In 2013, the death of Elisa Lam in a water tank at the renowned Cecil Hotel horrified Los Angeles. Nobody knows how she died or how her body ended up there. Nobody knows how Elisa Lam died to this day. We know that the 21-year-old Canadian college student was last seen on January 31, 2013, at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles. However, the notably creepy hotel surveillance footage that recorded the odd final minutes before her disappearance, let alone the other information that has emerged subsequently, has only raised more questions than answers.
Her terrible death has remained a mystery since her corpse was discovered in the hotel’s water tank on February 19.
Although her death was considered an “accidental drowning” by the coroner’s office, the peculiar aspects of Lam’s case have generated extensive conjecture about what happened. Internet sleuths have devised several hypotheses regarding the tragedy, ranging from murder plots to demonic spirits. But where does the truth lay in the strange death of Elisa Lam?
Elisa Lam’s Disappearance
Elisa Lam arrived in Los Angeles on January 26, 2013. She had just reached Santa Cruz by Amtrak train from San Diego as part of her solo trek throughout the West Coast. She meant the vacation to be a break from her studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where she grew up. Her family had been concerned about her traveling alone, but the young student was eager to undertake it alone. As a compromise, Lam made it a point to contact her parents every day of the vacation to assure them that she was safe.
That’s why her parents were surprised when they didn’t hear from her on Jan. 31, the day she was supposed to check out of her LA hotel, the Cecil. Eventually, the Lams called the Los Angeles Police Department. The police investigated Cecil’s home but were unable to locate her.
Police quickly posted security footage from the Cecil Hotel’s cameras on their website. This is where things began to become genuinely strange.
The hotel footage shows Elisa Lam acting oddly in one of its elevators on the day of her disappearance. She steps inside and out of the elevator, her head jutting sideways into the hotel’s corridors.
The final minutes of the film show Lam standing near the left side of the door, making odd signals with her hands. Except for Lam, no one else was seen in the footage. The bizarre video sparked outrage in Canada and China, where Lam’s family is from. Tens of millions of people have seen Lam’s strange elevator event, which lasted four minutes.
The Body’s Unintentional Discovery
On Feb. 19, two weeks after authorities released the footage, maintenance worker Santiago Lopez discovered Elisa Lam’s body floating in one of the hotel’s water tanks. Lopez made the finding after responding to hotel guests’ complaints about poor water pressure and a strange flavor in the tap water.
According to the Los Angeles Fire Department’s head, the tank in which Lam’s body was discovered had to be entirely emptied and then cut up from the side to retrieve her five-foot-four frame. Nobody knows how Lam’s body wound up in the hotel’s water tank, floating lifelessly next to the same clothing she wore in the CCTV footage, or who else could have been involved. The hotel personnel reported to police that Lam was always spotted alone around the grounds.
However, Lam was seen by at least one person just before her death. Katie Orphan, the proprietor of a neighboring bookstore called The Last Bookstore, was among the last people to see Elisa Lam alive. Orphan recalled a college student purchasing books and music for her family in Vancouver.
“It sounded like [Lam] had intentions to return home, planned to deliver items to her family members and reunite with them,” CBS LA’s Orphan said.
When the autopsy results for Lam’s case were released, it added to the confusion. The toxicology report indicated that Lam had ingested various medicinal medicines, most likely bipolar illness medication. However, her system showed no signs of alcohol or illicit drugs.
An incomplete autopsy fuels wild theories about Elisa Lam’s death
Soon after the toxicology report was released, amateur sleuths began going through every piece of evidence they could discover to unravel the mystery surrounding Elisa Lam’s death. For example, one description of Lam’s toxicology report was put online by a Reddit investigator with a clear interest in medicine.
The analysis highlighted three noteworthy observations:
- Lam used at least one antidepressant on that particular day.
- Lam had recently taken her second antidepressant and mood stabilizer, but not that day.
- She had not recently taken her anti-psychotic medication.
These findings revealed that Lam, diagnosed with bipolar illness and depression, was not taking her meds correctly.
Even if Elisa Lam had a mental illness, how did she die? The material from the autopsy revealed no sign of foul. The coroner’s office stated that they could not conduct a comprehensive assessment due to Lam’s deteriorating body’s inability to study the blood.
Who is to blame for Elisa Lam’s death?
Several months after their daughter’s death was discovered, David and Yinna Lam launched a wrongful death complaint against the Cecil Hotel. According to the Lams’ attorney, the hotel was required to “inspect and search out risks in the hotel that posed an undue risk of danger to [Lam] and other hotel guests.”
The hotel responded to the lawsuit by filing a motion to dismiss it. The hotel’s counsel maintained that there was no reason to believe that someone could gain access to one of their water tanks. According to court testimony from the hotel’s maintenance employees, the hotel’s position is not altogether implausible. Santiago Lopez, the first person to discover Lam’s body, details the amount of work he had to expend simply to find her.
Lopez said he rode the elevator to the hotel’s 15th level. Then he had to switch off the rooftop alarm and walk up onto the platform that housed four water tanks. Finally, he had to climb another ladder to reach the main tank’s top.
Lopez told LAist, “I saw the entrance to the main water tank was open and peeked inside and saw an Asian woman laying face-up in the water around twelve inches from the top of the tank.” According to Lopez’s evidence, it would have been impossible for Lam to reach the top of the water tank on her own. At least not without being noticed.
The hotel’s Chief Engineer, Pedro Tovar, also stated that it would be impossible for anyone to access the rooftop, which housed the hotel’s water tanks, without setting off the alarms. Only hotel workers would be able to disarm the alert appropriately. The sound of the notice that would reach the front of it was triggered.
The case was dismissed after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Howard Halm decided that Elisa Lam’s death was “unforeseeable” since it occurred in an area that guests were not permitted to enter.
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