"You're always haunted by the idea you're wasting your life"
It was the 31st of January 2013. A Thursday. Twenty one year old Elisa Lam was in Los Angeles, California, United States. She was from Vancouver, Canada and was a student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver but in January 2013, she traveled to California for a vacation. Elisa went to San Diego first and then to Los Angeles on the 26th of January 2013. She was due to leave Los Angeles that day, the 31st of January, and head to Santa Cruz before going back home.
Elisa wanted an adventure and to do a bit of sightseeing in California and she had her entire trip planned out. As she was traveling alone, she had spent a bit of time beforehand preparing for the trip and used Amtrak and buses to travel between different locations. When Elisa was in San Diego, she went to the San Diego Zoo. It appeared that she was having a great time.
When Elisa arrived in Los Angeles on the 26th of January, she checked in to the Cecil Hotel. Her family were worried about her traveling alone and they asked her to call home every day to let them know where she was and what she was doing. Elisa called them every day but on the 31st of January, they didn't receive their daily call. That day, Elisa was supposed to check out of the hotel and head to Santa Cruz. Elisa's parents called her but there was no answer and none of the messages they left for her were responded to. They reported their daughter missing and went to Los Angeles to look for her.
Police went to the Cecil Hotel and searched Elisa's room, the main hotel area and hallways. They discovered that when Elisa first checked in to the hotel, she was assigned a shared room. That was not uncommon at the Cecil Hotel and some people who stayed at the hotel stayed for long periods of time. But Elisa's roommates complained about strange and odd behavior. They told employees at the hotel that she was acting in a strange manner. Elisa was given a single room instead.
Employees at the hotel last saw Elisa on the 31st of January. They recalled that she was alone that day. Police discovered that Elisa spoke to a woman,Katie Orphan, on the 31st of January. Katie was the manager of a bookstore that was close to the hotel. She discussed books with Elisa. Elisa told her that she was buying gifts to bring home to her family. Katie described Elisa as being in good spirits that day.
Police did not see any signs of foul play, a crime scene or anything unusual at the hotel.
During the police investigation, they obtained surveillance footage from the hotel to try to ascertain where Elisa went. They saw Elisa on the footage that was recorded on the 1st of February. The time stamp was not clear. The footage was disturbing. It showed Elisa entering the elevator that was in the hotel. She was wearing a red hooded sweatshirt, black shorts and sandals. When she was inside the elevator, she pressed buttons. It appeared as if she was pressing multiple buttons for different floors. After she pressed the buttons, she stood at the back of the elevator. The elevator doors did not close so Elisa moved forward towards the doors but before she reached the doors, she seemed momentarily hesitant and then quickly leaned forward and looked outside the elevator into the hallway, right and left, and moved back inside the elevator.
Surveillance Footage Elisa Lam
Elisa then stood against the wall and moved into the corner beside the control panel. It was almost as if she was trying to hide. The doors remained open. Elisa slowly moved towards the doors, she seemed hesitant before deciding to step out of the elevator and into the hallway. She can still be seen on the footage when she is in the hallway. She enters and exits the elevator again.
Elisa moves out of view of the surveillance footage when she is in the hallway for a moment but then can be seen putting her hand on her head in the hallway and she then gets back into the elevator. At this point, Elisa presses more buttons on the control panel. The doors are still open. Elisa steps out of the elevator again and the footage shows her in the hallway. She turns to her right and begins rubbing her forearms together, then waves her hands out to her sides with palms flat and fingers outstretched. It looks like she could be talking to someone and gesturing about something but nobody else can be seen in the footage.
Surveillance Video of Elisa Lam in the elevator at the Cecil Hotel
The doors finally closed. But only when Elisa had already walked away from the elevator.
The footage caused great concern to police and to Elisa's family. It was distressing to see Elisa's movements and not know exactly what was happening at that point. Was she trying to hide from someone?
Surveillance Footage Elisa Lam
As police were searching for Elisa and investigating her disappearance, guests at the Cecil Hotel reported problems with the water.They complained to the hotel that the water was black before turning clear and had a strange taste.
On the 19th of February 2013, a maintenance worker went to the roof of the Cecil Hotel to check on the water supply in the water tanks. There were four 1,000 gallon water tanks on the rooftop of the Cecil Hotel. The tanks provided water to the guest rooms, the kitchen, and a coffee shop. The water tanks were four-by-eight-foot cylinder tanks and were all covered by lids.
The maintenance man, Santiago Lopez, took the elevator to the fifteenth floor and then took a staircase up to the roof. He turned off the rooftop alarm before climbing up on to the platform where the four tanks were. He used a ladder to get to the top of the main tank. When Santiago removed the lid, he saw a body inside the water tank. He said:
"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."
Santiago knew Elisa was missing. He helped police with their investigation by opening some the doors in the hotel. Police had checked the roof during their investigation also but did not look inside the water tanks. It was later confirmed that the body that Santiago found was Elisa's body.
Water Tanks at Cecil Hotel
Police had to try to establish how Elisa died and how she got inside the water tank. The rooftop was closed to guests and there was an alarm on the fire escape door. The tanks were difficult to access and the lids were not that easy to lift. Santiago told police that he did not notice anything wrong with the alarm on the door to the roof that day and he did not hear it go off at any point during Elisa's stay at the hotel.
An Autopsy was carried out. The Medical Examiner noted that when Elisa was found, she was not wearing any items of clothing. Her body was in a state of decomposition with marbling green discoloration noted, bloating and skin separation. The hooded sweatshirt and shorts that she was seen wearing in the surveillance footage were found in the tank and had sand like particulate on the fabric.
The Medical Examiner noted there was a scar on Elisa's right knee and a small round abrasion on her left knee. There was no evidence of trauma and toxicology studies did not show acute drug or alcohol intoxication. It was the opinion of the Medical Examiner that there was no indication that Elisa had caused harm to herself. Based on that and no evidence of foul play, Elisa's death was ruled as accidental. The cause of death was determined as drowning. It could not be determined how long Elisa was in the water tank for.
When Elisa's death was ruled as accidental, many questions remained unanswered. How did Elisa get on to the rooftop without anyone noticing? How did she get into the water tank? Was there anybody with her? How did she close the lid of the water tank from the inside?
Elisa's family revealed that Elisa had a history of depression and bipolar disorder. They were aware that she had been prescribed four medications,Wellbutrin, Lamictal, Seroquel, and Effexor, but said that she had never expressed any suicidal thoughts. But due to trace amounts of medication found in her system, she may not have taken her medication in the manner that it had been prescribed. An investigation into Elisa's death revealed that she kept an online blog and spoke about her mental health in the years leading up to her death and in the months before she died, she missed a number of her classes at University.
Police believed that Elisa got on to the rooftop via the fire escape. Police dogs picked up her scent at a window leading to the fire escape. The dogs lost the scent just outside the window. But while that was possible, it did not explain why no alarm was heard. Guests had no access to the rooftop and would need to force entry via the fire escape which would have triggered the alarm.
To add to the mystery, Elisa’s phone has never been found. In the aftermath of her disappearance and murder, her Tumblr kept updating. This may have been due to the Queue option. Posts may have been written at an earlier date and scheduled to post on a later date.
Elisa's death is one of many disturbing deaths that have taken place at the Cecil Hotel. Due to the extremely low rents and flexible stays, it was once home to a number of criminals. In 1985, serial killer Richard Ramirez, lived there and in later years, another serial killer, Jack Unterweger, lived there also.
A number of suicides took place at the hotel with several people jumping off the top floor in the 1950s and 60s. A number of murders also occurred there such as the case of the "Pigeon Goldie" Osgood, a retired telephone operator, who was found raped and murdered in the hotel. That case remains unsolved.
Whether Elisa's death was accidental or if something far more sinister was at play, there is no denying that the last known movements of Elisa, seen on the surveillance footage, were deeply troubling.
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"When someone just disappears for no reason, it's shocking, it's devastating. I just feel like my life stopped that day and I've just been in a tailspin ever since."
- Adam Vaughan, Janine's brother
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