Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel, tells the story of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old college student from Canada who went missing from Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel and was eventually found dead in 2013. The hotel has a scary reputation: General manager Amy Price says in the four-part series that 80 people died there between 2007 and 2017. It also was a place where serial killers Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger frequently stayed.
Lam made a reservation for three nights in a shared room on Jan. 28, 2013, but she was transferred to a private room after her roommates complained about her unusual behavior. She was reported missing by her parents on January 31.
CCTV video from inside one of the Cecil Hotel elevators show a clearly agitated Lam jumping in and out of the elevator as if she thinks she’s being followed before she finally exits the elevator and disappears.
Two weeks later, Lam’s naked body was found in a water tank on the building’s roof after guests complained about the hotel’s water quality.
But…what exactly happened to Elisa Lam? Authorities ruled Lam’s death an accident caused by withdrawal from her prescribed medication for her bipolar disorder. Lam took several medications, her sister told LAPD detective Wallace Tennelle: the anti-depressant Wellbutrin, the anti-convulsant Lamotrigdine, and an anti-epilleptic and mood stabilizer Quetiapine.
“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,” Tennelle said in a deposition, per CBC. “At the time, I think that water tank was maybe full. But as people used the tank, used water, unknown to her, the level was dropping to a point where she could no longer reach out and escape, and she died that way.”
Despite this being the official explanation, other theories about Lam’s cause of death still persist to this day:
Theory #1: She died by suicide.
Lam had an active blog on Tumblr and she documented her struggles with anxiety and depression. “i wish i could put part of my brain into a taped shut box and shove it to the back of my closet for the night,” she wrote in one post. Many have pointed to her posts as evidence that she died by suicide. However, the coroner said that “a full review of circumstances” didn’t support the idea Lam tried to hurt herself, according to CBC.
Lam’s last post on her Tumblr also didn’t suggest she was planning her own death. “I have arrived in Laland…and there is a monstrosity of a building next to the place I’m staying,” she wrote, referring to the Cecil Hotel. “When I say monstrosity mind you I’m saying as in gaudy but then again it was built in 1928 hence the art deco theme so yes it IS classy but then since it’s LA it went on crack. Fairly certain this is where Baz Lurhmann needs to film the Great Gatsby.”
Theory #2: Lam was murdered.
The coroner concluded there was no evidence of foul play, but plenty of people still think otherwise, pointing to Lam’s unusual behavior in the elevator as evidence she was being followed, along with her naked body.
The lid in the water tank where she was found was also closed, which would have been impossible for her to do if she had climbed into the tank. But the hotel maintenance worker told Netflix that the lid had been opened when her body was discovered—he said he closed it before the police came.
Some people have even pointed the finger at Pablo Vergara, a.k.a. Morbid, a metal rocker who shared a video of himself inside the Cecil Hotel days after Lam’s body was found. He also teased a new music video called “Died in Pain” around the same time. Morbid actually visited the hotel in 2012, not 2013, so his stay didn’t overlap with Lam’s. He also later said that he was in Mexico recording an album when Lam went missing. In the docuseries, he explained that he suffered from mental health issues from the accusations.
Theory #3: She was abusing substances.
Plenty of people have pointed to Lam’s behavior in the elevator as evidence she was using hallucinatory drugs. But Vice reports that her toxicology report didn’t find any evidence of drugs or alcohol in her system.
Theory #4: It was a copycat murder.
In the 2005 movie Dark Water, people at the apartment complex where the main characters live complain that the drinking water is dark and tastes off. That leads to the discovery of a girl’s body in a water tank on the roof.
Theory #5: Lam was involved in a tuberculosis test.
This one is…out there. Some people note that there was a tuberculosis outbreak at the same time on Skid Row, just a few blocks away from the Cecil Hotel. Armchair experts point out that the test for the type of tuberculosis circulating was called the LAM-ELISA (Lipoarabinomannan (LAM) Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA), which, weird coincidence.
Some have also said Lam was used as a biological weapon to help take out the homeless population and that she was later killed after someone discovered that she had learned too much. But her autopsy didn’t show any signs of tuberculosis, so… that seems extremely unlikely.
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