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The Strange Death of Elisa Lam

Her death was ruled an accidental drowning after a maintenance worker found her body in a water tank at Cecil Hotel two weeks after she disappeared

By CMPublished 7 months ago Updated 7 months ago 4 min read

Elisa Lam died in the water tank at Cecil Hotel in 2013. No one knows how she got inside the tank or her cause of death nearly 10 years later, but the case remains one of the unsolved mysteries we can’t stop talking about.

Photo: Courtesy Cecil Hotel

On January 31, 2013, surveillance cameras at Cecil Hotel captured 21-year-old Canadian college student Elisa Lam walking through the hotel’s hallways. No one ever saw Elisa alive again.

Maintenance Worker Finds Elisa’s Body

On February 19, 2013, Elisa’s body was found in the hotel’s water tank. The coroner ruled her death as “accidental drowning,” although the strange details of the case fueled speculation about the truth of her demise. Theories about the tragedy range from murder to evil spirits.

E Lam Photo: CBSNews

Elisa traveled alone on what was supposed to be a mini vacation from the University of British Columbia-Vancouver, arriving in Los Angeles on January 26, 2013. She checked in with her parents every day so when they did not receive a call from her on January 31, they felt something was off.

The Lam’s called Los Angeles Police Department with their concerns. Police searched the Cecil Hotel but found no signs of Elisa. As they reviewed footage from the hotel surveillance camera, the case took a strange turn.

The video showed Elisa in an elevator at the hotel on January 31 acting strangely. She stepped into the elevator and pushed all the floor buttons, then stepped in and out of the elevator, looked out the door to each side, then peeked around the hallways a few more times before she got off the elevator.

Elisa then stood by the side of the elevator, moving her hands in odd gestures before she walks away. No one else is seen in the video. Elisa seemingly disappeared, and vanished into thin air, with no additional footage of her movement inside or outside the hotel after the four-minute elevator incident.

Hotel staff told police Elisa walked around the hotel alone. They never saw her with any other person, and no one visited her room. The 5’4” Elisa was slated to check out of the hotel the day she went missing.

Has Anyone Saw Elisa?

Photo: Rolling Stone

Authorities posted the footage of Elisa on local news stations hoping someone had seen her. Two weeks later, maintenance worker Santiago Lopez found Elisa’s body floating in a water tank at Cecil Hotel. Santiago discovered the body after several hotel guests complained of low water pressure and “weird-tasting” water.

Authorities had to completely drain the water tank and cut it down the side to remove Elisa’s body. She wore the same clothes she wore in the surveillance video.

Photo: Footage from Cecil Hotel/Rolling Stone Magazine

The owner of a bookshop located near The Cecil Hotel told authorities Elisa visited the shop on the day of her disappearance. Katie Orphan told police Elisa bought books and music for her family back home.

Elisa’s autopsy did not show any evidence of foul play, although coroners could not complete a full examination due to the level of decomposition to the body. The toxicology report confirmed medical drugs prescribed to her to treat her bipolar disorder in her system but did not detect the presence of any illegal drugs or alcohol.

Theories over Elisa’s Death

Theories over Elisa’s death arose immediately as people could not understand how she ended up in the water tank without anyone noticing. The Cecil Hotel, once occupied by serial killer Richard Ramirez, had a strange history of death surrounding it since its inception, fueling even more speculation over Elisa’s death.

Some theories suggest Elisa was not properly medicated. This could possibly have caused manic side effects, which could also explain Elisa’s strange behavior in the elevator that day.

Hotel staff agreed with this theory, citing hotel guests complained about strange behavior from Lam. She originally booked a hostel-style room shared with other guests but moved to her own room after guests complained.

Water Tank Located in Area Off-Limits to Hotel Guests

Even suffering a manic episode, why and how would Elisa get inside the water tank sitting at the very top of the hotel, in a secured area inaccessible to guests?

Santiago Lopez, the man who discovered Elisa’s body in the water tank, described how difficult getting to her body was for him, fueling further speculation that Elisa did not climb in by herself.

Photo: CBSNews

According to Lopez, he took an elevator to the 15th floor of the hotel, then walked up the staircase to the roof. Then he disarmed the rooftop armed and climbed on top of the platform where the four water tanks were located. Once on top of the platform, Lopez climbed up another ladder to reach the top of the main tank. He noticed Elisa’s body from this point.


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