The Strange Death of Elisa Lam

"Cecil Hotel" by kootenayvolcano is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

On January 31, 2013, Elisa Lam disappeared off the face of the planet. The 21-year-old Canadian student stepped out of the Cecil Hotel where she was staying and just vanished, seemingly, into thin air. What could’ve been a simple, though sad, story of a missing person took a more sinister path over the following weeks as CCTV footage was released showing Elisa in an obvious state of distress before her body was eventually found in the last place that anyone could’ve ever expected to find it. The strange death of Elisa Lam is a morbidly fascinating case, and even though it has been closed due to the coroner filing his report, there is far too much that has never been fully explained and far too much that just doesn’t sit right with me.

Elisa Lam was born on April 30, 1991, in Vancouver, Canada. Her parents were Hong Kong immigrants, and her childhood was that of a normal, average, middle class Canadian. By her 21st birthday, she was a student at the University of British Columbia but struggling with her bipolar condition. She decided to take a trip to California. Her parents weren’t happy about the idea but agreed to it as long as she contacted them every day while she was away. She did this religiously and eventually got to Los Angeles on January 26th, four days before she disappeared.

When she missed her usual check-in time with her family on the 31st, they instantly called the LAPD before hopping on a plane and heading to the city themselves. After seven days without anything to go on, the police decided the best course of action was to release CCTV footage of Lam in the hopes that it would jog someone’s memory, and this is where things take a turn for the weird.

A shot of tow elevator doors, side by side, separated by a yellow wall.
“Elevator” by robinsonsmay is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The footage shows Elisa Lam entering the elevator at the Cecil Hotel, and it is obvious that something is not right. She starts by crouching down and pressing all the buttons. She then retreats to the far corner for a few seconds before walking to the door and darting her head out, as if she’s looking for somebody. Jumping back inside, she gets as flat to the wall as she possibly can, almost as if she’s trying to hide, before squeezing herself into the corner closest to the door as if she’s in fear of her life. A few more seconds pass before she pokes her head out again and, seemingly, has a conversation with a person just out of shot.

Then follows an even more bizarre passage where she pops out of the elevator as if she’s trying to spook someone, before taking one step to her left and one backward through the doorway. She then steps out once again and is virtually hidden from the camera for 30 seconds, with the only part of her visible being her right arm when she places her hands on top of her head. When she reenters, she goes back to pressing all the buttons once again, before venturing out into the corridor. It is here that she turns around and starts gesticulating as if she is in the middle of a conversation with another person—another person we can’t see. This is how the footage ends, and as soon as it aired, theories started to fly in from around all around the world. But do any of these theories stand up under scrutiny?

The most popular theory is that Elisa Lam was being stalked or, at the very least, was being followed by an unknown assailant. There is enough evidence on offer here to back that up. First off, when she enters the elevator, she hits as many buttons as she can and then tries to hide, or so it would seem. Throughout the clip, Elisa seems to be worried that there is someone just outside of our view waiting for her, and she darts her head in and out of the doorway, almost as if she is checking that she has lost her unwanted suitor. It’s a pretty tempting idea, but it’s one that I, personally, don’t put a lot of stock in.

My rejection of this theory has mainly to do with how her attitude seems to change about a minute or so into the video. She goes from hiding to suddenly jumping out as if playing a prank on a friend, and I find it hard to believe that if she was scared of this ‘person’ that she would suddenly feel the urge to play hide and seek with them. Another thing I feel that blows this out of the water is the amount of time she spends outside of the elevator, and the fact it looks like she is engaged in conversation. I don’t know about you, but if I thought somebody was attempting to do me harm, the last thing I’d want to do is stand around in a hotel corridor, shooting the breeze with them. There is a caveat to this though as, for the life of me, I cannot explain why the doors to the elevator never shut. She is seen pressing the buttons not once, but twice and still the doors refuse to close. This is more than enough for me to say that though I’m 95% sure there was nobody else in the corridor with Elisa Lam, there’s 5% of me that can only come to the conclusion that someone had to be keeping those doors wide open.

As for the theory that it was a ghost or a malevolent spirit, I’m not even going to dignify that with a response, and even though some people speculated that she was either high or drunk, the autopsy found there was only a small amount of alcohol in her system and no illegal substances. There was, however, traces of the medication that she took for her bipolar disorder, and she was on a lot of them—ten, to be precise. This leads me to believe that what we’re seeing isn’t a young woman who is about to fall victim to a killer, but a young woman who was in the middle of a psychotic episode. Her behavior is so erratic and so off the wall that it isn’t that difficult to believe that Elisa Lam was having a breakdown of sorts. She flips from sad to happy in the blink of an eye. She starts talking to people who aren’t there. She runs the full gamut of emotions, and it’s easy to see the amount of distress she is in. Her family initially attempted to keep her condition from the public, but eventually came clean on the subject, though they denied that she had ever shown any signs of suicidal tendencies. Which makes what happened next the strangest thing of all.

Couple of water tanks sit atop a building in New York
“Water Tanks” by ZeroOne is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0I

A couple of weeks after Elisa Lam went missing, guests at the Cecil Hotel started to complain to the management that the water they were using seemed a little off. In fact, one woman, Sabrina Baugh, spoke to CNN and said

The water did have a funny taste. We never thought anything of it, we thought it was just the way it was here. The shower was awful. When you turned the tap on, the water was coming black first for two seconds and then it was going back to normal.

There was nothing normal about what was happening. When a maintenance worker went up to the roof and started investigating the tanks, he discovered the body of Elisa Lam, badly decomposed, floating inside one of them. This sent shockwaves through the Cecil Hotel and would result in a lawsuit against them, but it seemed that finally the case could be closed and her remains laid to rest. In fact, the coroner gave a verdict of accidental drowning, claiming that Lam had gotten into the tank herself and then couldn’t get out, but this is the part that just doesn’t sit right with me.

Looking at the facts, it’s hard to see how that could’ve happened. For starters, the water tanks were on top of a roof with zero access to anyone except those who had keys, and as she wasn’t an employee, there was no way that she could’ve not only unlocked the door to allow herself up there but also locked it behind her. Then there’s the question of how she would’ve gotten into the water tank in the first place. If she somehow managed to find her way onto a locked rooftop, then she still had the task of climbing into the tank, which would’ve been no easy feat in itself. There was no access point to do such a thing, mainly to prevent what happened from happening, so to think she somehow Macgyvered her way up there is a stretch of the imagination too far for this writer. Add to that, she would’ve also had to open the lid and then close it behind her. This fact leads me to believe that Elisa Lam was murdered.

I have no evidence to back this up, of course, and it does fly in the face of everything I said in regards to the CCTV footage, but taken at face value, it can be the only logical explanation as to how she ended up in the situation she was found in. I think that someone who worked for the Cecil Hotel was responsible for her death. Perhaps they saw her in her state of delirium and thought they could take advantage of her. There was no evidence of sexual assault, but if she had spurned their advances, then they could’ve easily have become enraged and killed her. Or perhaps she saw something that she wasn’t supposed to. The Cecil Hotel had a history as one of the seediest dives to ever grace any skid-row, and if Elisa Lam had accidentally stumbled on a drug deal gone bad or another murder, then it isn’t that much of a leap to think she paid for it with her life. In fact, her phone was never recovered, lending certain credence to the thought that she caught something she shouldn’t have on her camera and was then killed for it.

Sadly, it is unlikely that the truth will ever be known. The LAPD has closed the file, and the only person who could’ve told us what happened was found dead in a water tank. So unless somebody out there has a sudden rush of conscience, this will forever be one of those cases that haunts the minds and hearts of true crime fans everywhere.


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Written by Neil Gray

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