I Know What Happened to Elisa Lam

The biggest mystery of the Cecil Hotel is solved

Elisa Lam was a Vancouver college student who died under mysterious circumstances in Los Angeles in 2013

This article is a departure from my normal series dedicated to the Manson Family such as this article, this one, this and also this most recent one. Don’t worry: I’ll be back to writing about the Family in no time, but I wanted to take a step away to write about the Elisa Lam case.

Like so many others in the true crime community, I was fascinated with the story of Elisa Lam. To sum up Elisa’s story:

In January 2013, she traveled from Vancouver, BC to California on a personal vacation. The daughter of immigrants to Canada from Hong Kong, Elisa was a college student on break from the University of British Columbia and avid social media poster at sites including Tumblr, who wanted to explore the West Coast. Many of her Tumblr posts were about fashion, pop culture, and dealing with her diagnosis of a bipolar disorder. Elisa was taking four prescription medications for her bipolar disorder including Effexor, Lamictal, Seroquel and Wellbutrin. She frequently complained in her posts about having to take these medications, and about the periods when she felt nothing.

“Having depression seems to mean that you’ve lost the ability to even help someone else in trouble. I don’t want to end up bitter and resentful and angry at everyone.” — Elisa Lam’s Tumblr account “Nouvelle/Nouveau”

Elisa flew from Vancouver to San Diego, where she spent a few days, and then she traveled north to Los Angeles via Amtrak. She booked a shared room using an app online, with an entity known as Stay on Main in downtown L.A.

Stay at Main was created in 2011 by owners of the Cecil Hotel, to separate new paying guests from their long-term, low-income residents

Stay on Main was actually the Cecil Hotel, a once-grand property on Main Street, opened in the 1920s. By the 1980s, it was a rundown and seedy has-been, home to vagrants, drug addicts and prostitutes. From the recent Netflix series, I learned that some patrons were spending as little as $250 per month to live at the Cecil.

“I have arrived in Laland… and there is a monstrosity of a building next to the place I’m staying

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” - Elisa Lam’s Tumblr account “Nouvelle/Nouveau”

When new owners acquired the property in 2007, they wanted to eject all those low-paying, criminal and shady residents but local laws protecting low income residents prevented this. Their solution was to create a separate entity, Stay on Main, as a hostel within their hotel. Long-term residents paid rent to the Cecil and lived on the top half of the floors. Short-term guests booked through Stay on Main, and had rooms on the first half of the floors. There were even different lobbies, although both groups would share the elevators.

Elisa was last seen in one of those elevators, although that was not until days after she was reported missing, and then only in video. It was the video literally seen around the world:

As you can see in the video, Elisa’s behavior seems very strange. She is playful, then almost fearful, calm, and then erratic. But her behavior is not the only thing that seems off.

The elevator doors do not close. And this was the last evidence of Elisa Lam, found in the days after her family in Vancouver filed a missing persons report. The video footage was submitted to police by the Cecil Hotel.

Nineteen days after her disappearance, Elisa’s body was found floating face-up and naked in one of the water tanks on the roof of the hotel.

There was a lot of information to dissect in the weeks and months after Elisa’s body was found. Why did she hit all those buttons? Was she talking to someone, just outside the elevator? Was the hotel haunted?

There were other strange things that seemed to be connected to Elisa’s disappearance at the Cecil. The number of criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes and sex traffickers likely staying at the hotel. The location of the Cecil, in conjunction to nearby Skid Row. The weird coincidence of the LAM-Elisa TB research project, also held in nearby Skid Row. The package that Elisa accepted in the lobby from two men.

And of course, there is the history of the Cecil Hotel. Two serial killers (Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, and Austrian prostitute-killer Jack Unterweger) stayed there during the ’80s and ’90s. Many suicides, homicides and drug overdoses have occurred there. Even the Black Dahlia was rumored to have been seen at the Cecil in the days before her January 1947 murder.

“I really need to be removed from society before my big mouth gets me in trouble and I get beaten up” — Elisa Lam’s Tumblr account “Nouvelle/Nouveau”

Most of those weird coincidences fizzled out or were debunked, while suspicion rose about foul play. Had she been sexually assaulted, murdered, or both? It took months for the initial autopsy report, toxicology reports, and formal closure of the inquiry to complete. When the results came back, the coroner listed her death as drowning with bipolar as a mitigating factor. There was no evidence of murder in that report, and certainly no explanation of anything supernatural. But I was baffled by three things:

  1. If Elisa was having a mental health crisis, how does that explain the elevator doors?
  2. How did she gain roof access if the only door to the roof was locked, accessible to only hotel employees and connected to an alarm?
  3. If she voluntarily went into the water tank, who closed the hatch and trapped her inside?

Now, having seen the Netflix docuseries on the Cecil, it all makes sense.

Who Was Elisa Talking To?

Elisa was certainly having a mental health episode. In fact, she had been removed from her shared room after her two female roommates complained to the front desk about her erratic and uncooperative behavior, and relocated to a private room. Front desk staff even recalled witnessing Elisa standing in the lobby, talking about being crazy.

“My main faults are that I talk too much, I have a naturally loud voice and I have no filter” — Elisa Lam’s Tumblr account “Nouvelle/Nouveau”

Tox reports revealed that Elisa had either stopped taking her medication in the days before her disappearance and death, or she was shorting herself. In other words, she was underdosing. Elisa’s bipolar disorder was likely more significant than she or her family realized.

Why Didn’t the Elevator Doors Close?

The elevator doors failing to close has a simple explanation, as well. I believed, when I watched the video, that Elisa was selecting all of the buttons along the left side, from the top down to the bottom. It was possible, I thought, that the doors might have jammed simply out of mechanical confusion, but unlikely.

Instead, the docuseries shows that Elisa actually selected all the buttons in the middle row — ending with the “Door Hold” button. That button, when pressed, would indeed hold open the elevator doors for at least two minutes. Mystery solved.

How Did She Get Onto the Roof?

Elisa may still have gained entry to the roof by means of the locked access door. It is possible that an employee failed to lock it, and it is also possible that the alarm may have failed to go off. The Cecil was, after all, a 90+ year old building and things don’t always work as intended. I was initially suspicious that someone from staff must have given Elisa access to the roof, but it winds up being a more simple explanation:

There was a secondary access point to the roof — a ladder leading from the fire escape, right outside the window near the elevator. That window was open, the day Elisa disappeared. In her delusion, she likely climbed out the window, up the fire escape and ladder, and onto the roof.

You can see the fire escapes at the Cecil/Stay on Main: If you look to the one one the right, you will see another ladder extended from the fire escape up to the roof

Police inspected the Cecil Hotel including the roof in the days after she was reported missing, but they failed to look at or into the water tank. Instead, attention shifted to that crazy elevator video. But in the meantime, a couple weeks later, guests started to complain about the hotel water. It tasted funny, felt slimy, and sometimes appeared dark when coming out of the faucets and shower.

A janitor then went to the roof to inspect the water tanks, and discovered Elisa’s body.

An initial statement by an official that the hatch on the tank was closed led myself and many others to assume that foul play had, indeed, befallen poor Elisa Lam. Someone must have led her up to the roof, perhaps in an attempt to sexually assault her, and then put her in the tank and closed the hatch, leaving the poor girl to drown.

That statement, however, was false. The hatch was not closed. It was open when the janitor found it.

The hatch on the water tank, as seen in this photo, was open when Elisa’s body was discovered by hotel staff

The mystery of Elisa Lam can finally be laid to rest. While there is still the possibility that someone was with her on the roof, or forced her into the tank, it is an unlikely scenario. The most likely scenario, instead, is:

Elisa Lam was having a psychotic episode after failing to take her prescribed medication. When the elevator failed to close (thanks to her own behavior) she became manic. She thought someone might be following her. To hide from this person, she left the elevator and stepped out the open window. She walked up the fire escape, then climbed up the ladder and went to the roof.

Looking for a place to hide, she spied the water tanks. She may have initially tried to hide between them, but when she saw the ladder on the side she decided to climb inside.

Once inside the water tank, she was unable to access the opening again because the water was just low enough to prevent reaching it. In her panic, she began to thrash around. She might even have called out for help, but nobody was near.

As she began thrashing, her body grew colder and eventually, hypothermia set in. Hypothermia actually causes the body to feel warmer, even as it gets colder and colder. Elisa began taking off her clothes, as she treaded water. Perhaps she even thought she might be able to throw her hoodie toward the open hatch and hook on something, and lift herself up.

Instead, the water eventually would have dropped further, as people flushed toilets and poured water and took showers and washed their teeth and faces in the Cecil Hotel. Every time the water line dropped, her chance of survival dropped with it.

Eventually, she may have panicked enough that she began to take in water. She was no longer able to scream for help.

Her body grew tired, fatigued. And still delusional from the lack of proper medication, she may have finally embraced death.

Elisa Lam: 1991 to 2013. Rest in Peace.

The Aftermath

We all love a mystery, and there was certainly much about the death of Elisa Lam to warrant the world’s armchair sleuths coming together to try to find an answer. But sometimes, a mystery has a simple solution: a woman drowns in the grip of a bipolar episode. Nothing supernatural. Nothing criminal.

The real mystery is not how Elisa died or even where, but why nobody realized that she was tempting fate by traveling far from loved ones, and failing to take the proper medication. Did Elisa Lam know how close to oblivion she was?

“Please don’t get tired of me.

It happens every time. People lose interest in me. They get tired of me. Suddenly, they don’t bother hitting me up anymore. The conversations become shorter. They forget about me and I just become a distant memory. I wonder if it’s my fault sometimes. But then I realize that people never stay in my life. And there’s nothing I can do about it.” — Elisa Lam’s Tumblr account “Nouvelle/Nouveau”

Author of the “More to the Story” true crime nonfiction series. https://www.mansonfamily.net/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store