‘Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’ True Story: Everything to Know About This Harrowing Documentary

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Most hotels have had their fair share of crime and accidents; it comes with the territory. Then there’s the Cecil Hotel. Two murders have taken place on its property, one being that of Elizabeth Short, otherwise known as “The Black Dahlia.” Sixteen other guests have perished on its grounds. But few deaths have captivated the modern world like the subject of Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.

On paper, Elisa Lam was exactly what you’d expect from a young woman in the 2010s. She attended the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She arguably spent a lot of time online. Lam’s medium of choice was Tumblr, a place where she frequently posted about her passions, insecurities, and anxieties. Even her those were all too relatable. Lam wrote often about her dream to visit Los Angeles. It’s that aspiration that led her to check into the Cecil Hotel on January 28, 2013. By February 19, her naked body was found dead in the hotel’s water tower.

The Cecil Hotel, currently being rebranded as Stay on Main, is exactly the type of place that would be alluring to a romantic college student on a budget. It’s also exactly where those same people shouldn’t be. Built in downtown Los Angeles, the Cecil Hotel is close enough to the city’s action to sell itself as an ideal destination yet affordable enough to be accessible to someone still in school. But the Cecil is known as a budget hotel for a reason. The hotel stands near Skid Row, one of the largest stable populations of homeless people in the United States. It’s a place where crime runs rampant and murder isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

It’s this location more than anything else that has haunted the case of Elisa Lam. Two days after arriving in Los Angeles, Lam arrived at the Cecil Hotel. Though she was initially assigned a shared room, she was later given her own private room. There were complaints. Her roommates told management that she had been exhibiting certain “odd behavior” such as leaving threatening notes on their beds. It only got odder from there. On January 31, 2013, Lam was scheduled to check out of the Cecil and continue her journey to Santa Cruz. When her family didn’t hear from her they flew to LA to help the Los Angeles Police Department search for their missing daughter.

Two weeks into Lam’s disappearance police released the video. When you first watch the recording of the last known moments of Elisa Lam, it’s tempting to click away. The video shows a young woman, Lam, waiting in an apparently broken elevator. Repeatedly she presses the elevator’s button, waits, then presses it again. But as the two-minute video continues Lam’s movements become more and more erratic. Several times she peers out the side of the elevator as if she’s looking for someone who’s chasing her. She twists her arms into increasingly unusual angles. Then as soon as the video starts, it ends. Lam rushes out of the elevator, and the elevator closes like nothing happened. It’s this viral video that brought international interest to Lam’s disappearance.

Four days after releasing the video to the public, the police answered one of this case’s many haunting questions: where was Elisa Lam? Throughout the search for Lam guests of the Cecil Hotel had been complaining about low water pressure. Some even complained that the water was black with an unusual taste. These complaints are what led authorities to open one of the Cecil’s four 1,000 gallon tanks. Lam’s naked body was found inside. The coroner’s office determined she had died of accidental drowning.

For years internet sleuths have been fascinated by this case. It’s not difficult to understand why. The water tower was never something that was readily accessible to guests. Even if someone was able to get to them, a single glance into their pitch-black depths would be enough to dissuade most people from trying their luck playing in the water. Then there’s the matter of the video. Entire websites and forums have been created about Lam’s panicked video in the belief that someone was following her. Considering the historically crime-ridden area where Lam was staying, it’s easy to imagine from where this mysterious stalker would emerge. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for murderers or even serial killers to stay at the Cecil for a night. Both the Night Stalker Richard Ramirez and the Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger stayed in its rooms.

As Crime Scene argues, Lam’s death likely wasn’t as mysterious as the internet has made it seem. Lam suffered from mental illness and had been diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and depression. Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel makes a solid argument that is what led to Elisa Lam’s death. According to this four-part docuseries it wasn’t an unknown killer or a haunting. What happened was sadly an accident that befell one poor woman alone in LA.

Watch Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel on Netflix

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