Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel – The Elisa Lam Case Explained

Netflix's latest true crime documentary explores a very strange case that has fascinated the internet for years.

Crime Scene The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel
Episode 3 of Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. c. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021 Photo: Netflix

Netflix documentary Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel explores the strange case of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian woman who disappeared in January 2013 while she was staying at the Cecil Hotel in downtown LA. It’s a very famous case with many theories posited across the internet, which captured people’s imaginations after some very odd footage of Lam was released by the LAPD, hoping to find out what happened to her. More than two weeks after Elisa was last seen her body was discovered in a water tank on top of the hotel, after guests at the hotel reported a drop in pressure and discoloration of the water.

Was she murdered? Was it suicide? Was it an accident? Or could it even have been something supernatural? This four part docuseries from Joe Berlinger, who made the excellent documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, delves into the case in a way that is sensationally un-sensationalist. Featuring new interviews with the police officers who worked on the case, the hotel manager of the Cecil, guests who were staying at the Cecil at the time, LA historians as well as web sleuths who were obsessed with the case, it’s a grounded and thorough look at what might have happened to Elisa, while attempting to address some of the anomalies that make this case so strange and compelling. We break down the evidence, theories and what might have happened.

Who was Elisa Lam?

Elisa Lam, whose Cantonese name is Lam Ho Yi, was a 21-year-old Canadian former student born to parents from Hong Kong. She loved fashion, The Great Gatsby, and Harry Potter and had been studying at the University of British Columbia. Lam travelled to the US by herself in January 2013, visiting San Diego before she arrived in LA, with plans to go to Santa Cruz and San Francisco. She called her family every day until January 31, when her parents reported her  missing.

In LA Elisa stayed on the 5th floor of the Cecil Hotel, which had had a partial makeover and rebranding calling it the Stay On Main. Initially sharing a dorm with several other girls, Lam exhibited some erratic behaviour including leaving odd notes on the other girls’ beds, until eventually she was moved to her own room.

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The Cecil

The Hotel itself which is situated on Skid Row (an area rife with drugs, crime, poverty, and homelessness) has a long established reputation for weirdness. Several people have been murdered or taken their own lives at the location and The Night Stalker Richard Ramirez stayed there during the time he was terrorizing LA. Some think it’s haunted but even if you reject that, it’s certainly been the centerpoint of some very dark activity well before Elisa Lam checked in.

Parts of The Cecil were rebranded in 2011 as the Stay On Main, which had its own entrance and a separate website and was marketed as budget accommodation for travellers. The hotel itself was still home to long term residents and Cecil guests and all floors were accessed via the same elevators.

The elevator footage

To truly get a sense of this you need to watch for yourself. The CCTV footage was taken in an elevator in the Cecil on the 1 February and sees Lam behaving very strangely, pushing several different buttons, appearing to hide, then jumping in and out of the elevator and making some unusual hand gestures. 

There are all sort of theories about what’s going on here – that she might be hiding from someone in the corridor, or even playing a game with them, that she’s trying to escape from someone who is holding the lift doors open or that she might have been experiencing hallucinations.

The elevator footage was released by LAPD on 15 February, at which point Lam’s body still hadn’t been found, in the hope that it might help move the investigation forward.

The discovery of the body

On February 19 Elisa Lam’s body was discovered in a water tank on top of the Cecil. She was naked, and her clothes were in the tank with her as well as her watch and room key. The body was discovered by a maintenance worker investigating low water pressure and reports from other guests that the water in their rooms was discolored and had a strange taste. 

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The roof of the Cecil can be accessed by an exterior fire escape ladder and also by an alarmed door. The maintenance man used the door, but it seems to be the case that Elisa Lam did not, since the alarm was not activated (it can only be shut off with a key, which Lam did not have access to).

Hatch open, or closed?

Whether the hatch to the water tank where Lam’s body was found was open or closed is a major point of contention. An LAPD spokesperson at the time said on camera that he believed the police found the hatch closed, but in this documentary the maintenance man insists that the lid was open when he found her. It makes quite a big difference – it would have been very difficult – impossible perhaps – for Elisa Lam to have shut the hatch after getting in herself so it would mean someone else was involved in her death. 

The coroner’s report

The report indicated that there were no significant injuries on Elisa Lam’s body and that the only significant drugs in her system were the medications she was prescribed for her bipolar disorder (though it was noted that these were in smaller measures than they should have been suggesting she was underdosing). No sign of rape or sexual assault was found. 

The report issued a finding of accidental drowning and suggested her bipolar was a significant factor, though lots of online sleuths were unhappy with this verdict, because the circumstances were so strange and there were so many unanswered questions.

What was going on in the lift? 

The fact is no one knows and while her behavior is certainly very odd it is not necessarily inconsistent with someone having a psychotic episode, the documentary explains. The mystery of why the door didn’t close might not be that mysterious after all – youtuber John Lordan who became obsessed with the case and visited the Cecil to try to make sense of various aspects found that one of the buttons Lam pressed was the door hold button, which would keep the doors open for 2 minutes. 

It’s possible that perhaps Lam’s odd behavior is her trying to activate a motion sensor in the lift, trying to get the doors to close and not realising that she’d pressed the door hold button.

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People creeped out by the footage online have suggested various spooky theories including connections to the movie Dark Water, based on the story published in 1996 and the movie released in 2002 (they are eerily similar) and the ‘elevator game’ – a sort of urban legend where pressing various keys in sequence is supposed to give the player access to another dimension (here’s a good explanation of the game and its heritage). These are undoubtedly nothing to do with anything but have added to the mythos of the case.

It’s also possible that the lift behavior had absolutely nothing to do with her disappearance, odd though it was. That is to say, even if she was behaving strangely in the lift, and even if  she was just being a bit weird by herself, that doesn’t mean she was… or was not… in contact with someone else before her death. 

Why did it take the police so long to find her body?

The LAPD searched the hotel after it became clear that there was no footage of her leaving the Cecil and although they ventured onto the roof and took sniffer dogs into the hotel they didn’t check the water tanks. Why not? Some people think it’s part of a cover up – a plot perhaps between the police and the Cecil – but the officers who worked the case insist it’s not that. 

So what actually happened to Elisa Lam?

Sadly, we don’t know. The documentary leans into the verdict that it was an accident – that Lam was having an episode brought on by not taking her medication for bipolar, that she climbed out of the fire escape, climbed up the outside of the building, got into the water tank, removed her own clothing, was unable to get out (assuming she tried) and drowned. This is an unsatisfying conclusion for many internet detectives but with absolutely no suspects, no evidence of injury to her body, no reason to think it was suicide and no other logical explanation, this is where we find ourselves. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable verdict but the only reasonable one remaining. 

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is available to stream on Netflix now.