University of British Columbia, she decided in 2013 to take a solo trip of the American West Coast.  Her parents were reluctant for her to go alone, but she made a promise to be in contact with them daily – a promise that she kept throughout her journey.  On January 26th, she departed San Diego, CA and arrived in Los Angeles on her way to Santa Cruz, checking into the famed Cecil Hotel.  At the beginning of her stay, she was booked with other boarders in a hostel-style room.  However, hotel manager Amy Price recalls that she was later moved to a private room after her fellow boarders complained of some peculiar behavior on Elisa’s part.  On January 31st, the day that Elisa was scheduled to check out of her room and continue her trip, she failed to check in with her parents.  Becoming alarmed at her sudden radio silence, they contacted the LAPD and requested that they check on her wellbeing.

A photo of Elisa Lam

Police scoured the Cecil for Elisa, searching only the hotel’s public areas, as there was yet to be evidence of a crime, and therefore they could not legally search guest rooms.  Police canines were also brought in to search for Elisa, but failed to pick up on her scent.  Five days later, with still no sign of the missing girl, elevator surveillance video was released on the Cecil’s website, showing some concerning behavior.  (Watch full video below.)

The video shows Elisa entering the elevator alone and proceeding to press every button.  She then seems to hear something out of sight of the camera, and peeks out of the elevator, later tucking herself into the corner as if trying to hide.  She walks in an out of the elevator several times before standing just outside of the doors, appearing to be in distress.  Re-entering the elevator, she once again pushes every button, and then steps out once more, gesturing as if having a conversation with someone not seen on camera.  Finally, Elisa walks out of frame and is never seen again.  Throughout the strange video, the elevator doors do not close, until Elisa is gone, and the elevator appears to open and close as if moving through the hotel floors. 

The footage sparked a great deal of concern for Elisa’s wellbeing, and it was discovered that she had previously been diagnosed bipolar.  She had been currently prescribed four different medications for her disorder – Wellbutrin, Lamictal, Seroquel, and Effexor – and reports from her former boarding mates raised questions as to whether Elisa had been taking her medication as directed.  Still, there was no sign of her or where she had gone.  Then, on February 19th, complaints began to roll into hotel management that the tap water in the guest rooms was black, low in pressure, and had a foul taste. 

Santiago Lopez, a maintenance worker for the Cecil, ventured to the rooftop to check the water tanks for the problem.  Upon climbing the ladder to one of the tanks, Lopez noticed that the latch was undone.  When he opened the tank, he found Elisa’s body floating nude just below the surface of the water, with her clothing and personal belongings floating next to her. 

Police and maintenance staff work to retrieve Elisa’s body from the water tank.

The tank had to be drained completely and cut open in order to remove Elisa’s body, though she was small framed.  Toxicology reports during the autopsy showed that she had consumed several medical drugs but no illegal substances.  Questioning hotel staff and other individuals who had reportedly seen her proved to lead nowhere.  Katie Orphan, owner of The Last Bookstore and one of the last people to have seen Elisa alive, stated that she seemed to be in good spirits and was planning on returning home, purchasing books and music for her family.  Hotel guests and staff that were familiar with Elisa stated that she was often seen by herself, and did not bring anyone into the hotel with her.  Ultimately, with no signs of foul play, Elisa’s death was ruled as an accidental drowning by the coroner’s office.

However, a lack of answers still haunted her family and those who had heard of the story.  How did Elisa manage to access the rooftop tanks?  Lopez, the maintenance worker who had found Elisa’s body, stated that it would have been impossible for her to access the tanks alone without being noticed.  She would have had to take the elevator to the 15th floor, and turn off the rooftop alarms, a feat only accomplished by entering a hotel employee code.  Then, once accessing the rooftop, she would have had to climb the ladder to the top of the tank, unlatch the lid, and open it.  Lopez reported that the lids to the tanks were very heavy and would have been difficult for such a small person to lift by themselves.  Additionally, the question remained as to how she managed to close the tank once inside.  Conspiracy theories abounded following the discovery of Elisa’s body, many of them revolving around paranormal explanations.  This is likely due to the dark and sordid past of the Cecil Hotel itself.

The Cecil Hotel is notorious for its dark past.

Opened in the 1920’s, the Cecil was closely related to many famous criminal characters.  Elizabeth Short, most famously known as the Black Dahlia, was reportedly seen drinking at the Cecil Hotel in the days before her death.  In 1985, serial killer Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker, lived on the top floor during the days of his killing spree.  It was said that he would dispose of his bloody clothing just outside of the hotel and then return to his room half naked.  In 1991, Jack Unterweger, aka the Vienna Strangler, moved into the Cecil, as well.  The hotel is also famed as a local haunt, with reports ranging from dark figures in guest rooms to bed sheets being tugged on during the night.  Altogether, the Cecil lays claim to 16 known deaths, suicides, and paranormal happenings.

The strange death of Elisa Lam still perplexes crime buffs and conspiracy theorists.  The event has inspired such productions as American Horror Story: Hotel (2015), and eerily bears a close resemblance to the 2005 film Black Water.  Though Elisa’s case has been closed, so many questions remain unanswered that, to her family and the concerned public, it is very much open.  What do you think happened to Elisa Lam?  Leave a comment and let me know.  And stay tuned for another entry in The K Files.

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