Death of Elisa Lam
2013 picture of Lam distributed by Los Angeles police
|Born||April 30, 1991|
|Disappeared||January 31, 2013
|Died||c. February 1, 2013
Cause of death
|February 19, 2013|
|Residence||Vancouver, British Columbia|
|Known for||Mysterious circumstances of death|
The body of Elisa Lam (simplified Chinese: 蓝可儿; traditional Chinese: 藍可兒; April 30, 1991 – 2013), a 21-year-old Canadian student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, was recovered from a water tank atop the Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles on February 19, 2013. She had been reported missing at the beginning of the month. Maintenance workers at the hotel discovered the body when investigating guest complaints of low water pressure.
Her disappearance had been widely reported; interest had increased five days prior to her body's discovery when the Los Angeles Police Department released video of the last time she was known to have been seen, on the day of her disappearance, by an elevator security camera. In the footage, Lam is seen exiting and re-entering the elevator, talking and gesturing in the hallway outside, and sometimes seeming to hide within the elevator, which itself appears to be malfunctioning. The video went viral on the Internet, with many viewers reporting that they found it unsettling. Explanations ranged from claims of paranormal involvement to the bipolar disorder Lam suffered from; one viewer has argued that the video has itself been tampered with.
The circumstances of Lam's death, when she was found, also raised questions, especially in light of the Cecil's history in relation to other notable deaths and murders. Her body was naked with most of her clothes and personal effects floating in the water near her. It took the Los Angeles County Coroner's office four months, after repeated delays, to release the autopsy report, which reports no evidence of physical trauma but shows possible ambivalence about its ultimate finding that the cause of death was accidental. Guests at the Cecil, now rebranded as Stay on Main, sued the hotel over the incident, and Lam's parents filed a separate suit later that year.
Some of the early Internet interest noted unusual similarities between Lam's death and plot elements in the 2005 horror film Dark Water. There have been efforts to fictionalize the case since then as well. Less than a year after her death, Hungry Ghost Ritual, a Hong Kong horror film, included a scene apparently inspired by the elevator video, and mainland Chinese director Liu Hao announced he was planning a film based on her life and death, hopefully starring Gao Yuanyuan. An episode of Castle was inspired by it, and a horror film that uses the case as a backstory, The Bringing, is currently in development under Sony Pictures.
Lam, the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong who opened a restaurant in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, was a student at the University of British Columbia; although she was not registered when she left her home in January 2013 for a trip to Southern California, which she called her "West Coast Tour" on her Tumblr blog. She said she planned to stop in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and San Francisco. While she also hoped to visit San Luis Obispo, she was not sure she could.
She traveled alone, on Amtrak and intercity buses. She visited the San Diego Zoo and posted photos taken there on social media. On January 26 she arrived in Los Angeles and checked into the Cecil Hotel, near downtown's Skid Row.
Built as a business hotel in the 1920s, the Cecil fell on hard times during the Great Depression of the 1930s and never recaptured its original market as downtown decayed around it in the late 20th century. Several of Los Angeles's more notable murders have happened at or have connections to the hotel: Elizabeth Short, victim of the Black Dahlia murder, the city's best-known unsolved killing, supposedly made the Cecil her last stop before her death, and in 1962 Goldie Olsen, the "Pigeon Lady of Pershing Square", was raped and murdered in her room at the Cecil, another crime that has never been solved. Serial killers Jack Unterweger and Richard Ramirez, the "Night Stalker", both resided at the Cecil while active. There have also been suicides, one of which also killed a pedestrian passing in the front of the hotel. After recent renovations it has tried to market itself as a boutique hotel, but the reputation lingers. "The Cecil will reveal to you whatever it is you're a fugitive from," says Steve Erickson.
Lam also had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. She had been prescribed four drugs—Wellbutrin, Lamictal, Seroquel and Effexor—to deal with the condition. According to her family (who supposedly kept it a secret), she had no history of suicidal ideations or attempts, although one report claims she had, in fact, briefly gone missing at some earlier time as well.
In mid-2010, she began a blog named Ether Fields on Blogspot. Over the next two years she posted pictures of models in fashionable clothing and accounts of her life, particularly her struggle with her disorder. In a January 2012 post titled "You're always haunted by the idea you're wasting your life" after a quotation from novelist Chuck Palahniuk that she used as an epigraph for the blog, Lam lamented that a "relapse" at the start of the current school term had forced her to drop several classes, leaving her feeling "so utterly directionless and lost." She worried that her transcript would look suspect with so many withdrawals, adversely affecting her ability to continue her studies and attend graduate school.
A little over two years after Lam had started blogging, she announced she would be abandoning the blog for one she had started on Tumblr in March 2011, Nouvelle/Nouveau. Its content was heavier on found photos, mostly of fashion, and quotes, with a few posts in Lam's own words. The same Palahniuk quote was used as an epigraph.
While traveling, Lam kept in touch with her parents back in British Columbia daily. On January 31, the day she was scheduled to check out of the Cecil and leave for Santa Cruz, they did not hear from her and called the Los Angeles police; the family flew to Los Angeles to help with the search.
Hotel staff who saw her that day said she was alone. Outside the hotel, Katie Orphan, manager of a nearby bookstore, was the only person who recalled seeing Lam that day. "She was outgoing, very lively, very friendly," while getting gifts to take home to her family, Orphan told CNN. "[She was] talking about what book she was getting and whether or not what she was getting would be too heavy for her to carry around as she traveled."
Police searched the hotel to the extent that they legally could. They searched Lam's room and had dogs go through the building, including the rooftop, looking unsuccessfully for her scent. "But we didn't search every room," Sgt. Rudy Lopez said later, "we could only do that if we had probable cause" to believe a crime had been committed.
On February 6, a week after Lam had last been seen, the LAPD decided more help was needed. Flyers with her image were posted in the neighborhood and online. It brought the case to the public's attention through the media.
|Detectives Looking For Missing Canadian Woman|
Another week went by without Lam being found. On February 14, the LAPD released a video of the last known sighting of her, taken by a video surveillance camera on February 1 in one of the Cecil's elevators. It drew worldwide interest in the case due to Lam's strange behavior and has been extensively analyzed and discussed.
In the two-and-a-half minute clip, the camera looks down from the ceiling at one of the elevator cab's rear corners, offering a view not just of its interior but the hallway outside. It is somewhat grainy, and the timestamp at the bottom is obscured. At some points Lam's mouth is pixelized.
At the start, Lam enters, clad in a red zippered hooded sweatshirt over a grayish T-shirt, with black shorts and sandals. She enters from the left and goes to the control panel, appears to select several floors and then steps back to the corner. After a few seconds during which the door fails to close, she steps up to it, leans forward so her head is through the door, looks in both directions, and then quickly steps back in, backing up to the wall and then into the corner near the control panel. The door remains open.
She walks to it again and stands in the doorway, leaning on the side. Suddenly she steps out into the hall, then to her side, back in, looking to the side, then back out. She then steps sideways again, and for a few seconds she is mostly invisible behind the wall she has her back to just outside. The door remains open.
Her right arm can be seen going up to her head, and then she turns to re-enter the cab, putting both hands on the side of the door as she does. She goes to the control panel, presses many more buttons, some more than once, and then returns to the wall she had come into the elevator from, putting both hands over her ears again briefly as she walks back to the section of wall she had been standing against before. The door remains open.
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, while bowing forward slightly and rocking gently. This can all be seen through the door, which remains open. After she backs to the wall again and walks away to the left, it finally closes.
It was reposted widely, including to the Chinese video-sharing site Youku, where it got 3 million views and 40,000 comments in its first ten days. Many of the commenters found it unsettling to watch. "I'm so scared, I'm shaking. I'm numb," said one.
Several theories evolved to explain her actions. One, noting the Cecil's dark past, posited that she had somehow become possessed during her stay, or at least on the elevator; she might also have been playing the "Elevator Game", a supposed way to travel to another dimension and back. Another suggestion was that Lam was trying to get the elevator car to move in order to escape from someone pursuing her. Others, including a body language specialist who reviewed the video, suggested that she might be under the influence of ecstasy or some other party drug. When her bipolar disorder became known, the theory that she was having a psychotic episode also emerged.
Other viewers argued that the video had been tampered with before being made public. Despite the obscuring of the timestamp, they argued, parts had been slowed down, and they claimed nearly a minute of footage had been discreetly removed. This could have been done simply to protect the identity of someone who otherwise would be in the video but had little or nothing to do with the case, or to conceal evidence if Lam's disappearance and death had been the result of a criminal act.
Discovery of body
While the search for Lam was raising the case's media profile, guests at the hotel began complaining to management about low water pressure in their rooms. Some also claimed their water was discolored, and had a slightly unusual taste. Employees began investigating.
On the morning of February 19, that took one of them up to the roof, where four 1,000-gallon (3.78 m3) water tanks provided water, pumped from the city's supply, for the guest rooms and the kitchen and coffee shop downstairs. In one of them he found Lam's body. Police responded, and by noon that day the hotel had drained the tank so firefighters could cut it open and remove the body, since the opening of the tank was too small to accommodate the necessary equipment.
In the wake of the discovery, all of the Cecil's short-term guests left, many expressing revulsion at the thought that they had unknowingly been drinking water contaminated by a decomposing body for the preceding two weeks. The hotel paid for some to relocate to another hotel, and required those that remained to sign a waiver stating that they had been made aware of the health risks. Humorous reviews of the hotel were posted on Yelp, such as "Worst. Swimming. Pool. Ever." While the county's health department found that the water had not been contaminated, it issued a "do not drink" order and required that the entire system be drained and refilled before retesting for possible fecal contamination and rescinding the order. One long-term guest stated that there had been flooding on an upper-level room following Lam's disappearance.
After being removed from the tank, Lam's body was taken to the county coroner's office to be autopsied. Two pathologists, Jason Tovar and Yulai Wang, spent four hours that afternoon dissecting it and examining her internal organs. On February 21, the coroner's office reported that they had found her death to be an accidental drowning, with bipolar disorder as a significant factor.
Their full report was released four months later, in June, after being postponed several times. They reported that her body had been found naked in the tank, about half to three-quarters full, with the clothes she appeared to have been wearing in the elevator video floating in the water alongside her, coated with a "sand-like particulate". Along with them were her watch and room key.
Lam's body was moderately decomposed, bloated and mostly greenish, with some marbling evident on the abdomen and skin separation evident. Tovar and Wang found no evidence of physical trauma or sexual assault, although they had a rape and fingernail kit done. They found no evidence to suggest that Lam had committed suicide.
Toxicology tests were done on her blood where a sufficient quantity was available. Some metabolites and traces of her prescription medication were found, consistent with blister packs and loose pills of those drugs found among her belongings, along with some nonprescription drugs such as Sinutab and ibuprofen. No alcohol or recreational drugs were found in her system.
The investigation had determined how Lam died, but did not offer an explanation as to how she got into the tank in the first place. Doors and stairs that access the hotel's roof are locked, with only staff having the passcodes and keys, and any attempt to force them would supposedly have triggered an alarm. However, the hotel's fire escape could have allowed her to bypass those security measures, if she (or someone who might have accompanied her there) had known.
Apart from the question of how she got on the roof, others asked if she could have gotten into the tank by herself. All four tanks are 4-by-8-foot (1.2 by 2.4 m) cylinders propped up on concrete blocks; there is no fixed access to them and hotel workers had to use a ladder to look at the water. They are protected by heavy lids that would be difficult to replace from within. Police dogs that searched through the hotel for Lam, even on the roof, shortly after her disappearance was noted did not find any trace of her, it was recalled (although they had not searched the area near the water tanks).
Theories about Lam's behavior in the elevator video did not stop with her death. Some argued that she was attempting to hide from a pursuer, perhaps someone ultimately responsible for her death, while others said she was merely frustrated with the elevator's apparent malfunction. Some proponents of the theory that she was under the influence of club drugs are not dissuaded by their absence from the toxicology screen, suggesting that they might have broken down during the period of time her body decomposed in the tank, or that she might have taken rare cocktails of such drugs that a normal screen would not detect.
The autopsy report and its conclusions have also been questioned. For instance, it does not say what the results of the rape and fingernail kits were, or even if they were processed. It also records subcutaneous pooling of blood in Lam's anal area, which some observers suggested was a sign of sexual abuse; however one pathologist has noted it could also have resulted from bloating in the course of the body's decomposition, and her rectum was also prolapsed.
Even Tovar and Wang appeared to be ambivalent about their conclusion that Lam's death was accidental. One page of the report has a form with boxes to check as to whether the death was accidental, natural, homicide, suicide or undetermined, in large type and a sufficient distance from each other. The "accident" box is dated June 15; however three days later the "undetermined" box was checked instead. This was at some point in the three days before the report's release noted as an error, and crossed out and initialed.
Since her death, someone has been updating Lam's Tumblr blog. Her phone was not found either with her body or in her hotel room; it has been assumed to have been stolen at some time around her death. Whether the continued updates to her blog were facilitated by the theft of her phone or the work of a hacker is not known; nor is it known whether the updates are related to her death.
A week after Lam's body was found, a couple who had been staying at the Cecil filed a lawsuit against the hotel. They argued the hotel was in breach of contract with the guests, since it was assumed that it would provide water pure enough to drink and bathe with. "Instead," they argued in complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, "the defendants provided water that had been contaminated by human remains and was not fit for human ingestion or to use to wash." They sought a refund of the $150 they had paid for their two nights' stay, plus $100 in medical expenses and unspecified other relief "as the court may deem just and proper." The case was a class action, allowing any other guests who had stayed at the hotel during the 18 days between Lam's disappearance and the discovery of her body to join in and collect any damages.
In September, Lam's parents filed a wrongful death suit against the hotel, also in Superior Court. They claimed the hotel failed to "inspect and seek out hazards in the hotel that presented an unreasonable risk of danger to (Lam) and other hotel guests." The Lams sought unspecified damages and their daughter's burial costs.
In film and television
The circumstances of Lam's death have been compared to plot elements in the 2005 horror film Dark Water. In that film, an American remake of an earlier Japanese film of the same name, based on a short story by Koji Suzuki, a mother and daughter move into a rundown apartment building, which is soon revealed to be haunted. A dysfunctional elevator and discolored water gushing from the building's faucets eventually lead them to the building's rooftop water tank, where they discover the body of a young girl who had been reported missing from the building several years earlier.
As life had imitated art, the creators of films and television shows used the Lam case as inspiration. In May 2013, the episode "Watershed" aired as that year's season finale of the ABC series Castle, in which a New York police detective and the title character, a mystery novelist, investigate crimes. In "Watershed", the duo pursue leads in the death of a young woman found dead in the rooftop water tank of the "Cedric Hotel" in Manhattan; among the evidence is a surveillance video of the woman taken in an elevator. Ultimately she is found to have been posing as a prostitute in order to investigate another guest at the hotel.
In China, where Lam's family emigrated to Vancouver from, filmmakers were also inspired. Nick Cheung, an accomplished actor in Hong Kong films, made his directorial debut in 2014 with Hungry Ghost Ritual, a horror thriller that includes a scene in which a ghost terrorizes a young woman in an elevator, shot to look like security-camera footage and believed to have been inspired by the Cecil's Lam footage. On the mainland, director Liu Hao announced a year after Lam's death that he would be making a film based on it; he went to Los Angeles himself and stayed for a few days at the Cecil doing research. Chinese media have reported that popular actress Gao Yuanyuan may be interested in playing Lam. Liu said if he made the film, it would likely be a American-Australian coproduction, in English.
In March 2014, a little over a year after Lam's death, brothers Brandon and Philip Murphy sold a horror script, The Bringing, that uses the investigation into it as a backstory for a fictional investigating detective's slowly unraveling sanity. They were widely criticized for doing so so soon after the death. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn was originally slated for that task, but in August it was announced that Jeremy Lovering would be directing the film for Sony Pictures whenever production began .
- "Community Alert" (Press release). Los Angeles Police Department. February 6, 2013. Retrieved January 28, 2015.
- Nickels, Jesse (May 28, 2014). "Elisa Lam: The College Girl Whose Hotel Death is So Mysterious It Inspired a Horror Movie". College Times. Retrieved January 27, 2014.
- van der Merwe, Marelise (June 17, 2014). "Elisa Lam: The mystery you should care about". Daily Maverick. Retrieved January 27, 2015.
- "Autopsy Report 2013-01364". Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner. June 18, 2013. p. 3. Retrieved January 28, 2015.
- Autopsy report, 15.
- "Elisa Lam Movie 'The Bringing' Based On Her Death". The Huffington Post British Columbia. 27 February 2014. Retrieved 22 January 2015.
- Young, Ian (March 5, 2014). "Disgust at plan to turn Elisa Lam's water tank death into horror movie". South China Morning Post. Retrieved January 28, 2015.
- Moreau, Jennifer (February 27, 2013). "Condolences, notes, left for family at Burnaby restaurant". Burnaby Now. Retrieved January 28, 2015.
- "Elisa Lam Case: Autopsy fails to find a cause of death for woman found in Los Angeles water tank". CBS News. February 22, 2013. Retrieved January 28, 2015.
- Lam, Elisa (January 2013). "Nouvelle/Nouveau". Retrieved January 28, 2015.
- Nair, Drishya (February 26, 2013). "Elisa Lam Death: Friends Call Her Caring and Conscientious, Autopsy Result Inconclusive". International Business Times. Retrieved January 28, 2015.
- Blankstein, Andrew; Flores, Adolfo (February 20, 2013). "Woman's body found in water tank of skid row hotel". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 28, 2015.
- Leslie Anne Wiggins (26 October 2008). "Tales of the macabre at L.A. hotels". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 26 January 2015.
- Alan Duke (23 February 2013). "Hotel with corpse in water tank has notorious past". CNN. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
- Erickson, Steve (June 21, 2013). "Gloom Service: A Night at the Cecil Hotel, Where Serial Killers and Eerie Deaths Abound". Los Angeles. Retrieved February 1, 2015.
- Waxman, Olivia B. (February 21, 2013). "The Cecil Hotel: What a Dead Body in a Water Tank Does for Your Yelp Reviews". Time. Retrieved February 1, 2013.
- Autopsy report, 20.
- Autopsy report, 22
- van der Merwe, Marelise (December 12, 2014). "The Elisa Lam mystery: Still no answers". Daily Maverick. Retrieved January 29, 2015.
- Lam, Elisa (June 25, 2010). "qui est". Blogspot. Retrieved January 29, 2015.
- Lam, Elisa (January 27, 2012). ""You're always haunted by the idea you're wasting your life"". Blogspot. Retrieved January 29, 2015.
- Lam, Elisa (June 27, 2012). "Tumblr". Blogspot. Retrieved January 29, 2015.
- Lam, Elisa (March 1, 2011). "Untitled". Tumblr. Retrieved January 29, 2015.
- Lam, Elisa. "Nouvelle/Nouveau". Tumblr. Retrieved January 29, 2015.
- Duke, Alan (February 23, 2013). "How did woman's body come to be in L.A. hotel water tank?". CNN. Retrieved January 29, 2015.
- Lah, Kyung (February 22, 2013). "Elisa Lam, Cecil Hotel update video: Inside the Los Angeles hotel". CNN. Retrieved January 29, 2015.
- Los Angeles Police Headquarters (February 14, 2013). Detectives Looking for Missing Canadian Woman (Online video). YouTube. Retrieved January 30, 2015.
- "Detectives", 0:00–0:36
- "Detectives", 0:37–1:05
- "Detectives", 1:06–1:54
- "Elisa Lam's unexplained death draws attention, theories in China". Los Angeles Times. February 26, 2013. Retrieved January 30, 2015.
- St. James, James. "The Elevator Game and the BONE-CHILLING DEATH of Elisa Lam". World of Wonder. Retrieved January 30, 2015.
- Brown, Jack (February 23, 2013). "Nonverbal Communication Analysis # 2313: Elisa Lam Video in Elevator at Cecil Hotel - What Her Body Language Tells Us ....". bodylangaugesuccess.com. Retrieved January 30, 2015.
- Romero, Dennis (February 21, 2013). "Elisa Lam: Why Did She Appear To Be Acting So Strange?". LA Weekly. Retrieved February 3, 2015.
- Agomuoh, Fionna (February 21, 2013). "Body Of Elisa Lam, Canadian Tourist. Found In Los Angeles Hotel's Water Tank". International Business Times. Retrieved January 31, 2015.
- "Elisa Lam Death: Officials analyze water in tank where missing Canadian woman was found dead". CBS News. February 21, 2013. Retrieved January 31, 2015.
- Anthony Kurzweil (20 February 2013). "Body of Missing Tourist Found in Hotel Water Tank". KTLA. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
- Autopsy report, 1–10.
- Autopsy report, 13
- Autopsy report, 22–25
- Autopsy report, 26
- "Missing Canadian woman's body found at L.A. hotel: Vancouver resident Elisa Lam, last seen at Cecil Hotel, missing since Jan. 31". CBC News. 19 February 2013. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
- Lloyd, Jonathan; Ordaz, Rosa (June 21, 2013). "Death of Tourist in Hotel Water Tank Ruled Accidental Drowning". KNBC-TV. Retrieved February 2, 2015.
- Autopsy report, 12.
- Henry, Erica; Botelho, Greg (March 1, 2013). "L.A. hotel sued over corpse found in water tank". CNN. Retrieved February 4, 2015.
- "Parents Of Woman Found Dead In Water Tank Sue Hotel For Wrongful Death". KCBS-TV. September 20, 2013. Retrieved February 4, 2015.
- "Elisa Lam Death Echoed In 'Castle' Season Finale". Huffington Post. May 14, 2013. Retrieved February 10, 2013.
- Marsh, James (July 11, 2014). "Review: Hungry Ghost Ritual Has No Appetite For Horror". Twitchfilm.net. Retrieved February 10, 2015.
- Huan, Si (March 7, 2014). "Elisa Lam's mysterious death to become horror movie". China News Service. Retrieved February 10, 2015.
- "高圆圆可能演《蓝可儿》 经纪人：无定论" [Agent: Gao Yuanyuan may play Elisa Lam]. Sina (in Chinese). August 5, 2013. Retrieved February 10, 2015.
- Yan Ni (August 5, 2013). "蓝可儿事件将上大银幕 高圆圆有望演女主角" [Actress Gao Yuanyuan expected to play Elisa Lam on big screen]. Xi'an Evening News (in Chinese). Retrieved February 10, 2015.
- Fleming Jr., Mike (August 21, 2014). "Jeremy Lovering To Helm Sony Horror Pic 'The Bringing,' Inspired By Cecil Hotel". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved February 10, 2014.