“And The Rest is to be Written.”
– Elisa Lam
Before I dive into The Strange Case of Elisa Lam and The Cecil Hotel, let me give some background information about the young woman who lost her life. Elisa Lam aka Lam Ho Yi was born on April 30, 1991. Elisa was born to David and Yinna Lam who were immigrants from Hong Kong before moving to Canada and opened a restaurant in Burnaby, British Columbia. She also had a sister named Sara Lam. Elisa went to both the University Hill Secondary High School and the University of British Columbia.
Outside of being a student, she was a blogger. She had a blog around 2010 called Ether Fields on BlogSpot. Elisa then started Nouvelle-Nouveau on Tumblr about two years later. Mental illness was something Elisa struggled with and blogged often. She went to California alone for the first time which ended with her death after she was found in a water tank at the Cecil Hotel.
I remember the first time I heard about this case. I was watching the news and saw the infamous video from the elevator where Elisa Lam was pressing several buttons and acting strange. As a big horror fan, I automatically thought it was some kind of strange paranormal incident as the Cecil Hotel is riddled with a shady past. The true-crime fan in me wanted to know so bad what had happened to poor Elisa and why she was found in such a weird place.
The Cecil Hotel
The Cecil Hotel, located at 640 S. Main Street, opened on December 20, 1924. The hotel was built by Robert H Schops, William Banks Hanner, and Charles L. Dix. It was supposed to be a destination hotel for tourists and business travels. The hotel was later renamed Stay On Main to try and distance itself from the dark history surrounding the hotel. The hotel has 700 guest rooms and 19 floors. There have been suicides, deaths, and serial killers who stayed here.
Some of the guests were the notorious Richard Ramirez. Elizabeth Short aka The Black Dahlia stayed here in 1947 before she was brutally murdered. Another serial killer named Jack Unterweger stayed there as well in 1991.
Episode 1—“Lost in Los Angeles”
In the first episode, we get some background on LA’s Skid Row. Skid Row impacted by crime and homelessness. That the people on Skid Row suffered. We are then introduced to Elisa Lam.
There are some quotes from her blogs and there is a girl reenacting moments that were supposed to be from her life as well as doing the voiceovers. This was something that bothered me greatly, but we will get back to that. They explained how Elisa said on the blog that she hadn’t enjoyed her life yet and wanted to do something fun, but on her own.
She decided to do a tour of Los Angeles, where she ended up at the Stay on Main which is in the same building as the Cecil Hotel. They mention Elisa Lam going to a bookstore called The Last Book Store.
The episode talks about Elisa Lam’s parents not wanting her to go alone, but she promised to speak to them every day or check in with them. She did until the day she disappeared which was around February 1st. Once her parents did not hear from her, they filed a missing person report and several detectives went to the hotel. They went to her room to see if anything seemed odd, but it didn’t.
They talked to the hotel staff and there was no trace of her. The manager of the Cecil/Stay on Main Amy Price and LAPD homicide detective Tim Marcia. We are also introduced to Greg Kading. By the end of the episode, they show the infamous video clip of the elevator footage of Elisa Lam. This was the last time she was ever seen.
The end of the episode made me remember what I felt when I first saw the video. Creeped out, uneasy, and sad for Elisa Lam.
Episode 2—“Secrets of the Cecil”
The episode starts with Amy Price giving some background information about the Cecil Hotel. They talk about when it was built and how its history made it try to change its image a bit. It mentions how the Cecil Hotel not only provided cheap hotel rooms, but also cheap rooms for people to stay for months/years at a time.
In this episode, we hear a lot from YouTubers, web, and internet sleuths. One of them that stood out to me was John Lordan. He started his YouTube channel because of the video footage of Elisa Lam that was put on the LAPD website. John and many other web sleuths break down the video footage. They imply it was edited and slowed down making the speculation that something terrible happened to Elisa and there is this major cover-up.
By the end of the episode, a couple, Michael and Sabina Baugh, are interviewed. They talk about their stay at Cecil which was a little after Elisa was there. They complained about the water and the smell. Eventually, Amy had a maintenance check to see what was wrong. The employee who checked was Santiago Lopez.
Santiago went to the water tanks to check to see what was wrong and it was there that he found one of the water tanks with the flap off. Inside, he found Elisa Lam naked floating face up and her clothes were floating at the bottom. Elisa had been in that water tank for 19 days. This was on February 19, 2013.
However, the police said she was found with the tank closed and it further speculated that something quite more sinister happened to Elisa Lam. This was when the mystery of where she was was solved, but it led to more questions needing to be answered. Such as how did Elisa get there?
Episode 3—“The Hard Truth”
This is where the documentary took a turn for the worse for me.
Do I understand it to an extent? Yes. YouTubers create content that would have viewers wanting to come back. At the time the video footage was a big deal because of how eerie it was. However, the way some acted as if someone owed them answers bothered the hell out of me. Sure, some of the true-crime podcasters, YouTubers, bloggers, etc., helped solved cases.
The vibe was different for me with this though. The ones interviewed in this documentary had a sense of entitlement. A sense like they knew more than the cops involved. A sense that they needed answers even before the family. Nonsense to me. It absolutely reeked.
John Sobhani was one of the people that irked me. The number of times he went to the hotel bothered me. 10 to 20 times was just like wow dude! Wow! His comments as if his grief was that of her family were ew to me. People going to the room she stayed in, people trying to act like mini detectives, and glamourizing and sensationalizing what was tragic for Elisa Lam and her family.
Kiwi Kimmi bothered me as well. They were roaming the halls like they were on a romantic getaway. It was disrespectful, unnecessary, and tasteless. Those going up there trying to put themselves in Elisa’s steps just didn’t sit right with me.
I remember what I felt when I first heard how she was found. It was crazy and eerie. I felt so much sympathy for her death. Her poor family. 19 days being stuck in a water tower. For a moment I did get wrapped up in the fact that with the hotel’s shady past, maybe it was a paranormal thing, but it only lasted a moment.
Investigators were able to find one more piece of footage of two guys exchanging a box with Elisa which turned out to be nothing more than them helping her with some books she had purchased. The tips that came from people who gave their opinions rather than helpful tips seemed to also make the confusion surrounding the case worse.
Dr. Jason Tovar, the medical examiner, gave some information on what he did to see the cause of death and how he wanted to wait for the toxicology reports before putting a cause of death.
The vibe I got from the internet folks didn’t seem like concern and sympathy. It was something much more disgusting and left a bad taste in my mouth.
Episode 4—“Down the Rabbit Hole”
When I finally got to the last episode, I was hoping that they’d salvage what could’ve been done better. I was mistaken.
Pablo C. Vergara, also known as Death Metal artist Morbid, was accused of murder even though he was at the Cecil Hotel a year before Elisa was there and at the time was in Mexico. He received death threats and internet folk coming for his head because they wanted to hold on to these conspiracy theories.
Amy also mentioned how she got multiple reports from people who encountered Elisa saying she was acting erratically and had to be switched to a new room because she was making people uncomfortable. When the medical examiner report was released on June 21, 2013, and the report said Elisa’s death was an accident due to drowning. Now that Elisa’s cause of death was known, the montage of YouTubers felt to deny what the report said, even one going as far as to disagree with the coroner—that bothered me greatly. Saying that they thought it was a homicide and saying because they studied the cases hours and hours, they had to know more than the medical examiner is absurd.
Some experts explained that Elisa Lam had bipolar I which is the more severe version of that mental illness. She was struggling and she was having a paranoid delusion in the elevator footage. Her family also said she dealt with this often.
Elisa Lam’s family did sue The Cecil Hotel, but the case was dismissed as the judge ruled for the hotel. None of the people apologized for the cyberbullying Pablo had to endure. Cyberbullying is another thing that is very real.
The Cecil Hotel/Stay on Main Hotel was closed in 2017 and sold by a corporation in NYC. The plan for the hotel is to reopen at the end of 2021. Episode four and the end of the documentary end with this quote:
I suppose that is the human condition, to feel so big, so important, but…just a flicker in the universe…and the struggle to come to terms with those two truths.
-Elisa Lam (2012)
For the most part, I was extremely disappointed. I did find out what was the cause of Elisa Lam’s death some time ago and that her mental illness played a role in it. Some people tend to brush mental illness with broad brush strokes not realizing that mental illness, even if it’s the same as someone else, can manifest itself differently in people.
When the documentary gives a very real contributor to Elisa’s breakdown besides the fact that she wasn’t taking her prescribed pills for her bipolar disorder, they mention her being in LA on her own could’ve been overwhelming for her. The internet people who were obsessed with finding out her last moments and demanding answers seemed to gloss over the fact that maybe the problem is the stigma of mental health.
Skid Row is mentioned as also being a factor that could’ve contributed to the fact that she died much too soon. Not one person seemed concerned with helping the area or rallying support that Skid Row isn’t just a glossed-over place that can overwhelm a person like Elisa. This was a time to maybe have some accountability for something very real. There was none. It was all the disappointment that Elisa’s case wasn’t as strange after all.
The web sleuths were so dependent on it being this larger-than-life mystery when ultimately it was a girl who struggled and it costed her life.
I did not like the glamorization of the web sleuths and YouTubers. It seemed to be done disrespectfully. I watch the ID channel all the time and the shows have plenty of reenactments. It just didn’t sit right with me in this documentary.
I wish the documentary didn’t give the internet sleuths this much time to seem more important than they were. I wish the documentary would’ve given more insight into the real effects behind mental illness and also the problems on Skid Row. It failed to do that and in turn, made me wish I didn’t waste the hours I can’t get back from watching it.