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Five Things We Learned from Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel


Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is a four-part Netflix mini docuseries that premiered on 10 February 2021 and was directed by Joe Berlinger, the man behind the popular Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.

The series includes interviews and real-life accounts with historians, investigators, former law enforcement officers, Youtubers, guests, and residents who have resided in the hotel through the years.

It’s a thrilling and thought-provoking series that delves into the disappearance of a young woman, the internet’s obsession with web sleuthing, and a dark past that plagues the once-beautiful Cecil Hotel.

It does delve down a huge conspiracy-theory rabbit hole but they are always a wild ride that are worth listening to in order to get to the very mystery and conclusion of this interesting mini-series.

Those interviewed include Viveca Chow, Artemis Snow, Santiago Lopez, Tim Marcia, Skid Row historian, Dr. Doug Mungin, forensic pathologist, Jason Tovar, former hotel manager, Amy Price, LA historian, Kim Cooper, clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, Dr. Judy Ho, Youtuber, John Lordan, author and former Los Angeles Police Department detective, Greg Kading, and actor, Josh Dean.

The Story of Elisa Lam

Elisa Lam, also known by her Cantonese name, Lam Ho Yi, didn’t have anything figured out; who does at 21? She just wanted to travel and have adventures.

Leaving for America and checking in with her family was a ritual for her. When she didn’t call, that caused a panic and a missing person’s case which is explored in depth in Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.

Lam was a university student, one of two daughters to an immigrant family from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; her parents came from Hong Kong making her a first-generation Canadian Hong Kong citizen. We also discover that she was diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder but was seeking treatment and taking medication to manage her condition. She was just a young girl trying to find herself.

A photograph of the infamous Hotel Cecil
The infamous Hotel Cecil.

The Hotel Cecil Has a Dark Past

The former manager, Amy Price, said, “It was her kingdom but you never knew what would happen,” and also stated there were, “a lot of challenging struggles with the hotel.” Price talked about an incident that happened when she first began her employment at the Cecil Hotel, where a guest had died in their room. She knew there were problems with the hotel after just being there a few days but had no idea about its dark past. Throughout the docuseries, Amy Price also talked about stabbings, suicides, and murders that have happened in the hotel.

A former resident of the hotel said during his time it was a den of drugs and prostitution. He also claimed that he never went further up than the sixth floor as that’s where people were murdered. Kim Cooper, a historian on Downtown Los Angeles, gives more information on the history of the hotel and the kinds of people that have lived there including the famous Night Stalker. There are other real-life accounts of people who have stayed at the hotel, including a couple from Plymouth who had no idea about the disappearance of Lam or of the hotel’s dark past. They where actually staying at the hotel when Lam’s body was discovered.

The Investigation Was a Mess

The investigation was very standard to begin with, but with no sign of a struggle or her things being missing, the investigators knew this wasn’t going to end well.  Author and former Los Angeles Police Department detective, Greg Kading, went into great details about the case and how hard it was to solve. The police department held a press conference six days after Lam’s disappearance. They checked the whole hotel thoroughly with sniffer dogs and yet they didn’t find her.

Tapes were checked and it was discovered that Lam never left the hotel. So where did she go?  And what happened to her?

Amy Price, Cecil Hotel manager.
Amy Price, who was the new manager, was brought in to clean up the place.

Social Media Played a Big Part in the Investigation

While social media played a large part in the investigation, it was also a negative in a lot of ways and we discover that as the show goes on.

Elisa Lam’s Tumblr was a key source to piece together her final days before her disappearance as she chronicled her life travelling in LA, as well as creating a more rounded image of the kind of young woman she was.

The police released the now-infamous footage of her in the elevator and this created more intrigue and mystery to her disappearance. John Lordan, a YouTuber, began his channel because of the video and having a need to solve the case and figure out what happened to her. He (and other web sleuths) talked about his experience at the hotel and some of the things he picked up on that the police missed or information that wasn’t available to the public. He was also very critical of web sleuthing and the conspiracy theories that surround the case to this day.

The History of the Hotel Cecil

The Hotel Cecil was built during the boom of 1919 and opened in December 1924. During this time, it was a huge structure for LA, a nice basic hotel for less money and 700 rooms. The Stock Market crash of October 1929, also known as Black Tuesday, was the main cause of The Great Depression which would force the hotel to become down on its luck like a lot of Downtown LA. It became a place for older men to stay for a cheap rate and people who had been evicted from their homes due to the economic climate of the day.

The Cecil Hotel is around the corner from Skid Row and is surrounded by homelessness and poverty. Containment was created in 1970s and people released from mental institutions and prisons are dropped off as that is where most of the help for those people are. Dr. Doug Mungin, a Skid Row historian, went into great detail about the historical significance and repercussions of the area, and I would honestly love a whole Netflix series of him discussing Skid Row.

The hotel was sold in 2007; Amy Price, who was the new manager, was brought in to clean up the place as, at the time, properties where being purchased and refurbished with the idea of downtown LA being the new hip and cool place to be. The idea was to turn it into a fully functioning hotel but the new owners soon found out that the building is classed as a residential hotel to help homeless and low income people on Skid Row and the surrounding areas.

As a compromise, they created the “Stay on Main” initiative, it was a hotel within the residential complex of the Cecil, which was a concept by the manager, the only problem was the hotel’s elevator was accessible to all floors. The hotel closed its doors in 2017 and was re-sold.

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Written by Amber McCrudden

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