What happened to Elisa Lam?

Unsolved Crimes - Elisa Lam

On February 19, 2013, maintenance worker Santiago Lopez took the lift to the 15th floor of Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel.

There were problems with the water supply. Complaints had been coming through to reception for days: low pressure, a dark colour, even a strange smell seeping from some of the taps.

From the 15th floor, Lopez took the stairs to the roof, where he disabled the access alarm, walked across to a platform, and then climbed a ladder to the top of the downtown building’s three metre-tall water tanks. One of the hatches was open. He peered inside.

There, he saw the body of an Asian woman face up in the water, naked, with her clothes floating beside her.

It was the guest who had vanished less than three weeks earlier: 21-year-old Canadian tourist, Elisa Lam.

Elisa Lam’s Last Days

Elisa Lam was on a solo holiday when she died. The University of British Columbia student was on her way to Santa Cruz, California, when she checked into the Cecil Hotel on January 28, 2013. 

21-year-old Canadian tourist, Elisa Lam.

She was booked in for a three-night stay and, according to court documents, was initially assigned a shared room but roommate complaints about her “certain odd behaviour” saw her moved to one of her own.

Lam kept her promise to remain in contact with her family every day of her trip. On Jan. 31, 2013, however, Lam went quiet. This was the day that Lam was supposed to have checked out of the Cecil Hotel and headed to Santa Cruz, but . . . nothing happened. The Lam family would call the police to report Elisa Lam missing and head to L.A. in order to search for her.

Police acted quickly. They descended on the Cecil Hotel and interviewed hotel staff and businesses in the surrounding area. 

One of the last people to speak to Elisa was Katie Orphan, the manager of a nearby bookshop. 

She told investigators that Elisa purchased books and music for relatives in Vancouver, and expressed concern that she wouldn’t be able to fit all the items in her suitcase.

“It seemed like she had plans to return home, plans to give things to her family members and reconnect with them,” Orphan recalled. 

But they never heard from her. The last time she used her phone was on January 31.

Elisa was reported missing four days later.

The Strange CCTV Footage

Speculation about Elisa’s disappearance went global after Los Angeles Police Department released chilling CCTV footage of her last-known movements.

It captures Elisa entering the lift at the Cecil Hotel on February 1, wearing the same clothes later found alongside her body in the water tank. 

She presses buttons for several floors, then hides in the corner. She then steps one foot back into the hallway and glances, quickly, in each direction.

She ducks in and out of the lift several times, moving in large, deliberate steps. At one point she moves only in straight lines: stepping directly sideways, or forward and backwards. 

When she moves into the hallway the final time, she makes strange, sweeping gestures with her hands and wrings her fingers. Then she walks away.

The clip, which has been viewed more than 26 million times on YouTube, lasts four minutes. No one else appears in the frame.

The video became popular on the internet as many called it disturbing. It was shot from the back corner of the elevator car with an overview of the car and the hallway. Lam is seen entering and exiting the car up to 5 times, apparently speaking to someone right in front of her and flailing her arms.

She rapidly pushes the buttons on the elevator’s control panel, some more than once. Periodically, she presses herself up against back corner of the car, where she cannot be seen in the footage. Finally, she rushes out of the elevator. No other person appears and the door never closed in the two minute video.

Many specialists, along with the public, offered their own theories of Lam’s strange behavior. Jack Brown, a body language specialist, concluded that her behavior may be the cause of a party drug, presumably ecstasy, in his published online analysis of the video.

Others suggest that she may have had a psychological episode. This theory was greatly supported once it was made known that Lam suffered from bipolar disorder and depression, for which she was on medication.

What Happened to Elisa?

The official cause of Elisa’s death was determined to be accidental drowning. According to an autopsy report, there were no obvious traces of alcohol or illicit drugs in her system, and she had no history of suicidal ideation and had never attempted to take her own life. 

Was she speaking with someone just out of the camera’s view? Could she have been fleeing a murderer and tried to hide in the water tank? Was she forced to enter the water tank? How and why she ended up in the water tank, though, remains unknown. The LAPD investigation proved inconclusive.

The door to the roof was alarmed, but no employees recalled it being activated in the time between her disappearance and the discovery of her body. It’s been speculated that she may have accessed the roof through a window that led onto one of the building’s three fire escape stairways — each is clearly marked for emergency use only.

Once her body was found, an autopsy determined the cause of death to be accidental drowning. Rape and finger nail kits were done. There were no traces of physical trauma, rape, or conventional suicide attempts.

Given Lam’s mental health, investigators considered that she may have intentionally drowned herself. The question remained, though, as to how Lam got to the roof and into the tank. LAPD Sgt. Rudy Lopez confirmed that the doors to the roof are locked at all times and only accessible to employees with a passcode.

She may have been able to reach the roof by a series of fire escapes, but how would Lam know which to use and that they would lead to the roof at all? Even with this knowledge, it is unlikely that Lam could have opened the very heavy top door of the water tower alone, and impossible for her to close it after she was in the tank.

 Lam’s phone has never been found. In the aftermath of her disappearance and murder, her Tumblr kept updating. Whether or not this was through the use of the Queue option, which allows users to store posts for updates at a later time, or whoever had the phone was posting what was in Lam’s draft folder remains unknown. 

In 2015, Elisa’s family filed a negligence suit against the Cecil Hotel, alleging that the water tank should have been better secured to prevent such an accident occurring. The suit was dismissed.

The popularity of the case drew familiar attention to the Cecil Hotel, which has been linked to the infamous Black Dahlia murder of Elizabeth Short, who was last seen there. The Pigeon Lady of Pershing Square, Goldie Osgood, was raped and killed in her room there, and two serial killers lived at the Cecil while active. Additionally, five people have committed suicide by jumping out of the hotel’s windows. If Elisa’s story sounds familiar, don’t be surprised – her death and the strange unexplained movements before closely follows the plot of horror film Dark Water, which was made in 2005. But here’s the thing: Elisa was found in 2013. Copycat crime? Or something more sinister? Whatever happened to Elisa Lam remains a creepy and bizarre mystery.

What do you think are the circumstances behind Elisa’s death?