The Strange And Tragic Death Of Elisa Lam

Cold cases are all over television, the internet, and of course, podcasts. It's impossible to count the various and assorted crimes that armchair detectives hope to one day solve. They're even successful sometimes!

But to solve a case, you need suspects. You need a narrative. The pieces all have to fit together. Now imagine that, instead of working on a puzzle, someone just threw together a bunch of pieces from random different puzzles and asked you to make a picture out of them.

This might give you some idea of the mystery surrounding the death of 21-year-old Elisa Lam, who disappeared from an L.A. hotel with a creepy reputation and was found dead weeks later. There are no suspects, it's not clear exactly what happened, and it may not even involve an actual crime. It's an odd story that has captivated the internet for nearly a decade, and it's no closer to being solved.

Who was Elisa Lam?

In January of 2013, Elisa Lam was just your everyday tourist. She was a 21-year-old student hailing from Vancouver, BC. She was traveling alone and booked a stay at the Cecil Hotel, a downtown Los Angeles place with a storied (and kind of disturbing, but we'll get to that) history. Millions of people from all over the world just like Elisa Lam visit L.A. every year.

Initially, Lam was assigned a shared room at the Cecil, a type of accommodation similar to a hostel that the hotel offers for guests who don't mind sharing and want to save some money. While these types of rooms are very uncommon in America, they're totally normal in the rest of the world. Shared rooms help expand the number of travelers a hotel can house in a building that only has so many rooms, and it makes sense that a young traveler from Canada might take advantage of one to save some money.

Elisa Lam had two roommates in this shared room. Their names are unknown, but we do know that they ended up complaining to the hotel about Lam's unusual behavior, according to Vice. We also don't know what exactly that behavior was, but hotel management decided to move Lam to her own room three days into her stay, where she would remain until her disappearance a few days later.

Elisa Lam's parents contacted the police

Elisa Lam was originally supposed to check out of the Cecil Hotel on January 31, 2013. She didn't, however, and she didn't call her parents like she said she would, either. The Lams contacted the hotel and, later, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). However, it would be another two weeks before Elisa Lam was found, according to Insider.

During the investigation into Lam's disappearance, the LAPD decided to release footage of one of the last known sightings of her — a security video from one of the hotel's elevators. The police expected this to raise the profile of the case and get more people looking for Lam, but they didn't anticipate the response they got. The video, which shows Lam getting in and out of an elevator with the door stuck open, pushing random buttons, making strange gestures and movements, and looking terrified, became an internet storm due to the unusual behaviors Lam was exhibiting.

The elevator's camera feed video was a viral hit but didn't bring the LAPD any closer to solving Elisa Lam's disappearance. There were still no suspects, no evidence, and no clues leading police to Lam's whereabouts. Still, by releasing the video, they had brought her disappearance to far more people than your average missing person. The hope was someone would come forward with information. That never happened, but soon the case would blow wide open anyway.

Elisa Lam was found by accident

Just days after the LAPD released the now-famous elevator video, guests at the Cecil Hotel began to complain about issues with the water supply in their rooms. A few reported a strange odor or dark color. Some even reported that the water had an odd taste to it. The hotel's management sent maintenance workers to the roof to take a look at the water tanks there, according to L.A. Weekly.

On top of the roof of the Cecil Hotel were four water tanks. They were about 12 feet up and could only be entered from the top, which meant employees had to use a ladder to get in. Each tank had a heavy, metal lid held down with a latch. When hotel employees came to the roof, they found one tank, the main water tank, had its latch left open. Upon removing the lid (which had no hinge, so it had to be lifted completely), they found Elisa Lam, dead and floating face-up in the water.

The Cecil Hotel contacted the police. Inside the tank, they also found Lam's discarded clothes as well as an unidentified particulate. They determined that she had been in the tank for quite a while. Because her body had expanded from the water, it couldn't be removed through the opening at the top of the tank. Instead, the side had to be cut out and Lam was removed that way.

The Cecil Hotel has a history with death

Opened in 1927, the Cecil Hotel was built in downtown Los Angeles as a luxury hotel, but over time, the neighborhood around it grew poorer and the Cecil lost some of its luster as a result, according to All That's Interesting. Throughout the decades, the hotel gained a reputation as a popular destination for suicides. Not only that, but as crime increased nearby, violence and murder ticked up inside the halls as well.

The Cecil has more than its share of stories of death, but a few are particularly notable. One is the longstanding rumor that Elizabeth Short, better known as murder victim The Black Dahlia, had been spotted drinking at the Cecil's bar in the days leading up to her death. Some legends say that she encountered the person who killed her there.

Then, there are the hotel's famous residents. The hotel has long had space reserved for permanent residents, not just overnight guests. One of these was Richard Ramirez, The Night Stalker, who lived at the Cecil in the 1980s during his killing spree, followed a few years later by another active serial killer, Jack Unterweger. If this sounds like an episode of American Horror Story, that's because it is. The show's Hotel Cortez is based directly on the Cecil Hotel, and creator Ryan Murphy was inspired to create the show's "Hotel" season because of Elisa Lam's disappearance.

Elisa Lam had a secret

During the course of the investigation, police learned that Elisa Lam and her family had been successfully keeping a secret from, well, everyone. When Lam was younger, she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. She took several medications to treat these, including anti-psychotics. Her family was aware, but they weren't open about it due to the stigmas around mental health.

Lam frequently blogged about her struggles with mental illness, according to Chilling Crimes. In some posts she worried about relapses, and she even talked about having to drop classes in college due to issues managing her illnesses. In fact, she was faring poorly in school and worried that the number of classes she had needed to leave reflected badly on her in her college transcript.

This also introduced the possibility of suicide into the case. While Lam's family claimed that she wasn't suicidal, it can often be difficult to tell if a person truly is suicidal or not, especially to those closest to the person. There was a very real possibility that something happened while she was staying at the Cecil. Perhaps she missed too many doses of her medication and suffered a psychotic break that, when given the opportunity, led her to commit suicide.

The coroner's report on Elisa Lam was incomplete

After Elisa Lam's body was removed from the water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel, the coroner performed an examination. They found no evidence of any sort of injury or trauma, nothing to indicate foul play. There was no evidence of sexual assault, nor of any compounding factors that might have contributed to her death. In the end, Lam's death was officially ruled an accidental drowning, which may sound pretty obvious, but it also didn't bring police any closer to figuring out why or how she ended up in the water tank.

The coroner did order a toxicology screen, but after weeks in the water tank, Lam's body didn't have much blood left to test, according to All That's Interesting. While they were able to test for some things, the report was officially considered to be incomplete. The tests did detect trace amounts of alcohol and Lam's prescription medication she took for her bipolar disorder and depression, but the exact amounts of the medication could not be determined. It did not find any evidence of illicit drugs, nor of any sort of poison or toxic substance.

Once again, police were at a dead end. Given the evidence, it seemed that Lam, not under the influence of any substances, simply came up to the roof of the hotel and climbed into the water tank.

Several things in Elisa Lam's case didn't add up

The reason the internet is so fixated on Elisa Lam's case is due to the various details that don't add up. First of all, there's the matter of the hotel roof, which is supposed to be inaccessible to guests, according to All That's Interesting. The only way to get to the roof was through alarmed doors. There may be an explanation here — the outside fire escape, which has a ladder leading to the roof. A YouTuber tried this exact thing shortly after Lam's death and made it to the roof easily.

Then there's the issue of getting into the tank, which were high up and could only be opened by lifting the lid on top. As previously mentioned, the lids did not have hinges and were very heavy. It is possible, however, that Lam found the lid already open, as the aforementioned YouTuber did when they climbed onto the hotel roof.

There's just one problem — when Lam's body was found, the lid to the main water tank was closed. It would be nearly impossible to do this from inside the tank, as one would have to push up on the heavy lid while floating in the water, maneuver it into place, and then drop it. This may indicate that someone from the outside closed the lid after Lam got inside.

Elisa Lam's elevator video has been heavily scrutinized

The elevator video released by police brought attention to the case from the internet at large, and before long, armchair detectives began closely watching it for clues or making different interpretations of Elisa Lam's actions in the video, such as seeming to hide from a pursuer, press random buttons, and make strange gestures in the air, according to How Stuff Works.

Theories about the video vary widely, with some arguing that it shows a woman experiencing a psychotic break to others arguing that it's evidence of something paranormal. In recent years, a popular supernatural explanation has been that Lam either accidentally or intentionally played something called the "Elevator Game" — a series of complicated actions performed inside an elevator and moving the cab to specific, predetermined floors that can, according to the viral legend, open up a passage to another world or dimension.

Generally, theories about the video tend to fall into three buckets. In the first, Elisa Lam had a psychotic episode, then later either accidentally or intentionally ended up in the hotel's water tank. The second theorizes that someone was after Lam and the video shows her panicking and trying to hide. In this theory, her pursuer killed her and placed her in the water tank. The third bucket is supernatural explanations. These often revolve around Lam seeing or encountering something in the hotel that drove her mad and led to her suicide, though not always.

Elisa Lam's blog continued to have new posts after her death

Another enduring mystery of Elisa Lam's disappearance involves her blog. After Lam's death, her blog, hosted on Tumblr, continued to update, according to Chilling Crimes. There were updates throughout February 2013 and a few in early March. The new updates then paused until the end of March, when two new posts went up, and one in the beginning of April. This was followed by two at the end of April, one in June, and a final one in December 2013.

Elisa Lam's phone was never found after she disappeared, so this leads some case researchers to believe that someone might have taken it, and they're the ones who made the posts after her death. Another possibility is that someone else gained access to her Tumblr account, either by hacking or possibly a friend or family member taking it over after her death.

The most commonly accepted explanation is that Lam used Tumblr's queue feature to schedule posts in the future and these posts appeared as scheduled. None of the posts after Lam's disappearance or death have any original text by her, as they're all reblogs (like retweets but for blog posts). While this makes sense for many of the post-mortem updates to her blog, the ones posted sporadically after early March 2013 seem odd. Why schedule these posts so far in advance when they're not that different from her typical posts?

Elisa Lam's parents filed a lawsuit against the Cecil Hotel

In September 2013, Elisa Lam's parents filed a lawsuit against the Cecil Hotel, alleging neglect and insufficient safety protections led to Lam's death earlier that year. Their argument was that the hotel didn't properly secure the roof or water tanks.

In 2015, however, the Cecil Hotel successfully got the suit dismissed, according to NBC Los Angeles. They pointed out that since access to the roof via normal means was restricted with doors locked by key card or passcode, they weren't liable for however Lam managed to get onto the roof. Their lawyers also pointed out that the water tanks themselves were designed in such a way to make it clear that guests weren't allowed to climb on them and open the lids. The tops of the water tanks required a ladder to get to and, as previously mentioned, were heavy and not hinged.

The judge in the case concluded that while Lam's death was certainly tragic, there was simply no way she could have made her way into those water tanks by mistake. Since police had yet to even figure out how Lam got onto the roof and into the water tanks in the first place and no similar incidents had occurred, the only way the hotel could have prevented Lam from getting into the tanks would be to know what she was going to do before she did it.

Elisa Lam's story bears a surprising resemblance to a Japanese horror movie

In the early 2000s, American cinema had a brief love affair with J-Horror, or horror films created in Japan. The biggest of these was 2002's The Ring, starring Naomi Watts as a mother trying to protect her son from a curse. This film was based on a 1998 Japanese film, Ringu, which in turn was based on a 1991 novel of the same name by Japanese author Koji Suzuki. The Ring wasn't Suzuki's only brush with Hollywood, though.

Another of Suzuki's stories was made into an American film called Dark Water and was released in 2005. Starring Jennifer Connelly, the film shares some eerie similarities to Elisa Lam's case, according to Watson Street Pictures.

In Dark Water, a woman and her daughter move into a new apartment complex only to find that the building seems to be haunted, with numerous problems cropping up, including the building's water, which is a murky color and has problems with its pressure, and the elevator in the apartments, which behaves oddly. Spoilers ahead, but before long, the two find out the dark truth — a young girl died in the building's rooftop water tank, and it's her decaying corpse (as well as her ghost) causing the numerous issues in the apartments. It's unknown if Elisa Lam ever saw this movie, but the similarities seem to be a coincidence.

Internet detectives think the LAPD is covering up some evidence in Elisa Lam's case

What if there was more to Elisa Lam's story that the public isn't getting? Perhaps something that might shed a lot more light on the story, but that the police don't want the public to see? This is the claim made by some true crime personalities who say the LAPD is hiding something.

There are two main points of contention that the internet has with the investigation into Lam's death. First is the coroner's report. There are allegations out there that it might not include all the facts. For example, it's light on details about the medication found in Lam's system. While this could be because her body was so damaged, more detail simply wasn't possible, some crime writers wonder if that's really the case. More puzzling? The report mentions a rape kit was carried out, but doesn't report on its results, according to The Daily Maverick.

The other theory is that the LAPD edited the famous viral video of Lam in the elevator, according to writer Josh Dean. Critics point out that the timestamp in the video seems to be intentionally blurred. While the footage is very grainy, the timestamp should be legible. In theory, this could be because some of the footage is slowed down or edited out. Consider it yet another open question in Elisa Lam's disappearance and death.