Elisa Lam was a 21-year-old tourist whose 2013 disappearance and death at the Cecil Hotel received widespread attention. Her death was ruled accidental, but there are still unanswered questions about what happened to her.
Who Was Elisa Lam?
In 2013, Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old tourist from Vancouver, British Columbia, disappeared while staying at the Cecil Hotel, a Los Angeles hotel with a long and lurid history. She was last seen on January 31, 2013. As part of the police investigation, a video was released that showed Lam behaving erratically in a hotel elevator. This footage became a viral sensation. On February 19, 2013, Lam’s body was found inside a water tank on the roof of the hotel. Her death was later determined to be an accidental drowning, though the exact circumstances that led to this remain unclear. Lam is the subject of a 2021 documentary, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.
Lam was born on April 30, 1991. Lam’s family immigrated to Canada, where they opened a restaurant in Burnaby, British Columbia. Lam was a student at University Hill Secondary and the University of British Columbia.
Death at the Cecil Hotel
On January 26, 2013, Lam checked into the Cecil Hotel, also known as Stay on Main, which is located in downtown Los Angeles near Skid Row. Early in her stay she was relocated from a shared room to a private one due to “odd behavior.” Lam was last seen in the hotel on January 31. Her parents, David and Yinna Lam, who’d been in daily contact with their daughter, quickly reported her missing. Lam’s belongings, including a wallet, ID and laptop, had been left in her room. A Los Angeles police bulletin about Lam’s disappearance mentioned that she spoke English and Cantonese, used public transportation, possibly had mild depression and was ultimately headed to Santa Cruz, California.
The police issued an appeal for assistance from the public and released a video that showed Lam, wearing a red hoodie, inside an elevator at the hotel. In the footage, she presses numerous buttons, looks out of the elevator, moves back into a corner, steps outside the elevator and waves her hands about. The video went viral and sparked widespread interest in and speculation about the case. One theory arose that Lam was playing what is sometimes called the Korean elevator game, in which pressing elevator buttons in a specific pattern will supposedly open a portal to another dimension.
Discovering the Body
While Lam was still missing, guests at the hotel began to complain about low water pressure. On February 19, 2013, a maintenance worker peered into one of the four 4-foot-by-8-foot water tanks on the roof of the hotel and spotted a dead body that turned out to be Lam. The worker later said in court documents, “I noticed the hatch to the main water tank was open and looked inside and saw an Asian woman lying face-up in the water approximately twelve inches from the top of the tank.” The roof had previously been searched, with the assistance of a police dog. However, no one had checked inside the water tanks.
Case and Investigation
The investigation into Lam’s death continued following the discovery of her body. Entry to the roof was supposed to be restricted to hotel employees. An interior staircase to the roof had a locked door equipped with an alarm — said to be working — that should have alerted staff if it had been opened. Three fire escapes also provided access to the roof.
Following further inquiry, an autopsy and toxicology tests, the coroner issued a ruling that Lam had accidentally drowned. There were no indications of physical trauma on her body, and no drugs that might have contributed to her death were found in her system. The coroner’s report mentioned Lam’s bipolar disorder as a significant condition that played a role in her death.
Due to a negligence lawsuit against the hotel filed by Lam’s parents (the suit was dismissed in 2015), the lead investigator from the case gave a deposition. “My opinion is that she fell off her medication, and in her state, she happened to find her way onto the roof, got into the tank of water,” Detective Wallace Tennelle stated. In the deposition, the detective also noted, “My partner and I tried to figure out how somebody could have put her in there, and it’s difficult for someone to have been able to do that and not leave prints, not leave DNA or anything like that. So she climbed in on her own.”
The case may be closed, but a reconstruction of how Lam died reveals some confounding circumstances. For Lam to have entered the water tank on her own, she would have needed to make her way to the hotel roof undetected, either through a locked and alarmed door or via a fire escape on the side of the building. Next, she would have clambered onto the water tank platform and climbed a 10-foot ladder on the side of the tank. She then would have had to open a heavy water tank lid before getting inside. And at some point Lam presumably undressed — when she was located, her body was naked, while her clothes were in the tank with her.
The Cecil Hotel — which had rebranded itself as Stay on Main prior to Lam’s stay — has a macabre history that may have contributed to speculation about Lam’s death. The hotel has been the scene of multiple murders and suicides, dating nearly as far back as its first days of operation in 1927. In the 1980s, serial killer Richard Ramirez, known as the Night Stalker, stayed at the hotel. Jack Unterweger, an Austrian serial killer, was a guest in 1991.
TV Shows and Documentary
Lam’s story has provided inspiration for movie screenplays, as well as an episode of the television show Castle and the series American Horror Story: Hotel.
A four-part documentary detailing Lam’s mysterious death, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, premiered in February 2021.