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Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel and the Danger of ‘Web Sleuths’

Netflix true crime documentary Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel investigates the disappearance of Elisa Lam, but there are other victims here too.

Episode 1 of Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. c. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021 Photo: Netflix

The first thing I thought when I heard the title of the latest true crime documentary to arrive on Netflix, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel was “please be the Elisa Lam case! Please be the Elisa Lam case!”. The second thing I thought was “My God, you utter monster, that was a young woman’s life”.

It’s a conflict that most true crime fans juggle with constantly. We are fascinated by these cases but we know the importance of questioning our motives, of keeping the victims as people front and centre and of trying to remember that this is real life and not just something here for our entertainment.

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Joe Berlinger’s excellent documentary does a fine job of reinforcing this message, presenting Lam’s disappearance and the fallout surrounding it in the most down to earth and least sensationalist way possible. Talking heads include the harried hotel manager working at the time of Elisa’s disappearance who comes across as an extremely hard working woman who saw some terrible things in the ten years she spent managing the notorious Cecil situated right on Skid Row (80 deaths in the hotel in ten years, she estimates). The police who worked the case present their recollections – men who’ve also seen things in their time in downtown LA. The maintenance worker who found Elisa’s body appears – he has the look of someone constantly replaying an unpleasant memory. And two of the hotel’s guests speak – these guests were staying at the hotel in the days before Elisa Lam’s body was discovered in one of the water tanks on top of the hotel, guests who the day she was found had showered in, brushed their teeth in and drank the discoloured water that eventually led staff to discover Elisa. They are very much not OK with any of it, the disgust is still very palpable.

Also featured in the doc are web sleuths, a YouTuber and a journalist who had all become fascinated with the case at the time of Elisa Lam’s disappearance in 2013 – after the footage of Elisa in the elevator was released by LAPD and got millions of views online the case became massive in the web community. 

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Those who appear as talking heads in the documentary come across as reasonable and measured – some visited the hotel several times in the hope of getting to the bottom of the mystery and posted numerous theories online, but all seem to conclude – just as the coroner and police did, that Elisa Lam’s death, no matter how weird, was probably just a horrible accident.

But on the periphery of her story, there’s another casualty – the black metal musician who calls himself Morbid (real name Pablo Vergara) who was targeted by other armchair detectives who’d found a video of him at the Cecil shot a year before her disappearance, listened to some of his music and completely spuriously accused him of murdering her despite the fact that he wasn’t even in the country at the time.

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Police visited his house and asked him if he had ever made blood sacrifices, there was a Taiwanese news report mentioning him in connection and he says he received hundreds of accusatory messages prompting him to (perhaps unwisely, but still) publish a video of himself, wearing a mask, stating his innocence. Vergara said these accusations had a massively negative impact on him. His social media and email accounts were disabled, he found it very difficult to still make music and he says he even tried to take his own life. 

2013 was the same year that Reddit users accused an innocent man of being one of the Boston Marathon Bombers – in fact Sunil Tripathi, who had been missing for over a month, had taken his own life for unrelated reasons, so his family had to deal with the internet deciding he was a terrorist on top of a tragedy.

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Citizen detectives can sometimes genuinely really help police solve crimes. The Netflix documentary Don’t F**k with Cats showed examples of that very thing happening where a group of online sleuths helped identify and catch a man who made cat torture videos who went on to murder student Jun Lin. 

The highly moving series I’ll be Gone in the Dark, which told the story of Michelle McNamara’s work in trying to identify the Golden State Killer, is another good example of a citizen working alongside the police. 

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But, as the Crime Scene points out, people at home researching on the internet do not necessarily have the same access to information as the police. They’re not forensics experts, didn’t visit the crime scene and yet do still have a responsibility not to wave random accusations at people, or co-opt the death of a young woman as something of an urban legend or a spooky tale just because they found the footage unsettling. If the verdict from the coroner’s report – the only one we have, prepared by a professional with access to all the information available – is correct then what you are watching is a young woman having a psychotic episode. After this, at some point she climbed onto the roof of the hotel and up into the water tank where she died alone and scared. That’s way more disturbing than any supernatural theory.

Berlinger’s documentary is a serious and grounded piece of filmmaking. It’s one that paints a portrait of a nightmarish neighbourhood riddled with poverty and crime, a once glamorous hotel plunged into the depths of decrepitude and the people who were just trying to create a semblance of order against this backdrop and the tragic case of a life cut short. Although some web sleuths might find the verdict unsatisfying, reality often is.

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